By: Amelia Carlson, Social Worker
When considering sending your child with learning disabilities to summer camp for the first time, it is crucial you as the parent take careful note of some key elements and areas of a camp when you begin looking at which camp will be best for your child. It is also important to remember although your child has learning disabilities, your child is unique and special just like every other child and therefore their unique desires, needs, and wants should always be taken into consideration throughout the process of camp selection.
I.) Educational, Recreational, or Both?
One of the first decisions you will need to make is if you want your child to attend a camp that is solely educational, only recreational, or a combination of both. There are summer camps which are completely educational camps and then there are camps which are only recreational camps. However, some camps offer a mixture of both. Either type of camp can be beneficial for your child, however, you must take into consideration your child and your child’s desires.
Be cautious that many camps for children with learning disabilities are purely for recreational purposes and offer no educational value. Therefore, if you are looking for your child to obtain some educational skills or information during the camp then you need to ensure you ask questions of the camp director or staff prior to selecting the camp and inquire as to what percentage of the camp’s activities are devoted to educational activities. Many camps may call themselves educational but may actually have more recreational activities than educational. Be sure you find out the percentage of both recreational and educational activities of the scheduled events for your child during the camp.
If you choose a camp that is educational or a combination of both educational and recreational, you will need to pay careful attention to the educational and experience background of the camp staff that is discussed in more depth in the “staff education, experience, and availability” section of this article.
II.) Camp Location and Type of Facilities
The camp location and type of facilities are two crucial components of a successful camp experience for your child. The first thing to consider in this area is what experiences your child has already had and what your child may be comfortable with participating with since they will be apart from you and in unfamiliar surroundings and settings possibly. For example, if your child has never camped outside in a tent with you or your family or others, it may not be a good idea for your child’s first summer camp experience to be an outdoor camp where they camp outdoors in tents and in the wilderness/mountains.
If your child is scared of water and does not like being around water then you may want to consider one of the camps in the west that provide a Western culture experience in the mountains and along the Rocky Mountains as opposed to the various camps in the East part of the county which provide more lakefront and river front settings of the camps and many times these lakefront and river front settings also are utilized by the camps for recreational activities such as boating and canoeing. If water activities are something your child is afraid of then these types of camps may not be as appealing as those in the western part of the country.
You will also need to explore the websites of the camps you are considering to view any photos they have posted. These photos will provide you with a good idea of what camp experience is like and the type of facilities the camp offers. The photos will show if the camp offers luxury accommodations such as indoor cabin settings or if the camp requires the campers to camp outside in tents and sleeping bags. In addition, the photos will provide you an idea of the setting of the camp and will also allow you the opportunity to talk with your child about the pictures and see if the child would enjoy the activities and settings the photos show. Be cautious of camps whose website does not show photos of their camp. If you are interested in a camp and their website does not show photos then you will want to contact the camp director and request some photos to be sent to you so you can your child both can be comfortable with where you are sending your child and the environment it provides.
III.) Size of Groups Within The Camp
The size of group sizes at the camp are extremely critical to ensuring your child’s camp experience is a successful and enjoyable one for him/her. As a child with LD, your child may be comfortable with different numbers of people at one time. It is important to understand and find out from the camp how many campers they place in one group or one cabin at a time. Some camps will have an average of 10-20 campers at a time in one group as opposed to other camps which may run groups of 200-300 or more. If your child is not comfortable with a large group of other children then it is important for you to choose a camp that offers the smaller number of campers for each group. However, if your child is comfortable with larger groups of people and the larger camps offer the activities you are looking for and the setting you are comfortable with then that type of camp may be a better fit for your child.
There is a requirement of one counselor for every 8 campers from The American Camping Association. However, as a parent of a child with LD it is important for you to ensure your child’s specific needs are communicated to the camp director and you need to try to select a camp which may provide a closer and more personal supervision. It is recommended for a child with learning disabilities that there is one counselor for every 3 to 4 children instead of the required 1 to 8 ratio from the American Camping Association.
IV.)Day or Residential Camp?
There are some slight differences between a day camp and a residential camp experience. The most obvious difference being one is a day camp where the camper comes to the camp during the day and goes home at night to sleep. The residential camp is one where the camper sleeps and stays at the camp during the entire duration of the camping time.
However, there are also some other differences to be aware of that you may need to consider. One difference between the two camps is the day camp offers less time for your child to associate with the other children and to be able to develop relationships. They can make friendships and relationships during day camp but the residential camp offers a greater opportunity for this bonding and friendship building opportunity since they all will be together for the entire duration of the camp.
Additionally, the residential camp may provide a more diverse opportunity to do more activities due to the extended time of being there unless the day camp you locate and your child participates in last for multiple weeks during the summer and many day camps do last more than one or two weeks in the summer.
If your child participates in the residential camp, you will need to communicate clearly your child’s specific LD needs to the camp director and camp staff and ensure they are aware of any medication your child is on and that you provide the camp with enough medication for your child for the entire duration of the camp.
V.) Length of Stay
Each camp is different and camps differ in the length of each experience from one week to multiple weeks at a time. If your child has never been away from home for any length of time and you are considering a residential camp, you may want to begin with a camp which is only for a week or 10 days at most. This will allow your child to become comfortable with the idea of being away from home for camp as well as allow them the experience of getting adjusted to being at camp and prepare them for the following year if you choose a longer camp.
However, if you choose a day camp then you can consider a longer camp but must consider if the camp schedule is something you can ensure is workable around your schedule. (see Family Budget and Schedule section)
The length of stay is something important to be considered and once you choose if you are choosing a day camp or residential camp then your decision for length of stay will be an easier one.
VI.) Staff Education, Experience, and Availability
As a parent with a child of LD, one of the most critical decisions about camp will be contained in the education, experience, and availability of the camp staff. Some camps have staff who are right out of high school or on camp as a summer job during college. These camps are not the best choices for a child with LD because these types of staff members and camp counselors frequently have a lack of experience and education when dealing with children with learning disabilities.
The goals and aims of sending your child to summer camp is to not only provide a positive and enjoyable experience for your child but also to assist in building and increasing your child’s self esteem and sense of self-worth. The staff of the camp play a vital role in ensuring this goal happens or can be detrimental to the fulfillment of this goal.
If the camp staff has a lack of education on learning disabilities and lack of experience in dealing with children with learning disabilities then this could lead to misunderstandings regarding the actions or responses they may encounter with your child to situations. A lack of understanding can be detrimental to your child’s self-esteem and may do more than just cause your child to not have fun at camp. It could cause damage to his/her sense of self-worth and self-esteem which could take years to help repair and build up if it is not handled correctly.
It is important for you to have multiple conversations and lengthy conversations with the camp director about your child’s specific needs and experiences so they are fully aware of how they are expected to meet and respond to those needs if and when they arise at camp. They will also need to fully understand any medication the child is on and any side effects the child may have as a result of the medication.
If you call the camp multiple times and are unable to reach the camp director and do not have your phone calls returned in a prompt and timely manner then you should consider that as a warning signal. If the camp director does not seem to have time to talk to you about your child’s needs and how the camp will need to address those while your child is there then you should also view that as a warning signal that this camp may not be the right camp for your child. If the camp director does not have time to talk to you and answer your phone calls and questions then it raises a concern that they will not have enough time to meet your child’s needs while your child is at their camp. Your child needs attention while at camp and supervision and you as the parent need to feel comfortable that your child will receive what he/she is needing and if the camp director is unable to speak to you and is “too busy” to speak to you then there is a concern that they or their staff may be “too busy” to pay the proper attention to your child.
VII.) Specialty or General?
There are two types of camps you will find in your research. You will find general camps and specialty camps. The general camps are typical summer camps for all children and of all ages. They are camps which provide a wide range of activities and events on a variety of settings but do not have a specialty targeted toward children with learning disabilities or any other special type of need.
The other type of camp are the specialty camps which are those designed to host campers of specific purpose or group. For example, there are camps for children with leukemia, HIV/AIDS, Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts, and there are specialty camps for children with learning disabilities. The specialty camps will provide you several benefits over the general camps. One benefit being the staff members are more qualified and experienced with children who have learning disabilities if you send your child to a specialized camp for children with learning disabilities.
Additionally, the specialty camp will also provide your child the opportunity to associate and make friends with children who may experience some of the same problems and learning disabilities that he/she has and therefore can also increase his/her self-esteem by being able to realize and recognize there are other children who have the same learning disabilities that he/she does.
VIII.) Camp Policies and Procedures
You will need to know what the camp’s rules and policies are regarding communication between the child and you and other family members. This is of particular importance if your child will be attending a residential camp where they will be away from home for an extended period of time. Will your child be able to write? Can you write your child? Will your child be able to call home? If so, how often?
You will also need to make sure you are aware of the discipline procedures and policies of the camp. This is extremely important in dealing with a child with LD. You need to communicate the child’s behavior and possible barriers to the camp director prior to the child attending camp and make sure you are clear on discipline practices and policies. If possible, get their discipline policies and protocol in writing prior to your child arriving so you can have their rules and procedures in writing regarding disciplinary issues.
You will also need to have a clear understanding of what they deem in need of discipline. What do they consider something that needs disciplinary action? These things will need to be clear with you prior to your child arriving at camp because just like when your child is in school and discipline issues may arise, primarily due to misunderstandings or a lack of understanding, then the same could happen at camp and you need to know how the camp operates in regards to these issues.
IX.) Family Budget and Schedule
Another key component when selecting the right camp that fits your child is the size of your family budget and your family’s schedule.
It is not necessary to put financial strains on your family in order to send your child to one particular camp if you can find a camp which will offer the same things you are desiring for him/her at a lower cost. This may seem like a logical thing but many times when selecting a camp, parents may allow their desires for their child to have the best override their ability to financially provide and therefore place financial strains on the family. This is not necessary.
Prior to making the final decision on the camp, make sure you have created a budget for your child’s camp and you stick with that budget. If a camp is not within that budget then you should consider lower cost camps prior to the ones which are outside your budget.
Additionally, the family schedule is something to be considered. This plays a large role specifically in if you choose a day camp for your child because you will need to ensure transportation to and from camp each day and need to ensure the transportation will not interfere with work schedules or other activities of the family that may cause an inconvenience. You do not want your child to feel that because he/she is attending camp they are a burden or inconvenience on you or the family.
Likewise, if a residential camp is chosen then you want to ensure the camp dates and times are not during important times such as birthdays or family vacations. Although you want your child to have fun at camp, you do not want them to miss family activities that are important such as family vacations and birthdays as well.
It is a great idea to organize the information you receive into a camp planning chart to provideyou a visual aide to not only help you decide on the best way to go for your child but also provide you a great tool to use as a discussion guide with your spouse as well as your child. Allow your child to be part of the decision making for the camp. After all, they will be the ones having to attend and allow them to be part of the decision to provide them a sense of empowerment and responsibility and therefore it will increase the likelihood of the success of the camp for him/her.
A camp planning chart could look something similar to the following: