There’s a lot to think about when deciding on a camp for your child but when your child has special needs, there are even more considerations. “The number one consideration, whether your child has special needs or not, is always the leadership team,” says Renee Flax, director of camper placement for the American Camp Association, NY and NJ. “All decisions start at the top and you want to make sure you are comfortable with the director.”
Flax has been helping families find the right day or overnight camp for the past 20 years. She says it’s important to be upfront about your child’s needs. “Being honest and open and describing your child on their worst day will allow the director to assess whether their program would be a good fit for your child,” she says. “Also take the time to think about what your goals are for your child at camp. Are you looking for your child to make new friends, gain social skills, practice independence from you and feel included among peers? Make sure to share those goals with the director and let the director explain to you how those goals will be met.” COVID is a big consideration when choosing a camp but Flax says many camps have been able to handle it well.
“While not all day camps in New Jersey ran last summer, many of them did and did so successfully without COVID outbreaks,” Flax says. “There is now a blueprint on how camps can operate during COVID and mitigate the risk of infection. Many of our camps used protocols such as daily temperatures and health assessments, cohorts of campers that don’t intermingle, additional hand hygiene, increased disinfecting of equipment and facilities and utilizing the outdoors for all activities.
With COVID changing month-to-month, it’s too early to tell exactly what protocols will need to be in place for this summer but after a year of remote learning for so many children, there is no doubt that campers will need a summer spent outdoors at camp.” Robyn Tanne, director and co-founder of Harbor Haven, a day camp for children with mild special needs in West Orange, says parents should look for small groups and staff that are trained specifically to work with kids with special needs.
“When a child has special needs, he or she typically works best in small groups with a high staff-to-child ratio,” says Tanne. “In addition, the staff needs to be experienced and trained to work with children with those needs. When professionals such as special education teachers, speech and occupational therapists and psychologists are on staff, it ensures that each child’s needs are not only being met, but that growth and improvement are taking place.”
Tanne says it’s important for the child’s IEP goals to be addressed at camp in order to prevent regression in social, behavioral, language, motor and educational skills. “Summer is a time for fun in a camp environment, but it should also serve as a bridge from one school year to the next,” she says.
BENEFITS OF CAMP FOR ALL KIDS
Harbor Haven is designed for children with milder special needs such as those diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, higher functioning ASD, learning challenges, language delays and deficits, sensory processing and motor issues and social skills needs. “Because of the comprehensive nature of our programming, Harbor Haven builds skills and confidence in all areas,” Tanne says. “In a nurturing, fun, dynamic camp environment, children engage in summer activities combined with strong support for the academic, therapeutic and social needs described in their IEP.” Tanne says COVID has made camp even more important for kids. “Now more than ever children with special needs require an in-person program,” she says. “Many have had only virtual or a combination of live and virtual learning since March of 2020. This is challenging for any child, let alone those with special needs.”
She says it’s possible to have a safe camp experience with certain precautions in place. “Most camps hold the majority of their activities outdoors making it a safer place for children to spend their summer days while actively learning and socializing in a healthy way with peers,” she says. “In these times of COVID, camp has changed for every child. Following protocols as outlined for camps by the CDC, ACA (American Camp Association) and state and local health departments is imperative to sustaining a COVID-free summer, as Harbor Haven did in 2020.” Tanne says these protocols include frequent handwashing, mask wearing, pods, safe distancing and disinfecting. “Updates for 2021 have not yet been released but are expected to be similar to the ones for 2020,” she says. “By now, most school children are used to these measures and will no doubt welcome the opportunity to make friends in a safe, fun and meaningful way.”
BONUSES OF THE CAMP ATMOSPHERE
At Camp Lee Mar in Lackawaxen, PA camp director Ari Segal notes some parents say their kids learn more during the summer at their residential camp than the rest of the year because of its unique “play and learn” atmosphere. “Our campers want to make friends, have fun and grow in a positive, warm, nurturing environment,” he says. Segal advises parents to look for a camp that understand their child’s unique needs and can address them.
“For instance, a camper may need assistance with their daily living skills and the parents should find a camp that addresses these skills in the everyday schedule of the camp,” he suggests. “Another camper may need help with their academic skills and the camp this family chooses should address academics as well. If a camper is socially isolating, the family should find a camp which has nurturing staff that will help the child get involved in activities with the other campers.”
Segal agrees that this summer, camp is more important than ever. “Many of our campers have been learning virtually this year, and they are yearning for camp and having the live interactions with other children and staff that help develop their total selves.”