Winter break is hardly over when many families start making summer plans for their kids. Choosing a summer camp for a child with learning or attention difficulties has its particular challenges. Finding the right fit between the child and the camp often involves plenty of research, dialogue and decisions. And slots in specialized camps go quickly, so parents often have to start early and move fast on the camp selection process.

A successful search for summer camps begins with three important pieces of information:

  • A clear understanding of your child’s wants and needs for the summer
  • Information on the types of camps available
  • Your family’s schedule and budget

You can then begin the search for camps. Taking into account your child’s age and temperament, you will probably want to find appropriate ways to involve him in this decision-making process. For some children, that means asking them to participate when you’ve already narrowed down the choices. Other kids can be involved from the beginning, helping you to brainstorm a list of possible summer camps from which to choose.

To help you organize your camp search, this article describes a process for assessing your child’s needs and wants, and for getting the information you need from camp staff, in order to successfully match your child with a camp. What type of camp experience(s) will benefit my child most this summer?

A good starting point for the summer camp selection process is to assess your child’s current challenges, strengths, and interests. This, along with knowledge of your child’s temperament, personality, and level of maturity, will help you choose suitable camps. Kids with learning and attention difficulties often benefit from being involved in non-academic activities during the summer, especially those in which they excel. For many, the school year takes a heavy toll on self-esteem. So, while you may worry that your child will “lose ground” academically over the summer, it can be important to balance academic skill-building with activities that help your child regain self-esteem, relax and have fun, or explore exciting new pursuits.

Make a list of the types of activities that could benefit your child over the summer and think about what your goals are for each activity. Some types of activities that summer camps offer include:

  • Artistic or creative skills
  • Social skills and contacts
  • Sports and recreation
  • Academic knowledge and skills
  • Relaxation and fun

Camps may also be structured in several ways, for example:

  • Day camps
  • Overnight camps
  • Travel/adventure camps
  • Specialized camps for kids with learning disabilities or AD/HD

If you’ve got several choices of camps, it can be helpful to make yourself a chart similar to the one below. You can add columns for cost, dates, gear/equipment, and other details, as appropriate for your needs. The chart will serve as a reference point for a discussion of summer plans among family members. As you create a visual map of the summer, it may reassure your child to see, for example, that although he’ll have two weeks of math camp in June, right after that he’ll get to go to hockey camp with friends.

Here’s an example of what a camp planning chart might look like:

Type of camp Goals Importance on scale of 1-3 Ideas for camps
Academic Get some basic Internet research skills 2 Cyber Sleuths computer camp at YMCA
Academic Maintain pre-algebra skills 3 Learning First math camp
Outdoor Fun, low-key, new skill 2 City Parks and Recreation boating camp or cycling camp
Sports skills Build basic hockey skills; experience longer sleep-away camp 3 Camp Freeze hockey skills camp; or 3-day intensive
Art Social activity; use strengths 1 Children’s Art Museum’s Kids Create Murals camp

Questions to ask camp staff before you apply

Because they deal with large groups of kids, most camps expect a child to conform to camp structure and rules quickly and easily, so they can stay on schedule and meet group needs. This expectation can create challenging situations for a child with learning or attention problems. To avoid a situation that’s frustrating for camp staff and your child, it’s a good idea to ask staff lots of questions before you enroll your child in any camp. Even if you are lucky enough to have a camp available that is designed especially for kids with learning and/or attention difficulties, you’ll still want to ask several questions to insure that your child’s experience is safe and enjoyable. The following are suggested questions to ask camp administrators and/or staff. Those with this symbol (†) apply more to kids with learning or attention problems. Depending on whether you want to disclose your child’s learning or attention difficulties, you might choose not to ask these more focused questions.

  • How long has the camp been operating?
  • What is the overall philosophy/approach on which the camp is run?
  • What are the camp’s goals for kids who attend?
  • What is the staff-to-student ratio?
  • What training and/or credentials does the staff have for working with kids in a recreational setting?
  • Are background checks on criminal activity conducted for all staff? Are former employers contacted for references?
  • How much attention is given to an individual child’s interests and/or preferences?†
  • What is the approach to behavior management?
  • How do you discipline children?
  • How do you help a child who is impulsive, distractible or disorganized stay on track?†
  • How do you support kids who have low self-image, are shy or lack social skills?†
  • What does a typical day’s schedule look like?
  • Are kids supervised at all times?
  • How are medication needs handled?†
  • How much and what kind of communication can parents expect from camp staff?
  • How often can a child be in contact with parents?
  • Can you arrange for me to speak to parents whose kids have recently attended your camp?

If you feel there is important information about your child that the camp application doesn’t ask for, attach a brief letter to provide a more detailed picture of your child’s strengths, challenges, or needs. Highlight key points so that staff can easily scan it.

Planning for summer camps can be overwhelming, especially for kids with learning or attention problems. With some research and planning, you’re more likely to find camps that are a good fit for your child’s needs and interests. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to use the time while your child is at camp for a little rest and relaxation of your own.

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