by Ruth Wilson
One day at summer camp, a 6-year-old girl in a wheelchair was asked what she’d like to do when they went outside. Without hesitation she said, “I want to play in the tree house with my friends.” Unfortunately, the camp staff could not think of a safe way to get her up in the tree house, so she played alone at a picnic table near the base of the tree.
If you’re parenting children with a disability and are looking for a camp where a child can participate in all the activities, you may wish to check out camps designed specifically to accommodate children with special needs. At times, these camps are referred to as “therapeutic recreation camps” and may include specialized physical therapy activities such as horseback riding and guided team-building activities to promote positive social interactions and increased self-esteem.
Some special needs camps are for children with a specific disability, such as deafness, blindness, or autism. Others are designed for children with a chronic illness or other health-related concern, including children with cancer, children who have suffered severe burns, and children who have experienced amputation or are born with limb differences. Some other special needs camps are not disability-specific—that is, they serve children with all types of disabilities.
Why choose a “special needs” camp?
Children with disabilities often face challenges in their daily lives over which they have little control—such as what happened to the young camper who wasn’t able to get up in the tree house with her friends. While this child’s limitation was physical, other children face social, emotional, or learning-related obstacles related to their disability. The focus of a special needs camp is on placing children in an “I-can” versus “I-can’t” situation.
Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp of the Amputee Coalition, told Parent USA City that children in their program commonly express their need for a sense of belonging. Camps like Paddy Rossbach, he says, “give children with limb loss or limb difference an opportunity to meet others with similar challenges. It gives them a chance to learn from each other, encourage each other, and challenge each other.” This, he says, “helps campers build their self-esteem and self-confidence in a safe environment.”Derrick Stowell, development coordinator for the Clarksville, Ohio
New skills and independence
What children experience and gain from camp usually goes home with them. Derrick reports that every year his staff hears how campers who have learned to play new sports at camp go back home and try out for their school sports teams. Prior to camp, they would never have had the confidence to do this.
Children at special needs camps also learn new skills and gain a sense of independence. At home, they may have relied on their parents to do many things for them. At camp away from their parents, many children try to do things on their own—often encouraged or challenged by the other children. For some campers at Paddy Rossbach, this has meant putting on and taking off their prosthesis by themselves for the first time.
When asked what campers liked the best about their camp experience, Derrick says that what he hears most often is that camp helped children feel better about themselves—that meeting other children “like them” gave them the feeling that they were not alone.
A place to feel safe
Anna Cozzi, program director for Camp Altitude, told Parent USA City basically the same thing. Taking place each summer in Belmont, California, Camp Altitude is a camp for children with social cognitive challenges related to such disability areas as Asperger’s, autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
While these disability areas aren’t often physically noticeable, children with social cognitive disorders often feel different and are teased or bullied. At camp, however, “where there are other kids like themselves,” Cozzi noted, the children feel safe and are more likely to enjoy the fun and adventure of a traditional camp program. The campers also gain improved social and independent living skills, which they then take back home with them.
A father of a 9-year-old son with special needs was happy to report that his son came back from camp “a different kid.” Prior to camp, his son was often “the kid who was left out or not picked for a team, or just had difficulty fitting in.” What changed all that, he said, was Summit Camp & Travel (see lead photo of this article), a program based in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “At camp, [my son] learned that he was good at theatre, previously something he would not have tried. Now he has one of the leads in his school play!”
For more information:
Here are examples of some disability and special-needs areas, with links to some of the residential summer camps addressing those needs.
Autism, including Asperger’s,
and other conditions related to social-interaction concerns
Learning Disabilities, including ADHD, dyslexia, and Learning Disability
Physical Disabilities, including amputees
Many more camps focusing on different areas of special needs can be found at the special-needs section of MySummerCamps.com, a comprehensive summer camp directory and guide for kids, teens and youth.
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.
Lead photo: Summit Camp & Travel • Photos courtesy of Amputee Coalition, Camp Altitude, Camp Lee Mar, and Summit Camp & Travel