Camps for Children with Special Needs

Summer camp teaches independence and social skills, provides physical activity and gives kids a chance to unplug from technology. For children with special needs, a camp experience geared toward their disability can provide even more.

When Karen Beach (a pseudonym) from Gladwyne, PA, chose a camp for her 15-year-old daughter with Asperger syndrome, she prioritized the ratio of counselors to campers. At Camp Pegasus, a social skills day camp in Rosemont, PA, for ages 6-15, two or three counselors to every camper means that Beach’s daughter has constant support. The camp’s structure and useful lessons also impress Beach.

“Kids need a structure to count on, knowing when they are going to have a particular activity,” she says. “They learn to resolve conflicts and how to talk to each other using facial expressions and words.”

Qualified staff

Camp Pegasus employs mental health therapists who work with campers on anxiety, anger management and impulse control. The camp offers a reward system that encourages campers to practice social skills and earn prizes along the way. “Our kids have a lot of frustration, and our staff praises positive behavior while giving compassionate social coaching during difficult moments,” says camp director Mike Fogel.

Teachable moments

Campers learn skills they can apply in their daily lives throughout the year.

At Camp Freedom Diabetes Camp for Kids, a residential camp for ages 7-16 in Schwenksville, PA, children with diabetes learn how to self-administer insulin. At United Cerebral Palsy of Delaware’s Camp Manito, a day camp in Wilmington, DE, role-plays offer lifelong lessons.

“Sometimes we observe a not-so-positive interaction between kids, and the staff will develop a social skills activity to encourage a more positive and accepting dialogue,” says Alice Stumpf, Camp Manito administrator.

At Camp Lee Mar in Lackawaxen, PA, they complement traditional camp activities with academic and speech programs. Camp director Ari Segal says, “We follow each child’s IEP so when the children return to school, they pick up right where they left off at the end of the school year.”

See page 2 for more benefits of camps for children with special needs.


Knowing you aren’t alone

Campers can find interaction with other kids who share their special need comforting and educational.

“We provide an opportunity for our campers to interact with peers and positive role models in an environment that fosters independence and sharing and builds their confidence in effectively managing their diabetes,” said Michelle Foster, director of community engagement for Camp Freedom.

Educating parents

“Kids with social challenges have a hard time taking a skill they learned in one setting and applying it another,” says Fogel. “We also train parents by sending home a copy of the social lesson every day to reinforce at home.”

Beach’s daughter learned the term “be bendy” as a way to encourage flexibility, using a visual of a bendable figure. “At home we’re able to apply the lessons she has learned. I can remind her if she’s a little bit stuck,” says Beach.

A respite for caregivers

Time spent at camp gives campers’ caregivers a valuable break.

“If caregivers don’t take care of themselves and their needs, it’s very difficult to take care of others,” says Kim Minerley, director of camp and recreation at Camp Merry Heart Easter Seals in Hackettstown, NJ, which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities.

An inclusive approach

Some camps for children with special needs also include typical children. That’s one of the things Nicole Stoessel, mom to Jessica, 11, who has spastic quad cerebral palsy, likes about Camp Manito.

She says, “Jessica may not be very physically involved, but she’s very mentally aware. Even though she may not be able to feed herself or go to the bathroom by herself, her vocabulary is impeccable, her hearing is absolutely fine, and mentally she can be there with the other kids.”

Campers without disabilities interact with peers who have special needs in an environment that is nurturing and accepting, says Stumpf. “These kids learn to be accepting of others. Campers with a disability feel a sense of belonging and security at camp.”

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Camps & Classes