10 tips for finding a special needs summer camp

Deciding whether to send your child to camp is a difficult decision for any parent. But worries are often magnified for parents of children with special needs who have more individualized concerns about their child’s environment and level of care. How will the camp meet my child’s medical needs? Does the camp target my child’s IEP goals? How can I communicate with the staff?

Chicagoland offers dozens of camps that provide independence, growth and unique experiences for children of all ages, abilities and interests. With registration to most camps already under way, we’ve broken down the steps to finding the right camp for your kiddo.

1 Determine if an inclusion or special needs camp is right for your child

The first step when choosing a camp is to decide whether your child would thrive best in a traditional camp that is inclusive, one that serves campers with specific special needs or one that welcomes a broad range of special needs. Each camp has its own pros, cons and considerations.

Jennifer Phillips, chief program officer at Keshet, a leader in inclusive recreation and education programs, says while parents often feel that a special needs camp will help their kids continue the skills they learned in school, she believes in testing out inclusive camp settings first.

“I think that ultimately, parents want their children to be in a camp where they can enjoy it like their peers do,” she says.  

2 Decide what type of experience you want your child to have

What do you want your child to gain from the camping experience? Some camps are centered around recreation and social interaction, while others might focus on structured activities and therapy-based instruction. Discuss camp options with your child to find the best fit.

3 Research various camp types

Summer camps can be day camps or overnight camps, and can vary in length from a few days to a few weeks. The American Camp Association’s Find a Camp tool filters camps by just about any criteria, including location, activities, gender, cost and more. This year, the association has 100 accredited day camps primarily serving people with special needs nationwide, and 383 overnight camps for people with special needs nationwide. Many also serve adults with special needs.

4 Tour prospective camps with your child

Most camps will host an open house, family weekend or information session. Walk around the camp venue and allow your child to meet the staff and ask questions. If your child feels comfortable in their surroundings, they will be more excited about attending camp.

5 Inquire about staff training and ratios

Ask about qualifications of the staff. Do any of the counselors have a background in your child’s area of focus? What about the counselor-to-child ratio? According to guidelines set forth by the American Camp Association, accredited camps that serve primarily campers with special needs must have 100 percent of its staff age 18 and older,

The ACA’s newest recommended ratios for camper to staff are:

  • For activities where the camper needs constant and individual assistance, it is a 1:1 ratio.
  • For activities that require close but not constant assistance, it is 2:1.
  • For campers needing occasional assistance, it is 4:1.
  • For campers needing minimal assistance, it is 5:1.

Colette Marquardt, executive director of the American Camp Association-Illinois, recommends parents ask the camp director about the ratios for their camp and activities in relation to their child’s specific needs.

“The really important thing is that the camper gets the attention and assistance they need in the proper ratio that will enable them to have a successful camp experience,” she says.

6 Understand the camp’s communication policies

The key to a successful experience is parent communication. Be sure to ask about how you’ll be updated about your child’s well-being throughout the summer. Do they do daily or weekly emails or phone calls? Do they encourage you to send notes with campers?

7 Align on disciplinary procedures

What happens if a camper does not follow behavior guidelines, and what action steps are taken if the behavior problems progress? Ensure you are comfortable with the camp’s disciplinary approach, which should be reasonable and well communicated.

8 Be open about your child’s special needs with the camp

Parents should contact the camp and have a conversation with the directors about their child and their specific and special needs.

“I encourage parents to be as honest and forthcoming as possible about what their child needs in order to be successful in a group environment,” Marquardt says. “This will help parents and directors become partners in setting up the child for a positive camp experience.”

9 Look into funding assistance

In addition to offering special discounts for early bird registration or long-term payment plans that can be spread throughout the year, some camps offer scholarships or financial aid. Don’t assume your income doesn’t qualify; ask your camp what assistance programs they offer. The government also offers programs to assist with day camp costs, such as a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit.

10 Keep a positive attitude

Even if you have doubts or anxiety after you’ve made the decision to send your child to camp, keep your emotions at bay. Children often take a cue from their parents, so staying optimistic about the camp experience will reflect how they go into their first day.

“Camp is a great place for kids to learn independence, social and communication skills, and ways to learn to advocate for themselves,” Phillips says. “It also allows campers to enjoy being a kid and having fun with friends.”


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