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Summer camp is a rite of passage that most children explore during their school-age years. Selecting a camp program that can accommodate a young person’s physical and developmental needs while offering fun activities, need not be a challenge.

Finding a place for young, happy campers

Ah, the great outdoors.

In the fall, brightly-colored leaves waft across a well-worn trail. During the summer, the sun glistens down sparkling blue water that is crystal clear. In the winter snow sparkles along covered trails. Being at camp is a time to commune with natural wonders. It’s a place where all the concerns of the day dissolve like sand when the tide comes in.

For most children, a week at camp is a time to be carefree. But if a child has disabilities, can he or she ever be completely carefree in a camp setting? After all, a budding outdoors enthusiast may be miles away from mom and dad’s protective grasp.

Such a scenario is likely to be very appealing to a child, but for parents, the concept of camp can be nerve-wracking.

It used to be that camps could not accommodate children with disabilities. Camps did not employ professionally-trained staff, unless a 16-year-old lifeguard qualified for that designation. Physical accessibility was always an issue; trails were rough and cabins had small doors and bunk beds that could best be described as rustic.

Today, camps designed specifically for children with physical or developmental disabilities have cropped up all over the United States. For example, week long retreats for children with cancer. Weekend excursions for children with Autism.

Camps that do not specifically cater to the disabilities community are also accommodating young people with challenges to make the outdoor experience palatable for all children. Family camps provide parental on-site access while offering individual pursuits for all.

In general, camping options are more inclusive today than ever before.

However, if options are as vast as the stars in the sky, so are the questions that a parent will have about what constitutes a safe, healthy and fun camp for their child.

Those inquiries, unfortunately, cannot be answered without some research. Luckily, there’s a myriad of information available online from association, nonprofit and government sources.

When nature nurtures

Camps are a staple of childhood. They take many forms; traditional residential camps can be open during any season, and day camps can take place in recreational or educational settings. Family camps provide seasonal vacation opportunities.

Camp activities may revolve around a specific theme. Some programs focus on a single activity, like soccer camp, or a concept, such as religion or philanthropy. Whatever a child’s interest is, there is likely a camp that can cater to it.

Research indicates that camps are extremely popular with children. According to research conducted by the American Camp Association, 10 million children attended more than 12,000 camps in 2003. Dedicated special needs programs comprised 15 percent of those camps.

Camp programs are endless in scope; everything from camps that offer arts and music programs, to outdoors pursuits centered around horseback riding, fishing, team sports, survival skills and watercraft activities, are available. Also, many camps have small animal farms, nature centers, or petting zoos that allow children to interact with and observe creatures they don’t encounter every day.

For children with special needs, going camping is an exercise in age-appropriate independence. Although sending a child to camp can cause a parent anxiety attacks, there is some compelling evidence that such activities are beneficial to children with disabilities.

If a camp is a conventional one that can provide a barrier-free environment for children with disabilities, attending camp gives a child a chance to experience activities in the same way as other children.

On the other hand, if a child attends a camp designed for children with special needs, he or she will meet many new children with similar concerns. Maybe, at camp, it won’t matter if the child uses a wheelchair or a walker as much as it does at school. Overall, camp can be a place a child returns to every summer for a week or so to reconnect with other children that enjoy the camaraderie camp offers.

Accreditation and licensing

All parents who pack their child up for a camping experience need to know the place where they are sending a son or daughter is one that offers an opportunity to develop independence and advance social skills.

The best starting point is to seek camps that are licensed through the state and have obtained American Camp Association accreditaton. Although licensing is mandatory in most states, requirements are varied. Some states have implemented ACA accreditation as their standard for licensure. Keep in mind accreditation and licensure differ. If a camp is state-licensed, it has likely undergone scheduled visits and inspections to ensure its activities and conditions are in line with state regulations. In most states, camp licensure falls under the auspices of a state health department or authority.

The goal of accreditation is to help camp staff provide children with healthy, fun and appropriate activities led by knowledgeable and caring role models. Additionally, accreditation ensures that children get a chance to develop leadership skills.

The association’s aggressive accreditation program requires camps to undergo a review of their entire operation. ACA professionals identified 300 standards that it demands camps meet before it grants accreditation. During the assessment process, everything from the physical nature of the camp to the training and qualifications of staff members and volunteers are exhaustively analyzed.

The ACA does not specifically address children with special needs during this process except to place limits on the child-staff member ratio. Currently, the ACA requires one staff member per five children ages 4- to five-years-old, one staff member per six campers for ages 6- to 8-years-old, and one staff member per eight campers ages 9- to 14-years-old, and one staff member per 10 campers ages 15- to 17-years old.

Specifically, the types of issues the ACA examines may exceed health and safety standards imposed by some states. The ACA applies rigorous standards to everything from the quality of employees and volunteers to food safety and preparation standards, and day-to-day management practices.

To make sure standards are adhered to, ACA officials conduct a site visit to accredited camps every three years. Accreditation is a voluntary process – taking the step to be accredited means a camp is likely going beyond state licensure requirements and into industry standards.

Here are some of the aspects of a camp that the ACA looks at as part of its accreditation process:

  • What is the staff-camper ratio for various age groups?
  • How much of the curriculum is developmentally-based?
  • Is emergency transportation is available at all times, and nearby?
  • Are staff members and volunteers certified to administer first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation interventions? Can they clear airway passages in the event of choking? Can they administer medications?
  • Do all staff members and volunteers undergo a criminal background checks?
  • Are 80 percent of staff members at least 18-years-old?
  • Whether staff members and instructors are licensed in a specific activity as prescribed by local statute? For example, a scuba diving instructor would need specific licensure?
  • Are facilities such as sleeping areas, common areas, lavatories and other public areas safe and appropriate?
  • What staff member maintains medical history information and oversees medication management for the children?
  • What is the camp’s emergency management plan?
  • Does the camp provide proper equipment for activities, such as headgear for bike riding or lifejackets for watersports activities?
  • Do campers participate in a pre-camp orientation session?
  • Is there adequate supervision of campers? Is there sufficient supervision of employees and volunteers on-site?

No accreditation or licensure program can guarantee a child’s safety at camp. However, accreditation is one of the best indicators that a parent has that a camp has addressed issues that could be unsafe for a child.

Parents can verify the status of a camp’s ACA accreditation by visiting The American Camp Association. The ACA also has a toll-free hotline (800-428-CAMP). To verify state licensure, contact the state health department where the camp is located.

What to ask

For parents of a child with special needs, finding out whether a camp is accredited can be a good start, but that doesn’t begin to address whether a camp is a good choice.

There are hundreds of residential camps that claim to meet the needs of children with disabilities; the vast majority of these camps care deeply about providing a positive experience to young people. A parent’s task is to investigate which camp is safe and appropriate for “their” child, and secondly, what camps offer the kinds of activities that interest their child.

Making a decision regarding camp requires parents to ask some probing questions of both the management at the camp and their child.

Once a parent has located a camp, a good first step is to contact the camp’s director by phone or email to inquire about some specifics about the camp and its programs. Does the camp offer the kinds of activities that will interest a child? If a child requires medication, who will administer it? How is medication stored? Does the camp have an on-site nurse or medical professional? How is your child’s impairment accommodated?

What is the overriding philosophy of the camp, and is it in line with a parent’s beliefs? How is this philosophy reflected in activities?

If the camp is not ACA accredited, what is the educational background of the camp director? Are counselors trained to work with children that have special needs? What are the ages of the counselors and volunteers? How many counselors return to the camp to work year after year? What is the camp’s safety record?

If there is a behavior issue that comes up during the course of a child’s stay at the camp, how are disciplinary actions handled? If there is an issue related to a child’s ability to remain at the camp, how soon will parents be contacted?

Another aspect of a camp to be concerned with is the physical nature of the camp. The surroundings may indeed be majestic – but will trails and facilities be accessible and adaptable to a child’s specific mobility needs?

For children with disabilities, camp is all about inclusion. How does the camp make sure that all children are included in activities? What are the activity goals?

Parents may also ask for references from previous camp attendees before visiting the camp. Also, a parent can call either their state health department, which likely oversees licensure, or their local Better Business Bureau to find out if any complaints have been filed against the camp. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, may have safety violations on record from previous inspections or incidents. Local law enforcement may have records available through the Freedom of Information request. Also, a parent can go a step further by contacting the county court where a camp is located to find out if any lawsuits are pending against its owners.

Once a parent finishes questioning officials at the camp, they should move on to the child. What kinds of activities does the child enjoy, and how does the camp fit the bill? What does a child hope to get out of camp? How does the child intend to conduct himself or herself during what is likely the first time he or she has been away from home?

Knowing ahead of time what will likely transpire at camp should ease anxiety about letting a child partake in camp-based activities. Going to camp can be an opportunity for a child to break away and explore interests and activities on their own. It’s natural for a child to seek out these types of experiences; just as it is natural for parents to experience anxiety or ambivalence about the concept of sending their child away for a week.

Having the right answers and reassurances goes a long way in quelling those concerns, at least until a parent sees their child’s smiling face at home.

For more information

For the American Camp Association’s Information on Camps for Persons with Disability, visit The American Camp Association – Camps for Children with Disabilities.

To find a summer camp, visit The American Camp Association – Find a Camp Resource.

To review state laws – state by state, visit State Laws and Regulations for Camps – The American Camp Association.

To review state specific information, visit State by State Information about Camps – The American Camp Association.

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