Choosing a summer camp can be daunting for any parent, of any child, especially if you’re exploring your options for the first time. Doubly so if your child has special needs.
Just as when you may have navigated the IEP process, you’ll need to advocate for your child to ensure his or her needs will be addressed while at camp. It’s an integral part of the selection process. Before you get to that point, though, you should define your own criteria. After all, you’ll be entrusting your child to people for a significant amount of time.
As a starting point, look inward and ask yourself some basic questions: What are your preferences and needs in terms of budget? Geography? Camp size? Religious affiliation? Do you want your child in a more mainstream environment? Or one that’s mostly geared toward special-needs? How would you and your child define a successful summer camp experience?
By narrowing the list of realistic possibilities, you can research the finalists in greater depth.
You’ll probably want to interview camp officials, ideally in person, during a tour of the facility itself. Don’t feel shy about asking direct questions. Your interview might include these broad areas:
Basic statistics: Ask about the ratio of campers to staff members. What training is required? How many have relevant certifications? What’s the maximum camper population? How often do campers end up going home early—and why?
About the staff: Ask how staff deals with problem behavior—including when a child feels bullied or picked on. Is there a formal discipline system? Ask about the medical staff, their level of relevant experience and training, and their availability. Is there a particular and trusted staff member your child can turn to if needed?
About daily life and routines: Ask about the way activities are structured on a typical day. How do they adjust when weather turns nasty? How much time do kids have to do their own thing? What kinds of off-campus excursions are available? Do they offer academics to bridge the gap between school years? Ask about typical meals. Ask about safety and accident prevention protocols.
About accommodations for special-needs: Ask if the camp has experience with other kids who have similar issues. What specific accommodations and assistive technology are available? What efforts will the camp make to help your child fit in socially and feel welcome? If relevant, ask where the nearest acute-care hospital is located.
About parental involvement: Ask how they handle visits from parents and siblings. Can you take the child off-campus? Can you volunteer and observe?
To round out your research, don’t hesitate to ask detailed follow-up questions if you feel the need. You and your child may also want to speak with parents and kids who have direct experience with the camp(s) you’re considering.
Once you’ve made your decision, stay in close touch with officials at the camp before, during and after the summer session. Take maximum advantage of visiting opportunities. You may need to navigate some perfectly normal separation anxiety—on your part as well as your child’s. Above all: create space for your child to develop independence, growth, pride, social skills and the joy of play.