Choosing a Summer Camp for a Child with Learning Differences

I know. It’s February and summer is the furthest thing from your mind, but it shouldn’t be. If you are thinking about a summer camp for your child this year, it’s time to do the work. Some summer camps start to fill up in February and March and it always seems to be the week you are most interested in that is full. Here are some tips and websites to help you get started.

Why summer camp?

Summer day camps can be a source of fun and learning for your child. Sleep-away camps or residential camps can also function as a vacation for your child and a break for you and your spouse. These camps help provide structure to your child’s day, social opportunities, and a chance to learn something new.

Personally, I am a big proponent of sleep-away camps. These kinds of camps can provide a chance for your child to learn that being away from home is a good thing. At a good camp, your child will learn some independence, how to negotiate the world on her own, and build self-reliance. If you can have all your children out of the home at once, it gives you (and your spouse) a chance to recharge your batteries and maybe do something fun on your own.

How do you select a summer camp?

It is important to select a summer camp that will meet your needs as well as the needs of your child. Here are some questions to help you and your child select a summer camp.

Choosing the focus of the camp

  • Does your child need educational support during the summer?
    Some children benefit from going to a camp with an educational component while some children need a break. Also, there are different levels of educational support that a camp can offer from a specialized camp for a specific learning challenge to a camp that offers recreational reading and journal writing.

  • Is your child into sports, computers, or would he like to try something he’s never done before?
    There are lots of camps that support learning new things. Talk to your child and see what she would like to learn or do during the summer.

What kind of structure does your child need?

  • Does your child tolerate freedom or less structure?
    Some children need more structure than others. Some camps have something scheduled every minute of every day, while others have off times sprinkled throughout the day, and some are in-between. Make sure you know what kind of structure the camp offers.

  • Does your child need to be held responsible?
    There are some camps that do everything for your child and your child is just expected to have fun. This is not a good environment for some children. A child with reactive attachment disorder or a child who has entitlement issues may do well at the camp, but come home and expect the same treatment. This kind of camp can undo the progress that your child has been making and impact your relationship with your child.

  • Does your child do better with big groups or with a smaller more intimate environment?
    This is really important for your child’s camp success. You want to be able to drop your child off and not worry about getting a phone call every day. Check out the camp and find out:

    • The ratio of campers to counselors

    • How often the campers are in big groups

    • How the camp counselors are trained to handle a child who cannot cope with a large group

What is the educational or experiential requirements of the camp counselors?

  • What is the educational experience of the camp counselors?
    Some camps that specialize in a particular type of special need, only hire camp counselors who are working on a specific college degree, like psychology. Some camps hire counselors who are interested in the sport or subject being taught. Depending upon the type of camp you are investigating, make sure that you know the hiring requirements and practices of the camp.

  • What further training does the camp provide?
    It is important to understand how the camp counselors learn the camp rules and learn about their campers. What kinds of situations are they expected to deal with? How are they taught to deal with discipline issues and problems? How are they taught to deal with a child who is not coping well in the given situation?

Camp Research

There are many day camps that are probably held within driving distance, maybe even walking distance, of your home. To find them look in your local newspapers or search the web for “summer camps”, “day camps”, “vacation bible school”, “ymca summer camp” followed by the name of your town. You can also check your local recreation centers to see what they are offering for the summer.

There are also websites that have both day and sleep-away camps listed. Here are some websites that I have found helpful.

  • Summercamps.com is an easy to use website that lets you look for camps by certain criteria. 
  • The American Camp Association probably has the largest listing of summer camps with over 3,000 camps, most of them accredited. 
  • Camp Channel is another website that gives you the opportunity to look for a camp that you think would benefit your child. 

Post Camp Experience

When your child returns from camp, whether it is daily or a sleep-away, let your child tell you about her experience as things come up in the conversation. Some children just babble about everything that happened, while others need to have time to process what happened. Give them the space to tell you about it naturally. Make sure to enjoy the silly camp songs!

If your child goes to a specialized camp whether it is therapeutic or educational, remember all the fun stuff that they tell you happened in the first few days or weeks of being home. Once the “shine” wears off the experience, they may tell you how awful it was and how they never want to go back. Don’t judge the camp on these statements alone. Remember the initial review and then look at what they have learned from the camp. Did they learn what you wanted them to? Does the learning last? Use the answers to these questions to judge whether this would be a good camp for your child to attend again next year or beyond.

Plan Now

Every child needs a chance to explore who they are and what they are interested in doing. Summer camps offer children an opportunity to do just that. So, plan now, find some potential camps, do the research, and talk to other parents. Doing the work now will help to ensure that you and your child have a fun and exciting summer! ENJOY!