Camp for Your Special Needs Child
Camp is a fun part of summer for thousands of children each year. But what about your special needs child? Will he miss out on experiencing camp? He doesn't have to. With all the new camps that have sprung up recently, children who previously couldn't attend now may. Camps range from those designed specifically for certain special needs such as asthma, cancer, or ADHD to traditional camps that accommodate children with some special needs. It takes thought and research to find the camp that is best for your special needs child.
Benefits of Camp
Camp benefits all children. The positive outcomes for children with special needs are much the same as for other children, but often go beyond those.
The chance to try new experiences. Things that aren't possible for your child to do at home may be available at camp. Swimming, horseback riding, canoeing, fishing and group games are adapted so that all children can take part. There are also crafts, campfires, and social activities. For children with physical, mental, and behavior problems, camp is an ideal setting to try new things.
The opportunity to be around children with the same challenges. Your child might be singled out as the only one in a wheelchair at school but will fit in with others at camp. She'll talk to other children who've been teased for being different. Your child with cancer can share his fears with campers who are facing or have overcome the same.
Your child will make friends who can become penpals either through U.S. mail or by e-mail. Or perhaps they can talk into a tape player and send tapes back and forth to stay in touch.
Increased independence and confidence. Camps have modifications so that children can be as mobile and independent as possible. Children with physical, mental, and behavioral difficulties find freedom at camp that they don't experience elsewhere. Counselors are trained to give help when needed and to encourage campers to do as much as possible for themselves. With more independence comes improved self-esteem and confidence.
Learning from peers. Your child may learn coping skills and different ways to do things from children who share his challenges. He'll see what other children are capable of doing and try to do more for himself.
Increased physical activity. At home your child might find it easier to watch television than be active. Helping your child be active might be draining for you also. At camp your child will take part in adapted swimming, hiking (if mobile), horseback riding, sports, and group games.
It gives you time to spend alone or to give extra attention to siblings. You can do activities that you ignore because your special needs child can't participate.
Finding the Right Camp
There are many things to consider when choosing a camp for your child. Here are some things to consider and do:
Start early! Try to make your final decision in March. Many camps hold open houses during the spring months. Many camps will fill up in early spring and you may be on a long waiting list.
Make a list of your child's needs. Before searching for a camp, consider your child's needs. Make a list of special accommodations and services your child requires. Does he need injections that must be given by a trained medical person? Does she have a special diet? Does he sleep on a special kind of bed?
List your expectations. What do you want the camp to do for your child? Allow activities within a structured environment? Provide new experiences? Do you hope for increased independence?
Consider your child's desires. Your child will do better if he helps with decision making. Does he want to go to camp? What kind of camp? What activities does he hope for?
Decide on duration, location, and cost. Consider what you want. Do you want your child to stay a week? Longer? How far away? What if the best camp for your child is in another state or across the country? How much can you pay? The cost of a special needs camp can be as high as $5,000 for a 2-3 week session. Check with local organizations for sponsorships or scholarships.
Make a list of camps that match the criteria on your list. Go to the websites listed below or ask other parents for camp recommendations. List the ones in which you are interested. Then find out more about each.
Know what kind of training does the staff receives. This varies by whether your child attends a camp specifically for special needs children or a traditional camp that accepts children with certain needs. Is medical staff available at all times? Do counselors know how to deal with your child's specific challenges?Know what kind of children attend the camp. Just because a camp says they accept ADHD children or children with disabilities, it doesn't mean that they typically have any attend or that they are set up to work with and nurture these children. A camp may be willing to accept children with asthma but not be able to accommodate wheelchairs for many of the activities. Or they may accept children with physical disabilities but not be accepting of behavior disorders.
Find out about child to caregiver ratios. How many children are in each cabin? How many counselors are there per child? Find out if the number of counselors means adult counselors or counselors-in-training.
Check that the camp is clean, safe, and in good repair. If possible, visit the camp. That's the best way to know what it's really like. Are wheelchair ramps in good condition? Are the cabins clean with screens on the windows? Are bathrooms and showers accessible for your child? Are there wide paths? Is there a place for your child to sit apart from the group if he needs to calm down? Is play equipment clean and in good repair? Does the camp seem bright and cheerful? If you can't visit, ask for a video.
Make sure the overall attitude is nurturing, positive and upbeat. All children need to feel accepted and cared for. The director and counselors should be positive and cheerful. Gloomy staff members won't contribute to a positive camp experience for your child. Nurturing camp staff is essential.
Communicate with the staff. Once you've chosen the best camp for your child, contact the camp director and be sure that your child will have everything she needs for a positive camp experience. You will be more relaxed about sending your child to camp if you know she will receive her medicine at the right time, have the diet she needs, and get appropriate help with daily care.
Preparing Your Child for Camp
Once you've selected the best camp for your child, it's time to begin preparing your camper. Here are some suggestions:
Become familiar with the camp. Either visit or get a video if you haven't already done this. Find out the schedule. Give your child as much information as possible.
Give your child practice being away from home. Arrange for your child to spend the night with a friend or a few days with a relative to help them learn how it feels to be away from home and to develop ways to cope.
Help your child learn to eat, dress, shower, and prepare for bed as independently as possible. Label all belongings going to camp. Check the packing list to be sure you've included everything. Send extra socks and underwear. These get lost easily. Make sure to pack all medicines and special equipment needed. Pack a comfort item such as a favorite photo, stuffed animal, or pillow.
Discuss any fears or concerns your child might have. Is she afraid of the dark? Does she wet the bed? How can she deal with these things at camp?The camp experience is beneficial for most children, especially those with special needs. Don't assume your child can't go to camp because of limitations or challenges. Research the camps available and decide if there's one that would provide a positive experience for your child.
Katrina Cassel, M.Ed. is a frequent contributor to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent. She lives with her husband, five of their children, and an assortment of pets in the Florida panhandle. Visit her online at www.katrinacassel.com