You've done it - you've taken the plunge and decided to send your child to camp this summer. There are many types of camps to choose from, including camps intended just for your child's special needs to mainstream camps where your child will be with kids who have no special needs. You've done your research, and now that you and your child have made up your minds, what can you do to get ready?
Preparing Your Child - and Yourself
If you and your child haven't had the opportunity to visit the camp, make sure you get as much literature about the camp as possible, including a description of the layout and a video if they have one. You and your child should go over these materials together. Tell her that you'll be checking in regularly with the camp staff to make sure that she has everything she needs and stress that she can always let the staff know if her needs aren't being met.
Talk to your child about her feelings. Find out if she has any concerns, and do your best to reassure her that you and the camp staff will take every precaution to make sure she stays safe. You might find it helpful to talk about why she's attending camp and what some of her goals might be, such as to try a new sport, to make new friends, or to just enjoy a break from therapy sessions.
If your child is intimidated by the thought of attending a residential camp or an inclusionary camp, you might consider starting her off in a day camp or a sports team for kids with special needs. This step can give your child the skills and confidence she needs to feel comfortable about going to a residential camp. "Start with regular sports activities and day camp. Then use a special-needs camp to get a child used to being away before sending your child to an inclusionary camp," advises Ann Dolloff, extension specialist for the New Hampshire 4-H Camps.
Another option you might consider is sending your child to camp with a friend or a sibling. If your child is attending an inclusionary or mainstream camp, the buddy doesn't have to have a special need. "Going with a friend is a huge stress reduction for both child and family - they'll be looking out for each other," Dolloff says.
Sharing Information With Camp Staff
Some parents are reluctant to share too much information with camp staff for fear it will have negative repercussions for their child. "Many parents struggle with this," Dolloff says. "They think, 'If I tell everything, will they still take my kid? Or am I setting my kid up for failure?' The fact is, good camps will operate from the perspective that 'the more info we have, the better.' Most staff who truly care about kids will tell you that."
You can help educate the staff by spending time with them and answering and asking questions before you drop off your child. This can be critical. For example, 15-year-old Christina Myers recently spent a week at a mainstream camp where she was the only child with a disability (Christina has cerebral palsy). On her initial tour through the camp on the day of Christina's arrival, Jean Myers (Christina's mother) discovered that even though the camp staff had tried to accommodate Christina, they hadn't been completely successful. "They made a larger shower and thought it was accessible, but there was nothing to hold onto," Myers says. "What I did when I got there was give them one of those beach chairs, and we stuck that right inside the shower for Christina to sit on."
Many camps have paperwork you can fill out to share information as well, including information about dietary and medical needs. And regardless of whether your child is going to a day or residential camp, you should give the staff a list of emergency phone numbers and email addresses, and make sure they know how to reach you at all times during your child's camp stay. If your child takes any medication, include the phone number of your child's doctor, in the event the prescription is lost and needs to be refilled by camp staff. Check whether the camp infirmary stocks your child's medication, too. If it doesn't, make sure you send extra medicine with your child in case of an emergency.
Consult with your child's doctor and other specialists, such as a physical therapist, to make sure you provide the camp director and staff with all necessary information, and check with the camp staff to make sure they know everything they need to.
What to Pack
Try to limit the special equipment your child needs to bring, especially if it's expensive or breakable. If your child is attending a mainstream camp, she's likely to want to be like all the other kids, so do what you can to accommodate that desire. And mark or label everything with your child's name to make it easier for her to keep track of her belongings - that goes for everything from her crutches to her retainer case.
If the camp hasn't sent you one, you should call ahead for a list of recommended items. Every camp has different requirements.
You also have the option to provide any support staff your child needs. If your child needs a therapist, you can have that person come in on a predetermined basis to provide care for your child. Or maybe your child needs more intensive, round-the-clock care - ask the camp director what you can do to accommodate these special needs. "We have one child who comes to camp with an aide to make sure that his experience in our camp is successful," Dolloff says. "We don't charge room or board for that person to live in camp. It's very collaborative."
Remember, however, that you may want to let your child have a vacation from therapy or other treatments. Myers says that although she initially made sure Christina had regular physical therapy at camp, she now lets her have a few weeks off. "Children do regress a bit without therapy, but she's learned so much more, and the growing independence is what we focus on," Myers says. Before you decide to postpone any treatments, though, you should consult with your child's doctor.
Dealing With Anxiety and Homesickness
Many camps don't allow direct contact between parent and child while the camp is in session - they do this to help the children stay focused on their activities. This can be a daunting prospect for parents of children with special needs, which is why it's important that you figure out ahead of time how you will get regular information about your child's status.
"We tell parents they can call every day, every hour, and speak to the supervisor and camp staff regarding their child's performance," Dolloff says. "And camps that operate well will also call parents to keep them aware of how things are going."
You can also write to your child and remind her that she's loved and that you can't wait for her to come home and tell you her stories.
"I think it's important to know when to back off - kids don't want their parents there," Myers says. Just like any other child, your kid probably won't want you to cramp her style while she's away at camp. The best thing you can do is respect her need for freedom and independence while she's in a safe camp environment.
Reviewed by: Steve Bachrach, MD
Date reviewed: January 2001
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