By Donna Segal and Rob Deman
“Become more independent and self-reliant.”
“Improve social skills and interactions with peers and adults.”
“Make better, well thought-out decisions.”
“Enhance concentration and focus.”
How often have you set these goals for your child? How much time and effort have you, your child and your child’s school and therapy team spent building up such skills? Yet, if your child is like most, developing these skills requires enormous effort, serious commitment and hard work. Not what most kids would consider fun!
Enter… a great summer camp where your children will have the time of their lives and achieve interpersonal, social and development goals while having so much fun that they won’t consider their stay at camp to be work at all.
Learning how to swim or sail, setting up a tent, riding a horse, acting in a play, building a birdhouse, roasting marshmallows, sharing a cabin with 6–10 kids their age, making new friends, catching fish, dancing at a social, singing in a talent show and dozens of other activities all require concentration, independence, decision-making and social skills.
Best of all, parents tell us that the life skills campers develop are permanent.
It is not just parents, campers and camp counsellors who see a summer camp experience as an opportunity for growth and development—most therapists and educators agree, too
“Summer camp allows children with ADHD, autism and other special needs to become confident and independent. Novel activities and social situations allow children and teens to conquer fears, develop friendships, learn how to communicate [and] resolve disagreements. The overall message a summer at camp offers is that campers can be successful and autonomous individuals no matter what they encounter throughout their lives.”—Michael Bucovetsky, Psy.D., licensed psychologist, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Building independence and decision-making ability
An overnight camp is the first chance many kids have to stay away from home for an extended period. A camp such as ours, which is called Camp Kennebec, incorporates consistent supervision, caring staff guidance and a regular routine that provides the stability many children need. Within this framework, we build individual camper schedules and offer a high degree of flexibility so that kids can make their own choices and decisions.
It’s amazing how quickly children adapt and then thrive on developing their own relationships, preferences, skills and talents, without the parental or teacher supervision they are accustomed to receiving.
Developing social skills and self-esteem
Camp is a great place to develop, improve and practice social skills. Virtually every waking minute of the day involves interactions with peers, younger and older children, counsellors and activity staff. Campers quickly learn that their actions and reactions have a very real and positive impact on their community and summer experience. Even typical, “fun” activities such as canoeing and sailing require the cooperation of a team or at least a duo. Campers share a cabin, washrooms and meals with at least six other kids and counsellors, and must therefore learn to live and play together.
Not surprisingly, camp also obliges children to be adaptable—a challenge for those who prefer a no-surprises routine. For example, the summer weather is unpredictable. Activities are occasionally rained out—sometimes it is simply too warm to horseback ride or there is a power failure. These naturally occurring events are opportunities to teach children to deal with situations beyond their control and find alternatives ways of having fun.
Through a system of merits and other acknowledgements, we build self-confidence and esteem by recognizing achievements. These might be activity-based, such as getting up on water-skis, trying the zip line, performing in a talent show or passing a swim level. At other times we recognize self-control improvements, such as completing an academic assignment, improving cooperation or respecting rules. In our third category of “merits” we recognize empathy, such as helping out during an activity, caring for younger children, being a good friend or comforting another person.
As in any large group of children and adolescents, campers make social mistakes. We use mis-cues, inappropriate behaviour choices or reactions and personal space issues as natural opportunities to discuss situations and alternative actions. This leads to improvements in social skills and reinforces appropriate behaviours.
Which camp is right for your child?
From our perspective, there are the five major things you should look for when assessing a summer camp for your child with special needs.
Does the camp have a solid track record?
Learn all you can about the camp. Do web searches, obtain parent and camper references, talk to parents whose children go to the camp, inquire about examples of a typical day and ask whether the camp has experience with children like yours.
Check with the provincial or state camping association to make sure the camp is in good standing. Speak with your child’s doctors, therapists and teachers to get their opinions on whether a specific camp is right for your family.
How do the director and your child interact during pre-camp meetings?
You can learn quite a bit about a camp’s philosophy and approach when you and your child meet the camp director(s) for an interview. Does the director talk to your child or only to you? Observe how well the director interacts with your child. Does your child “connect” with the director? Does the director spend time making you and your child feel comfortable?
What is the camp director’s philosophy about camp?
Find out why the director is in the field. Ask questions about how he or she handles difficult situations. You can be sure that a camp’s culture will reflect the director’s personal philosophy.
For example, at our camp, we find that laughter is a great way to diffuse difficult situations; believe that consequences should match the situation; are flexible with our structures and routines; and adapt programs and schedules to the needs of the individual camper. More than anything, we do all we can to make camp safe and fun.
Is it too much like school?
Some directors see camp as a continuation of school, with a focus on structure, scheduling and enforcing the rules. A conversation or two about activities will certainly give you a good idea about what a summer at camp will be like for your child.
How much personal attention will there be?
Ask the director about the camper-to-staff ratio, especially the ratio of cabin staff to children. Kids with special needs require extra support and supervision to ensure their safety and facilitate social interactions with peers.
Learning something new
At camp, kids are outside all day, trying new and different activities that simply aren’t available at home. Many musicians, actors, athletes, politicians and artists have discovered their calling at summer camp. For campers with special needs, such surroundings provide an opportunity to discover new passions in a non-competitive, supportive environment.
Camp is about having fun, acting silly, laughing, creating memories, making friends and getting back to nature. It is about just being a kid, unplugged from a screen, enjoying new activities and experiences, learning new skills and having an amazing summer experience!
In my practice, I regularly tell parents to send their kids to camp, because I think it is the perfect way to learn independence, gain new skills and courage by trying new activities, develop social skills and increase self-confidence. Often, the kids with special needs see the biggest benefit.”—Elayne Aber, MSW, therapist, Montréal, Quebec
Donna Segal and Rob Deman are Directors of Camp Kennebec (campkennebec.com), an overnight summer camp for children ages six years and up with special needs in Ontario. Together, Donna and Rob have more than 40 years of camp experience. Both bring a wealth of knowledge and hands-on experience, and have a shared vision that camp must be a fun, happy place that offers one-of-a-kind experiences and a huge sense of accomplishment that kids will cherish for years to come.