Planning summer camp for children with special needs requires a bit of extra thinking and planning. Your initial questions might feel fear-based:
- Will the camp be accessible enough?
- Will she be safe?
- Will they care for him?
- Will the kids be nice?
- Is she ready? Am I ready?
Getting organized can alleviate your fears and help set your child up for a safe and fun summer experience. These broad-based questions can help narrow your search:
- Would your family prefer a day or an overnight camp?
- Given your child’s unique circumstances, would it make sense to arrange special supports in a camp designed for all children?
- Would an inclusive camp with a caregiver be the best fit?
A guide to help you seek answers to these and other questions is The Center for Children with Special Needs Summer Camp Directory, which lists camps designed to meet unique medical, social and emotional needs. This directory lists overnight camps and week-long adaptive day camps.
Here are some additional tips for getting ready:
Talk About Camp Early and Often
Make this a family project. Discuss the possible activities with your child, look at pictures and call the people at places that sounded interesting. Focus on what sounds fun and what it might mean to make new friends and share adventures. Invite your child to talk about what might feel scary—and that feeling jittery or homesick is a normal part of going to camp for all children who are new to the experience.
Practice makes perfect
Many camps have open houses or visiting times so a child can look around and begin to get comfortable with the environment. Have staff show you around and talk about the schedule so your child can feel prepared and know what to expect.
Help your child talk about self-care routines. Your child can practice asking for something he or she might need, and you can talk about who the helpers will be. This is great practice in the life skills of self-determination and self-advocacy! Your child can also help you write down special instructions for the camp staff. Talk openly to the camp director, and document allergies and things to avoid. Ask whether a specific staff person can be assigned to your child so that person can receive training directly from you. Make sure to include specifics about your child’s unique needs (e.g.: He tends to have a tantrum if you ask him to rush; she walks in her sleep; or he needs a calming spot, a hideaway or a swing.) Help the staff feel prepared to help your child succeed, relax and have fun!
Make sure to talk with your child about privacy, safe touch, and respecting one’s body. Ask the camp what they have in place to ensure safety.
Check in With Your Child’s Doctor
You can schedule a medical appointment to talk about do’s and don’ts at camp. For example, DO go swimming and have a great time, but DON’T jump from high places into the water if a medical condition like brittle bones makes this dangerous. At the appointment, you can request additional dosages or back-up medications as needed. If your child has serious health concerns, a camp with nurses or doctors trained in your child’s specific condition may be necessary. You or a paid caregiver also might be able to visit during lunch or another time of day to provide needed medical supports, and this can be discussed with your provider during this pre-camp medical check-up. Be sure that everyone involved knows what is expected and who is responsible for which aspects of your child’s care.
Don’t forget to include sunscreen, lots of water, and a hat for summertime heat. Take note if your child is taking a medication that might increase heat sensitivity.
Make a List and Check it THRICE!
Many camps provide detailed packing lists, but your family’s list will include specific items for your child’s individual comfort or unique circumstances. Medications, emergency changes of clothes, pads, or other medical supplies need to be written down to make sure they make it to camp!
Zip-closure baggies labeled with a Sharpie pen might help you get organized. You can write instructions on index cards inside the baggies. A Care Planner can help, with a medical release, copies of medical cards and instructions about where to take your child in an emergency. Here are some resources to help you create a Care Planner:
Organize Your Child’s Medical and School Documents with a Care Notebook
Seattle Children’s Hospital Center for Children with Special Needs
National Center for Medical Home Implementation
Enjoy Your Me Time
Wish your child an excellent adventure, and don’t forget to treat yourself to some self-care time while your super special child is away at camp!