Making Camps Inclusive For Children With Special Needs

by Fran Nickey, M.S. and April Tripp, Ph.D.

Until the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, child care facilities, recreational programs and summer camps could legally choose not to enroll a child simply because of a disability. Parents sometimes failed to disclose their child‘s special needs unless the disability was obvious, for fear the application would be rejected on that basis. Now the ADA gives children and adults fair access to programs and services in the community regardless of the presence or nature of a disability.

This is good news for families seeking an inclusive camp program. However, including children with disabilities in regular camp, recreation or sports programs can be challenging to inexperienced directors and staff. Some simple modifications and adjustments to these programs can result in positive inclusion experiences for all.

Creating an Inclusive Camp Environment

Simply to include campers with disabilities in a regular group, and assume that by contact they will learn to appreciate one another, is not enough. A truly inclusive camp environment is one where the physical space and equipment, the social-emotional atmosphere, and administrative strategies and support make all campers successful. The physical space should be barrier free and include a variety of equipment related to each activity. Activity set-ups should "invite" campers to participate, with something available for everyone. The social-emotional atmosphere should be warm and relaxed, emphasizing cooperation rather than competition.

Quality Interactions Among Peers

To freely participate in groups and to risk attempting new activities, campers need physical safety and also safety from feelings of embarrassment or inadequacy. Counselors and directors need to be fully aware of their own beliefs or stereotypes about others and the ways such beliefs can influence the camp environment. Camp staff might ask themselves: "If I had a physical or mental disability, how included would I feel in this activity?" "Do I know what it is like ...not to be able to make a good throw? ... to participate in activities in a wheelchair? ... to participate from a constant state of confusion?"

Consistent use of inclusive language and interaction patterns that foster positive attitudes about individual differences is essential. Also, each child should be able to participate in some aspect of a scheduled activity with some degree of success. The goal is for all campers feel safe to explore and develop their abilities, and to have the respect of their peers while doing so. Then will they be able to work and have fun together.

Process More Important Than Product

When counselors choose activities that are cooperative by design, campers learn over time how to use each others’ strengths to accomplish a common goal. Avoid activities that have specific "right" or "wrong" outcomes. Having fun is more important than the final result.

Personal Best Instead of Competition

Measure success by individual improvement rather than by comparing scores or products. This way campers work to improve their own performance and can experience success in many different ways. Use time (i.e. "Swim laps for 15 minutes.") rather than numerical scores or distance (i.e. "Swim 10 laps.") as an organizational strategy, so that all campers can participate at their own pace.

Children with Special Needs - Individual and Unique

Children with disabilities are unique; disabilities manifest themselves differently in different children; and children handle their disabilities in different ways. There is much overlap; strategies for campers with one type of disability can work for others as well. The best approach is to remain flexible and open to new modifications. Parents, caregivers, and children themselves are valuable sources of information. Ask what modifications they think might work best in various activities and situations.

Helpful suggestions

Have simple, clear rules (not too many), consistently enforced. Set specific and realistic expectations for performance and behavior. Acknowledge good behavior, ignore minor inappropriate behavior. Use frequent encouragement and reinforcers such as praise, stickers, coupons. Let campers set their own goals. Focus on campers’ talents and accomplishments. Facilitate social interactions and friendships. Offer alternative choices to a frustrated camper. Safety First!


Fran Nickey, M.S., has developed inclusive programs for the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks - Office of Therapeutic Recreation Services. She is currently the editor of Celebrating Special Children, A Resource Guide for Families of Children with Special Needs in Northern Virginia. Contact by email.

April Tripp, Ph.D., an Adapted PE Specialist for Baltimore County Public Schools, is a nationally recognized leader in health, PE and recreation.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 6, Number 4 - Winter, 2000-2001]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.

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Page last modified: February 23, 2009
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