Top 3 Tips for Choosing the Right Summer Activity for Your Child with Special Needs

News for 06.14.17
06.14.17
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By Marcy Uecker, Family Resource Center Coordinator

As staff at Gatepath’s Family Resource Center, who are also parents of a child with special needs, we ask ourselves each summer, “What are the best activities for our kids?”  Like most parents, the answer is always -- summer camps! They offer a variety of options, locations, themes, and times, including day-only activities and overnight stays. I have been sending my son August to summer camps for several years now.  August, who is a teenager, has autism.  So, from one parent to another, I’ve collected camp ideas and tips to help you get the ball rolling

1. Start with Your Kid’s Interests and Preferences: As parents, we each have unique insight into our children’s preferences, triggers, and strengths. Instead of jumping into an overwhelming list of potential camps, start with these introspective questions to reduce the options, helping you find a good fit for your child.

  • “What does my child like to do? What is he or she really interested in?” This question fits all children, including those with special needs. Kids are more likely to participate when they like the topic/theme! Sometimes, I’ve had parents stop and say, “Whoa. I hadn't thought of it that way.” Start with your child’s preferences, such as art, space, horses, or the outdoors. If you need more insight, ask your kid!
  • “Is it possible for my child with special needs to attend this camp/activity?” I have an older son who attended a specific camp, and I later asked the staff if it would be an option for my younger son with special needs to attend. Honestly, many camps are open to the idea and you’d be surprised how often staff have experience/training that enables them to support your child. Don’t limit yourself to just camps that have a focus on helping children with special needs. If your child would enjoy a specific theme, like an art camp, ask.
  • “What kind of setting does my child prefer?” Does your child do better in large or small groups? Does he or she need one-on-one assistance? Do loud settings stress your child or not? These questions will help you determine whether or not the activities you are considering would be enjoyable and a good fit for your child. For example, look at local options, like the YMCA or parks and rec, which usually offer small-group day camps that are perfect for younger, first-time campers.

2. Filter Camp Options: Skip those camps that would stress or bore your child, as mentioned above. Only mark activities your child would benefit from and genuinely enjoy. Now, narrow your top choices by asking ...

  • What is your schedule?” Call the director or organizer and ask specific questions that help you determine if the camp’s setting would support your child’s routine and related preferences, like when meals are served. A phone call can quickly help you decide if a specific camp would work or not.
  • “May I come visit with my child?” If you need more information about a local camp, ask if you and your child can stop by. Visiting can help with the final decision. Plus, if you have a child who is a visual processor, like my son, he/she can actually see and understand what the camp will look like and be like.

3. Make the Selection. You’ve narrowed it down to ideally one ... maybe two options. Excellent! Consider these additional questions to help determine whether or not a camp is a good fit:

  • “May I come shadow my child the first day?” If needed, inquire about being on hand to help your child transition into the new camp environment. You can also ask if there is a possibility for your child to meet camp counselors or key staff members before camp starts.
  • Is it possible to get updates? What is the best and simplest way to communicate with my child or staff members during the week?
  • Can I talk with another family as a reference before booking?

  • If the camp specifically supports those with special needs, what credentials do the teachers carry?

  • What is the staff-to-child ratio?

  • How does the camp staff handle conflict or bullying?

  • How do staff handle discipline or calming-down time when behavior is escalated or the child becomes over stimulated?

  • Does the camp offer a variety of foods for the picky eater or for children with dietary restrictions?

Now that you know how to approach the process of selecting a camp, look over our extensive resources list for this season or even next summer. Plus, for a quick review, check out the potential options listed below.

 

Top 12 Things to Do in the Bay Area

If you’re looking for camps or activities for your child or teen this summer, we recommend starting local.

  1. Gatepath Recreational Classes, afterschool and weekends, in Film Making, Art, Yoga and Cooking for youth, teens and adults with learning and developmental differences.
  2. Parks and Rec Department - Often your local parks and rec will have outdoor activities for different age groups. We have compiled the links to each parks and rec department by city in the San Mateo area. They often offer day camps for kids 6 years and older, and these classes can be small. Some even have special needs classes (just ask), and they sometimes offer the option of your child having a one-on-one aid.
  3. Steve and Kate’s Camp - Steve and Kate’s philosophy is that kids can do anything, and they have built a camp culture around that idea.
  4. Very Special Camps - VSP has a list of California camps (and camps all over the nation) that specifically cater to children with a large variety of special needs. From extreme action/sports camps for the blind and visually impaired to residential camping experience for at-risk youth with special needs, there is something for every individual.
  5. Zohar Dance - IndepenDANCE invites all children, including those with autism, Down syndrome, hearing/sight impairment, and cerebral palsy, to experience the love of dance through inclusive classes.
  6. Menlo Park Gymnastics Program - MPGP’s goal is to teach children first and gymnastics second, keeping safety the main priority. These inclusive classes are open to all children.
  7. Lazy H Horse Ranch - Breen and Emma Hofmann encourage riders of all abilities to sign up for their equine camps. You can tour the stables and meet the horses and ponies before camp, giving your child some familiarity with the setting before diving in.
  8. La Petite Baleen - The staff at LPB help children of all abilities to learn important life skills through aquatic instruction. They promote listening to and following directions, social interaction and teamwork, respect for oneself and others, and overcoming obstacles and facing fears. They also have four locations: Half Moon Bay, San Bruno, San Francisco, and Atherton.
  9. The Laurel School - The Laurel School runs programs for children in grades 1-8. They have consistent scheduling with frequent breaks and supportive staff for children with moderate/mild learning differences.
  10. Abilities United - AU offers inclusive summer camp experiences for children and teens 5-to 18-years-old with a 1:8 teacher-to-student ratio that encourages social integration through field trips, arts and crafts, and cooperative, non-competitive games.
  11. B.O.K. Ranch – The ranch offers a fully inclusive summer camp inter-dependent equine based, summer camp experience. Each week campers of all ages and all abilities work cohesively and respectfully of one another.
  12. YMCA – Your local YMCA offers many recreational opportunities; summer camps are available in Albany, Berkeley and Pleasant Hill.