Preparing Yourself and Your Child for Camp
By Tracy Bennett
The benefits of attending overnight camp are many for children—gaining a sense of freedom and independence, improved self-esteem, exploring new things, making new friends. But when your child is chronically ill or has emotional, cognitive, or physical challenges, sending your kid off to camp can be quite scary for moms and dads.
Camp directors will tell you that often the major obstacle to success at camp for kids with special needs is their own parent’s desire to protect them from the world. It’s possible to find a camp for nearly every interest and that cater to many unique health and physical concerns. The benefit for kids is the opportunity to meet other kids who are like them. The benefit for parents is peace of mind. The camp is likely well-equipped to handle the challenges of special needs, whether it’s counselors who are trained therapists, on site medical staff, and programs or activities that are designed to make accommodation.
First step: Research. Choosing the right camp is important. You may consider day camps or finding a mainstream camp that has appropriate accommodations for your child to be safe and have fun. Some mainstream camps employ inclusion specialists as part of their staff. If this is the route you plan to go, get to know this staff member ahead of time to establish the expectations for meeting the needs of your child. Once you’ve selected the type of camp, research the camp and take a tour if possible. Talk with the director to answer any questions related to your child’s situation. Ask about the activities, the ratio of counselors to campers, availability of medical services. Find out if you can provide instructions to medical staff regarding any special equipment your child uses or needs. Talk to other parents and kids who have attended the camp before.
Special needs camps can be quite expensive and in high demand. Be prepared to plan way ahead in order to secure a spot or to take advantage of funding or grants that may be available. If the camp itself does not offer grants, try contacting your local Developmental Disability Service Office or Service Clubs, such Rotary, or church groups to see if scholarships are available.
Talk to your child’s doctors and specialists to make sure you convey all current and relevant medical information. Provide details on diet, medications, behavioral issues and interventions, emergency contacts, including your child’s doctor’s contact info. Be as detailed as possible, even on the application form.
Once you’ve selected a camp, prepare your child. Take time to look at photos of the camp online. Review the schedule, but make sure your child understands that plans and schedules change due to weather or other reasons. Review the recommended packing list. It’s possible that your child’s favorite toys, such as a tablet, will not be allowed at camp. Here are a few other ideas for preparing your kid.
Do a practice run. Arrange a sleepover for a night or weekend with a friend or relative. Review the schedule and try getting up and going to bed according to the camp clock, if it’s different from your normal routine.
Practice self-advocacy. Role play with your child how to seek help when they need it. They need to feel comfortable asking a stranger where the bathroom is or reminding someone that they have a food allergy. Assure them that the camp staff is well-informed about their medical conditions or special needs, but that it’s ok to speak up if they think something is amiss.
When it’s time to pack, have your child get involved. Kids need to know what’s in the suitcase. Extra socks and underwear, old shoes, laundry bag, simple shower caddy, flashlight, bug spray, rain poncho, and bandaids. Some parents recommend labeling everything and using ziplock bags to keep things organized.
Staying in touch and letting go. Find out what the rules are for campers to make phone calls or send emails to parents. Consider sending a family photo along and let your child know that you will mail them a letter while they are at camp. One parent suggests sending the letters in advance so that they are there waiting for your child when they arrive. Consider packing some other comfort item, such as favorite blanket or stuffed animal.
Once the hard work of researching and selecting a camp is done, and you’ve prepared your child to go, don’t let this time apart go to waste. Camp also provides a much needed break for parents. Take advantage of it to recharge and reconnect with your spouse or other adults.