Tips for Finding the Right Summer Camp for your Child with Developmental Disabilities

Summer is a time when children get a break from rigorous school schedules and academics. They usually have more time for self-directed, play-based activities that fit their strengths and interests. For parents of children with developmental disabilities, it can be challenging finding the right camp for your child. Camps can be costly, and they often book up early. Scheduling around vacations, work, and other activities can be challenging. The good news is that the number of inclusive camps is growing. If your child hasn’t attended camp before, you’ve moved, or they are ready for a new experience, ask around. Teachers, therapists and service providers, and other parents may have some great recommendations for local camps. Here are some tips that may help you find the right summer camp for your child with a developmental disability.

1. Find Your Focus

Think about if there is there a particular skill or area that you want your child to focus on. Camps are offered on a variety of topics and interest areas. Children are often more open to meeting new people, exploring new spaces, and engaging in activities that align with their interests and strengths. The number and diversity of camp programs are ever-expanding. Putting together a wish list of the type of activities and experiences you want your child to get out of camp is a great starting point.

2. Consider the Setting

While the number of inclusive camps is growing, parents may choose a non-inclusive camp or a more specialized camp. When you’re looking for a camp, consider the topic, but also how your child will experience the setting. Camps are offered as full-day and half-day sessions and overnight stays in a variety of settings (in the woods, at a pool, in a community center, or at a school). While it’s good to push boundaries and challenge assumptions about what your child is capable of, it’s also good to build upon positive experiences that your child has had. If this is the first time your child is going to camp, you may want to stick to a day program rather than choosing an overnight option.

3. Filling the Gaps

Depending on your child’s experience with school during the pandemic, you may want to focus on critical areas of education for your child. This might be academic-focused or more associated with social, emotional, or therapeutic activities. Take a moment to think through what your child likes to do and what might be the best use of their time this summer.

4. Finding the Right Balance

Summer is a time that your child can have a break from more rigorous school routine, while you’ll want to keep them busy— and if you’re a working parent, need to keep them busy—it might be helpful to put together a schedule for your child. Doing so may help you balance the structured educational and recreational experiences so your child can have an educational, but fun and rewarding summer, mixing both structured activity with free time and exploratory play.

5. Prepare Your Camper

If your child had reduced social interactions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ll want to consider that this may be the first time in a while that your child is introduced to a new group of people. Prepare your camper by talking to them about their experience. You may want to talk about the location of the camp, what activities they will do, what they might eat for lunch or snack, what they might wear, and who they may meet (new friends or current friends who are attending). If it’s their first time in a new group setting in a while, or if they are prone to separation anxiety, be sure to make the camp staff aware. Giving your camper a short goodbye, telling them when you will return, and being on time for the pickup can help your camper cope with separation anxiety and help your child learn the drop-off and pick-up routine.

6. Transportation

Don’t forget to consider transportation. Some camps offer bussed transportation, while others require parents and guardians to drop off and pick up. If you find a camp that is a perfect fit for your child, but you need transportation, first contact the camp: Staff can sometimes facilitate carpools or connect you with other campers who have similar issues. Consider setting up a carpool with another parent. If you are a working parent and are working remotely, research if there is an area where you can safely work remotely close to the camp. Local libraries, cafes, and some parks have Wi-Fi available for public use. Finally, search out other support organizations near you that might be able to help with transportation.

7. COVID-19 Precautions & Procedures

Unfortunately, it looks like COVID-19 is here to stay. Medical experts are predicting a new wave of COVID-19 infections. You may want to ask your camp about their COVID-19 safety measures and procedures. This might include asking if masks and COVID-19 vaccinations are required, how many children your camper will be in contact with, what the process is for notification if someone at the camp or in your child’s group has COVID-19, and what happens if camp is cancelled due to COVID-19 infections. It’s a good idea, regardless of COVID-19 case counts, to remind your camper to wash their hands.

Overcoming Barriers to Inclusive Camps

If you’re looking for an inclusive camp experience for your child—meaning that your child is fully included with campers without disabilities—you’ll want to make sure the camp can accommodate inclusion that is specific to your child. It’s a good idea to review the camp policies in detail and have conversations with the camp administration during the registration process to ensure that your child’s needs can be met. Some common barriers to inclusive camp participation are potty training, medical requirements, food restrictions, and accommodations that require additional staff. Understand that when policies are written, they are usually written without people with developmental disabilities in mind. If a particular policy would exclude your child from participating (like a potty training requirement), reach out to the camp administration to see if there is any flexibility in this requirement.

When approaching conversations about accommodations for your camper, it’s most productive to go into these conversations with a positive spirit. It’s also helpful to let the camp administration know what your goals are for your child’s camp experience. This can be as simple as “I want Kevin to make new friends,” or “I want Jane to get more comfortable in the water, so pool time is important.” Be clear with the camp about what the required accommodations are for your child to participate. Be sure to let the camp know if there are things you are willing to do to support them with accommodations. For instance, you can offer to talk to the counselors who will be working with your child before the start of camp to provide information about your child’s specific needs and abilities. You can offer to help with a camp activity if they need volunteers or stay in the area for the first day to help address any behavioral challenges. It’s always good to show that you’re committed to your child having a good camp experience and willing to assist the camp in understanding how to support you and your child.

Understand that not every camp can or will support full inclusion. Although it isn’t right, there are many reasons camps may not be prepared to support full inclusion. Some of these reasons are logistical, some are perceived challenges, and some are based on attitudes about people with developmental disabilities.

Know that having conversations with camp administration about inclusion is critical in starting or continuing conversations about the importance of inclusion. If you need support advocating for inclusion for children with developmental disabilities at a camp in your area, reach out to Parent to Parent of Georgia for guidance and assistance.

If you need assistance with inclusion supports contact Parent to Parent of Georgia: