Prep Kids for Special Needs Camps

How to get kids with special needs comfortable with the idea of going to summer camp

You’ve done the hard research and selected the perfect camp for your child with special needs — a place you’re sure will expand her horizons, introduce her to new friends and boost her confidence and independence. But your work isn’t over. Now it’s time to prep your camper to feel at home and thrive in her summer environment.

Be excited for your special needs camper

When talking about camp, always remain positive. “Parents shouldn’t express concerns in front of their child. They need to be their child’s rock,” says Lindsay Rogan, who works at Camp Lee Mar, a residential special needs camp in Lackawaxen, PA (pictured above).

Use phrases like “You’re going to have a great time” to let him know that you feel comfortable sending him and that you trust the staff to take good care of him. Talk up the benefits of going to camp and tell him what he can expect to do once he’s there. Saying “You’ll be able to swim in a lake, paddle a kayak, make s’mores, get to know kids like you and take a break from your regular therapy sessions” gives him a concrete idea of what his day will be like and what he can look forward to.

Visit the camp

“Families should visit the camp beforehand to take a tour and meet some staff members,” says Jennifer A. Clement, director of the Delaware Center for Youth Development and staffer at the Children’s Beach House special needs weekend and summer camp in Lewes, DE. This allows campers (and parents) to see the facilities firsthand and understand where the kids will be swimming, playing, eating and, if it’s an overnight program, sleeping.

If your child has a special diet, make sure to visit the mess hall and speak with the chef; this will assure your camper that the kitchen staff know exactly what she can and can’t eat. Ditto the nurse’s station if therapy or medications need to be administered. Initiating a relationship with the camp nurse before the summer starts can go a long way to reassure kids who require ongoing medical attention.

Many special needs camps maintain relationships past the summer. Families enrolled at the Children’s Beach House, says Clement, “have year-round service.” Once they sign up, they are assigned a case manager who sets up weekend camping trips and regular counselor meetings prior to camp that all work to up the comfort level.

Next page: Camp activity prep, enrollment strategies and packing

 

Try out camp activities

At Heaven’s Gate Farm in Pipersville, PA, which conducts weeklong therapeutic riding camps for kids with special needs, owner Beverly Flynn recommends that parents get their campers in the saddle before the summer program starts.

To wit, parents will often sign their child up for a couple of reduced-rate riding lessons prior to the session. Flynn says this acclimates kids to being around the horses in a gentler manner, reducing the prospect of acute anxiety attacks when camp starts in earnest. Parents watch from behind one-way glass panels, allowing them to see out and keeping them in close proximity, for comfort’s sake.

Sign up for camp with a friend

Going to camp with a trusted friend with a similar challenge or disability adds a layer of comfort for both campers and parents. Kids will be less likely to feel anxious about meeting new peers if they know they’ve already got a buddy to look out for (and vice versa) once they get there.

Pack for camp together

If your child is heading to an overnight program, let him help pack, so he knows exactly what he’s bringing and where to find it. Include extras of everything from socks and swimsuits to postcards, stamps and medications. And don’t forget at least one major comfort item — a beloved stuffed animal, favorite baseball cap or (literal) security blanket that will make his bunk feel more like home.

Stay in touch once camp starts

Let your child know you’ll be writing to her often and communicating with her counselors on a regular basis. Day camp programs allow for daily one-on-one updates from camp staff, and residential special needs programs, unlike most conventional overnight camps, encourage regularly scheduled phone communication to keep parents up to date on their child’s well-being and progress.

“There was one mother who called three times a day for the first week,” says Rogan, emphasizing that a parent’s got to do what a parent’s got to do. Sending a child with special needs to camp can be a hurdle, so making sure your camper feels comfortable is a crucial component to summer success. 

Tessa Seales is a MetroKids intern and English major at Drexel University.