Ah, summer camp. The mosquitoes, the swim races, the friendships, the bug juice,
the postcards home. What child wouldn't benefit from the fun and structured freedom
Kids with special needs are no exception. But the idea
can seem challenging to parents and kids alike — how can you be sure that your
child will get the attention he or she needs? Will your child be able to participate
fully? What about the other kids? Will your child make friends? Will they understand
your child's special needs?
The good news is that there are many camp choices for kids with special needs.
From highly specialized camps to regular camps that accommodate kids with special
needs, options abound.
Different Types of Camps
When it comes to camps, kids with special needs have as many choices as other kids.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all camps to make reasonable accommodations
(such as the installation of wheelchair-accessible ramps) so that kids with special
needs can attend. So, camps that previously couldn't host kids with special needs
might now be on your list of possibilities.
Inclusionary (or mainstream) camps do just what their name implies: They include
kids with special needs in their groups of children with regular needs. These camps
may have started out serving only a general population of kids, but they've gradually
changed as the needs of the families they serve have changed.
Some camps are designed just for kids with special needs, including kids who have
learning or behavioral problems, those with specific chronic illnesses, and kids with
mental or physical impairments. Many accept kids with a variety of needs, but some
only accept kids with specific problems (such as camps for kids with diabetes, cancer, speech or hearing impairment,
cystic fibrosis, cerebral
palsy, epilepsy, etc.).
Within all of these categories, you'll have even more choices to consider regarding
length of stay, philosophy, and cost. There are nonprofit and for-profit camps, religious
camps, camps run by national organizations, private camps, day camps, camps that run
weekend sessions, and sleepover camps that accept kids for the entire summer.
Benefits of Camp
The benefits of camp for kids with special needs are often the same as for any
increased confidence and independence
activity and exercise
the opportunity to interact with other kids, develop friendships, and build relationships
positive role modeling by adults
a chance for parents to have a much-needed break
Independence is an important camp benefit. For example, an overnight mainstream
camp can give special-needs kids the chance to be without parents, doctors, or physical
therapists for a week. They'll do more things for themselves and learn how to ask
friends to help, which can boost problem-solving and communication skills.
Also, camp provides the physical benefits of increased activity. Many kids with
disabilities or chronic illnesses are sedentary and don't get to participate in the
sports or recreational activities that their peers do. They therefore miss out on
the social and health benefits that exercise brings.
Camp provides a variety of activities such as swimming, wheelchair racing, dancing,
tennis, or golf. These give immediate health benefits (such as improved cardiovascular
fitness) and recreational options that can carry over into adult life.
Many camps combine learning environments with these physical activities, giving
kids with behavioral or learning problems the chance to develop, or catch up on, needed
skills during the summer.
Starting Your Camp Search
To find a camp, make lists of the basics you're looking for: a list of goals, a
list of caretaking priorities, and a list of other considerations (such as cost).
Then consider which type of camp might best suit your child:
inclusionary (or mainstream) camps
camps for kids with a specific special need
camps for kids with many different kinds of special needs
Consider whether your child has ever been away from home, for the weekend or even
longer, and what experiences might have helped prepare him or her for camp. This will
help you to decide not only the type of camp, but whether your child is ready for
a day camp or a sleepover (residential) camp.
Involving kids in the camp search will help to ensure that they get the most out
of the camp selected. So, ask your child:
What do you want to get out of summer camp?
What are your preferences?
Do you want to go to a coed camp, or just be around kids of the same gender?
Are there any activities you really want to try?
Would you be more comfortable going to a camp with kids who do or don't have special
Are you comfortable being away from home? If so, for how long?
Do you have classmates or friends who have gone to a summer camp? If so, which
ones? And did they like it?
Do you have a friend who you would like to go to camp with? What camp will they
If it turns out that the idea of camp is a bit overwhelming for both you and your
child, you might want to try starting small, like weekend sessions at a special-needs
Doing Your Research
Whatever type of camp you're leaning toward, it's important to do your research.
Many places offer information — the American Camping Association (ACA), for
example, has an online listing of special-needs camps broken down by the types of
camps, cost, length of stay, state/region, and campers' ages. The site is also loaded
with general and age-appropriate advice for parents of would-be campers.
You also can call local chapters of major disability organizations about camps
in your area. Many organizations publish lists of camps and can connect you with camp
directors and former campers.
You might have a special-needs camp fair in your area. Check the calendar listings
in your local newspapers and monthly parenting magazines. Many of these are held in
January or February, which means that you need to start your camp search early.
Of course, part of your research will involve figuring out what you can afford.
The cost of camps varies widely, with some high-end special-needs camps costing thousands
of dollars for multiple-week sessions.
You can help fund your child's camp experience by applying for scholarships —
experts say to do so from December through March, because the money is gone by April
or May. You can contact charitable organizations and fraternal organizations (such
as the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary Clubs, all of which sponsor special-needs camps).
And depending on your child's specific special need, he or she may be eligible for
financial aid from your state. Other sources of scholarships include religious or
One thing to know: You usually first need to find a camp that
can take your child — most of these organizations send the scholarship money
to the camp in the child's name, not to the parents directly.
Questions to Ask
So, how do you narrow down your choices and pick the camp that's right for your
child? Some basic and special-needs-specific questions you'll need to have answered
How long are the sessions?
What's the cost? Are scholarships available?
Is it coed, girls-only, or boys-only?
What's the age range of campers?
Where is it located? How far away from your home is it?
What's the staff-to-camper ratio?
How old are most of the counselors?
What type of certification do the counselors have?
What's the turnover rate? Do kids and staff come back?
What's the camp's philosophy? Does it fit with your goals for your child?
What's the camp's transportation system like?
If physical accessibility is an issue, what's the layout of the camp? What provisions
has the camp made (or can it make) for wheelchairs or crutches?
If your child needs a special diet, can the camp provide appropriate meals? If
not, can you provide food for your child?
Do staff members have a background working with kids with special needs?
If your child has behavior problems, are camp staffers trained to handle
Do the counselors have first-aid training?
What kind of medical and nursing staff is available in the infirmary and during
what hours? Can the staff administer any medications your child needs?
What's the procedure if your child develops a complication related to his or her
medical problems? How far is the nearest hospital? If your child needs specialized
treatment, is it available at that hospital?
Although you can get some of this information through phone calls, emails, brochures,
and websites, experts recommend visiting the camp. You can talk to the director, see
the rooms or cabins, and get a comprehensive picture of where your child will be.
Probably the only way to get a true feel for the camp is for you and your child
to visit it together. This is especially important if your child is going to a regular
(inclusionary or mainstream) camp where they haven't hosted many children with special
needs before. This gives you a chance to point out changes they might need to make
and see how the camp's staff responds to your requests.
If you can't visit a camp, interview the director and some staff members to get
a feel for the place. Ask them to describe the physical layout and the kinds of activities
your child will do. Also ask to speak with other families whose kids have attended
to see what their experiences were like. In fact, word of mouth is one of the best
ways to find out what you need to know about each camp.
As you're trying to figure out which camp is best, just remember that whatever
the special need, there's likely a camp out there to suit your child. With some research
and understanding between you, your child, and the camp director, your camper-to-be
can have an unforgettable summer./p>