Kids with special needs may benefit from attending traditional summer camps and those catering to all abilities
Stacy Harris has seen the benefits of inclusive programs for her 5-year-old son, Alexander, who has Down syndrome.
He currently attends a general education transitional kindergarten (TK) classroom with developmentally typical kids and before that he attended an inclusive preschool with half of students enrolled as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for special needs and the other half developmentally typical.
“Alex has models every single day for him to learn from,” says Harris, of Anaheim. “Since August when he began TK, his speech has exploded and his ability to play with other kids has improved dramatically. He takes in everything he is learning in that environment and, although it may take him a little longer to master a skill than some of the students around him, that constant modeling that other students are doing for him is helping him to learn so much and more quickly than before. In addition, I see how the students in his class take such great care of him.”
There are many programs promoting inclusivity for special needs kids in Orange County. And as we head into summer, that includes camps. While there are quality summer camps catering specifically to special needs, many traditional summer camps offer the benefits of inclusivity.
“There are many camps that offer inclusion for children with special needs,” says Scottie Roach, executive co-director of Camp James in Newport Beach. “It’s important that parents communicate their child’s needs with the directors and ‘dive in’ to the programming, counselor makeup and environment of the camp to see if the style of camp will be a good match for their child’s needs.”
Roach says if their child needs additional support, parents should make sure the camp can provide that added support.
“In some cases parents may need to get creative and help provide the support the child needs in order to be able to attend the camp,” she says. “The conversation with the camp director is key to helping in this process.”
There’s another thing parents should look for in any summer camp: American Camp Association (ACA) accreditation, according to Roach. She says ACA accredited camps are required to meet hundreds of standards for safety, program, operations and personnel.
“Our camp was including campers with special needs long before the term ‘special needs’ was used,” says Roach. “We found the value of having diversity and kids who really want to be here and can do so safely, a benefit to the child, the peers, the staff and families. Kids are kids. As directors we are obligated to figure out ways to help kids have a positive camp experience.”
She cautions, however, that camps are not a one-size-fits-all scenario—for either neurotypical children or those with different abilities.
“It’s important for parents to do their homework and speak to directors about their goals for their child,” she says.
Erica Jameson, owner and director of Jameson Ranch Camp in Glennville, says there are many children that may fit into a special needs category that attend traditional camps.
“There can be a real benefit for some campers who attend a non-special needs camp, but that really must be a decision made by both the parents and the camp,” she says. “Honestly, attending a non-special needs camp depends entirely on the child. Parents should sit down and really go over what a camp is requiring in terms of decision making, schedule, counselor supervision and activity type, so that they can see if their child fits into that environment.”
She says that campers of all kinds can benefit greatly from a camp setting.
“From brain development in the pre-frontal cortex area, learning to fail and succeed, and enjoying community in a new way, campers experience many benefits of camp,” she says. “Each camp has a specialty or niche that it best fits in, and there’s a camp for every child. Campers who are differently abled benefit from going to mainstreamed camps in the same ways.”
She adds that campers who have special needs also help those without those needs learn about the humanity of all people.
“Kids who don’t have much interaction with special needs children learn empathy, innovation and tackle challenges as they help their friends navigate camp,” she says.
Kellie Perez-Tuchowski, executive director of Down Syndrome Association of Orange County, sees great benefit in inclusive summer camps—especially those with other children that primarily live in the same community. Of course, research and open communication with camp directors are key.
“If the child with Down syndrome can have a camp buddy, that’s another great way to have an inclusive camp, but ensure a support system is available when/if needed,” she says. “Whether it’s an inclusive setting or a special needs camp, summer camp should be an exciting and memorable experience for your child. Parents should feel that their child’s needs will be met and they will be safe. The child should come home excited about going again next year.”
Julie M. Armenta, educational and family specialist at Armenta Learning Academy in Laguna Niguel says it can be a win-win for both special needs and developmentally typical children.
“The more advanced students learn patience and compassion and leadership while working with special needs,” she says. “The special needs [children] gain acceptance, stability and support.”
Noha Talkhan Marwan, owner and director of LearningRx Costa Mesa-Irvine, says it is important to apply the idea of inclusion at traditional summer camps with a lot of forethought.
“Kids with special needs have many challenges to go through every day and adding a traditional camp to them may add a whole lot of other challenges,” she says. “I would like to think of it as subject to the mental and psychological readiness of the child as well as the level of modification of the traditional camp so that people of all abilities may participate and have their needs met.”
She says when a traditional camp is prepared for all abilities to participate, the experience can enrich the child with special needs with confidence to interact with the world around him.
“It feeds his self-esteem and feeling of belonging for a healthy journey towards his personal growth,” she says. “In return, they can then seek the opportunity to connect and benefit their community back with the values each and every one of them possesses.”
Michelle Taylor, assistant professor of Child Development and Family Studies at California State University, Long Beach, agrees that traditional summer camps have the potential to benefit all children. For children with special needs, the benefits come in the form of helping them develop a sense of belonging, learning age-appropriate behaviors and skills, practicing social skills and increasing self-esteem. For typically developing children, it’s about learning what they have in common as well as valuing differences.
“Playing with peers of all ability levels helps children recognize their similarities. When children understand what they have in common, they can get to know one another, share in their common interests and build meaningful relationships,” she says. “As children get to know each other, they also learn about the qualities that make each of them unique. Celebrating differences is an important part of relationship building and community development. When children can recognize that each person makes a meaningful contribution to the group, they learn to value differences.”
Not only are there many programs in Orange County that help support inclusion, but there are also some inspired by that concept, including Y Inclusion at YMCA of Orange County and the School of Dance and Music for Children with Disabilities at Segerstrom Center for the Arts (SCFTA).
Ria Tirona, program director of Y Inclusion at YMCA of Orange County, says the organization recognized a need in the community for additional educational support services for children with special needs in after-school and summer camp programming and leads the Y Inclusion Program to ensure children of all abilities have access to the support they need to reach their full potential. She says the Y Inclusion Program provides one-on-one support services to children between the ages of 3 and 17 attending preschools, summer camps, childcare, after-school or recreational programs throughout Orange County and focuses on teaching and developing play, social and self-care skills, managing behavioral challenges and building confidence and independence through the use of positive reinforcement, behavioral interventions and other support strategies. Children in Y Inclusion attend childcare and camp programs alongside their typically developing peers, allowing them to learn, grow and thrive with children their own age in a safe, supported environment, she says. In addition, YMCA of Orange County also offers several summer camp options, all of which are open to children with special needs.
“Research in the fields of education and disability support services strongly suggests that inclusive learning and mainstreaming between students with disabilities and without provides a unique learning experience that benefits both types of students,” Tirona says.
Along the same lines, SCFTA’s School of Dance and Music for Children with Disabilities serves all abilities for ages 4 through 22. The program takes place at the Center’s dance studios as well as at off-site locations, including CHOC Children’s. Jason Holland, vice president of Community Engagement at the Center, says the program began 2 1/2 years ago to offer dance opportunities to more people. The Center offers a ballet school, but it is only open to more advanced dance students. The new school has succeeded in its goal of inclusivity and continues to grow, according to Holland. Each class has a dance teacher, a music teacher and a therapist, who work with each child’s abilities. The total number of students served so far is 680. The school is also offering a summer camp, which starts July 22.
“They help each other, they learn from each other,” Holland says.
By Jessica Peralta
Top photo: Alexander Harris, 5, was recently named a 2019 Ambassador for Nothing Down, an international organization that spreads awareness about Down syndrome. Follow him on Facebook at Down With Alex (@downwithalex).