For many of us, some of our best childhood memories involve summer camp. With a little preparation, the right supports, and inclusive attitudes, all kids can enjoy a summer camp experience.

School is out for the summer, and all over the country kids are headed to camp. I have heard many parents of kids with disabilities say that summer camp isn’t for them, that they can’t be accommodated, and they are too afraid to try it. But summer camp is a great place to explore interests, meet new friends, and beat the boredom that can set in during the long summer months. At Kids Included Together, where I am the “Chief Inclusionista,” we are working hard to provide the training, tools, and resources to these programs so that children of all abilities are welcomed and supported at camp.

Last summer, a family I know sent their nine-year-old son to an art camp—his first experience in an inclusive camp. Because he happens to have Down syndrome, the camp was a big deal for their family. I found out about this experience when I came across an Instagram video of him beat boxing like a boss. His mom posted a comment something like, “This happened today. So happy!” I was thrilled to find out that he attended the camp where I started my own journey to inclusive practice, and I wanted to know more. So I had conversations with his mom and the camp director. I learned that his first day of camp was rough for the child and for the camp staff. At pick-up that afternoon, because the camp staff was committed to making it work, they asked mom for advice. The second day was much better, and when the week was over, he said he made friends and would definitely like to go to camp again.

What can we learn from this boy’s rough start? Here are a few tips I can offer to programs practicing inclusion in summer camp settings:

1. Get Out in Front of It – Successful inclusion in summer camp is really about preparation. This camp embraces the philosophy of inclusion, so I think they just expected it to go well. The piece they initially missed was getting to know the child and his unique needs and interests before camp started. When the registration form comes in with the box checked indicating a need for accommodations, it’s time to set up a call or meeting with the family to learn more. In this case, inviting the parent and child to come tour the site and get to know them would have made all the difference. They would have learned, for instance, that while he loves music, he is not so crazy about art projects. Knowing this preference would have helped the camp make adaptations to support his participation.

2. Get Supports in Place – This camp uses high school and college students as inclusion facilitators, and they assign one or two to each group in which students have extra support needs. This staffing plan works great, as kids love to hang out with teenagers. Pairing the right teen with the student or group, and then providing him or her with the needed training and information, helps everyone do better. And, of course, only adult staff should assist children with self-care needs.

3. Prepare Camp Teachers – In this camp, groups of kids rotate between four different teachers and subject areas per day. Camp teachers need to be briefed on the goals of the family, the child’s strengths and interests, and any accommodations that will be made in the program. They should also remember that camp is about making friends, and they need to be intentional about supporting positive relationships between kids.

4. Plan for Ongoing Communication – The camp’s initial conversation with the parents should involve a question like, “What is the best way for us to reach you during camp?” At Kids Included Together, we help camps implement communication journals, which work well for daily communication. Some camps make use of text messages and scheduled phone calls to discuss how the day went. Whatever method the camp chooses, it should be convenient for the family, allow for private conversation (which is why pick-up point conversations often don’t work well), and be consistent.

5. Check Your Inclusive Attitude – When it comes right down to it, I believe that inclusion is really about mindset. It is about the belief that all children have a right to participate in their community, and to benefit from the fun, learning, and friendships that summer camp has to offer. If you have the attitude right, you can overcome most any hurdle. Extend this welcoming attitude to the child and family, and you will likely form a great partnership that will pay dividends to everyone in your camp community.

For many of us, some of our best childhood memories involve summer camp. Let’s not assume that these typical activities of childhood should only be available to kids who are developing typically. With a little preparation, the right supports, and inclusive attitudes, all kids can enjoy a summer camp experience.

– Torrie Dunlap

Photo of blog author.Chief Inclusionista at Kids Included Together. Challenging assumptions and driving social change, eager for a world where we accept differences in ourselves and others.