by Ruth Wilson, Ph.D.
Most kids love camping, and there’s no reason that a child with special physical or health needs can’t have a wonderful time at summer camp. There are many camps across the country that can accommodate children with a disability. Choosing just the right camp for your child can be a bit challenging. But with careful research, you can find a camp with the trained staff and accessible facilities that will ensure a safe and fun-filled summer camp experience.
A good place to start is to decide whether a “residential camp” or a “day camp” would be better for your child. You will also need to decide if your child will be better served at a “special-needs camp” or a camp open to the general public. Finally, you may want to choose a camp matching a special interest of your child.
Residential camps are sleep-away camps, which may be for one or two overnights, one or more weeks, or an entire summer. Residential camps give children the opportunity to become more independent and self-assured. For children with special needs, such opportunities can be especially valuable.
Yet, children benefit from residential camps only if they are emotionally and socially ready to be away from home overnight. Any special physical and/or health needs need to be considered, as well. Some camps can accommodate such special needs. Others can’t. It’s extremely important to check this out in advance. Some residential camps—even some referred to as “special needs camps”—may not have staff adequately trained to work with children with disabilities.
So here’s the cardinal rule for your research:
If your child has special needs, be sure to inquire about the qualifications of the staff and what the camp will do to accommodate the unique needs of your child prior to enrolling your child.
This advice is reinforced by Joy Johnson, a college student hired to work as a counselor at a special needs residential camp one recent summer. According to Joy, she had no idea of what the job entailed when she accepted the position, and no training was provided on how to work with children with special needs. She said it was a “learn as you go” situation. Both Joy and some of the campers found this to be a frustrating experience.
The website ResidentialCamps.net has a camp directory of sleep-away facilities throughout North America. Links are provided for finding camps in specific geographic areas. From this site, you can also request more information. If your child has a disability, you will certainly want to ask about the camp’s ability to accommodate special needs.
Day camps are usually close to home and vary in the length of time children participate in camp activities. Some day camps have full-day programs, others only part-day. Day camps are a good option if your child is not ready for a residential camp or if the focus of a day camp is a better match to your child’s interests.
Day camps are also less expensive than residential camps. Some day camps offered through a city’s “parks and recreation” department may even be free or require only a modest registration fee.
Again, in choosing a camp for a child with a disability, it is critically important to find out if the staff is adequately prepared to meet your child’s special needs. To find out what day camps are available in your area of the country, visit the camp directory at Daycamps.net.
While some children with disabilities can be accommodated quite well by camps open to the general public, other children may do better in a special needs camp. Some such camps are designed to address a specific area of concern, such as autism, Asperger Syndrome, ADD/ADHD, diabetes, learning disability, Fragile X, or asthma.
To find out more information about special needs camps according to disability area, visit the Special Needs camp guide section of MySummerCamps.com. You’ll notice that one of the categories listed at this website is “mainstreaming.” Camps in this category integrate children with different types of disabilities into their regular program.
Special interest camps
In addition to offering typical camp activities as hiking and swimming, many camps today also focus on a specific area of interest, such as sailing, music, drama, horses, bicycling, and tennis. Some camps are even designed around different academic subjects, such as math, science, and reading.
Choosing a camp with a special focus is one way to encourage your child to pursue an individual interest or talent. It may also help your child make friends, as the children at the camp will all be sharing a common interest.
For more information:
If you are parenting children with special needs and are looking for a camp that meets both your child’s needs and interests, there are many resources to guide you. Here are some of them, including comprehensive camp guides.
General Residential Camp Information
Examples of Special-Needs-Specific Residential Camps
Ruth Wilson has a doctorate in early childhood and elementary education and a master’s in special education. Her teaching career includes 12 years of experience in classrooms serving children with special needs. Ruth has also worked as a consultant with programs offering both residential and day camps for young people with autism and Asperger Syndrome.
Photo courtesy of Camp Lee Mar