For having fun, being silly and building memories, nothing beats a good old-fashioned summer camp experience. Summer camp is that wonderful opportunity to try new things, meet new friends, and just enjoy the season — and summer camp should be available to all kids, especially those who need a little extra support to participate. This summer, for the first time ever, Camp O at The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School) meets that need.
“We identified a gap in programming that is available over the summer to children with social-emotional learning challenges. There are school year supports but in the summer, there is a gap,” explains Ellie Badesch, Camp O Co-Director and member of the O-School leadership team in Chicago. “Summer camp is a rite of passage for so many young people.”
Remembering the giddiness she felt at summer camp when she was young, Badesch shares the joy of participating in “classic summer camp moments” like s’mores, songs, crafts and games. And she says these are exactly what she wants children who struggle with social situations to experience this summer at Camp O.
“Some of our campers may have formal diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, OCD, anxiety disorders and others may not have formal diagnoses, but may struggle with understanding and adapting to social situations. That makes summer camp a big challenge,” she says. A good match for Camp O is the child who is 8 to 14 and who may be doing well in school and other areas of life, but who struggles socially and has trouble making new friends and trying new things.
“As we are meeting potential campers, I hear stories of how they tried summer camp but felt isolated and excluded. When kids have multiple experiences like that, it can increase their anxiety around new social experiences,” Badesch says. “At Camp O, we are providing additional space for support, extra staffing and an important social-emotional learning component. Staff members will facilitate group dynamics and encourage friendships, so campers feel included and part of the fun.”
With a ratio of 1 staff member to every 4 campers, Camp O is ideal for those who are able to maintain safe behavior without continuous one-on-one supervision but benefit from extra attention and support. In addition to Camp O Directors, who are experienced O-School staff members, there will be plenty of Group Leaders and Camp Counselors who are college students, grad students and young professionals pursuing careers in special education, psychology or other mental health fields.
Camp O is pure enjoyment for kids
While there will be lots of social learning built in, Camp O won’t feel like an extension of the school year, Badesch says. “We are all about joy and fun and a classic day camp experience, without that feel of being in a classroom or in therapy,” she explains. “Embedded into each day is social-emotional learning and a small-group structure, thoughtfully designed to encourage campers to develop friendships, take social risks, and explore new interests with peers.”
Each morning, camp Directors will present the theme for the day in a fun and engaging way, then embed that theme into dance parties, tie-dye, kickball and other camp activities. These themes might include flexible thinking, emotional regulation, managing competition or differentiating between expected and unexpected behaviors. “The goal is embedding the theme so children don’t even realize they are learning. They’re just enjoying classic summer camp activities like music and dance, barbecues and arts and crafts,” she says.
During the summer camp day, campers will have access to the entire O-School building, including all outdoor and indoor facilities, playing fields, a courtyard and a gymnasium. Planning for special guests and programming is in the works, too.
Parents who are wondering if their child is a good fit for Camp O can visit the website and complete an interest form. Badesch and colleagues at the O-School will follow up with detailed information and an invitation to further explore if the camp is a good match.
One thing is for sure about Camp O: the excitement level is high.
“We are a camp-forward, fun-forward program. While other programs might have camp elements, it can feel more like a child is in class or a therapy session all day — which isn’t going to feel like camp,” Badesch says. “Camp O invites campers to be at camp but provides them with all the supports they need to meet people outside their existing social circle and take healthy social risks in a welcoming environment.”