Making "Sense" of Summer Camp

by Ingrid M. Kanics, M. OT, OTR/L

During the frigid days of winter, most people long for summer with birds tweeting, the smell of newly mowed grass, the tickle of breezes and sand between their toes. But for children with Dysfunction of Sensory Integration (DSI), these experiences of summer are stressful and frightening.

What if there were refuges for these children where adults understood their sensory issues and helped them overcome them? Occupational and physical therapists are creating supportive therapeutic Sensory Integration (SI) day and overnight camps that allow children age four to twelve to feel safe, while experiencing new challenges at their own rate and tolerance levels. These programs, often modeled after the first of its kind, Camp Avanti in Wisconsin, provide a wholesome sensory diet to not only enhance gross and fine motor skills, but also develop language and better socialization.


For almost 10 years, Camp Jabiru in North Carolina has been using SI treatment principles to allow campers to experience the outdoors. Using the Alert Program for self regulation (see Booklist) they help children create a sensory diet that is "just right" for them. While hiking, singing, working and playing they learn how to attain and sustain attention, alertness, organization and confidence.

Gross motor activities are the foundation for games and sports. Camps for those with sensory issues go back to basic skills to develop motor planning and execution. At the GMS Institute in Manassas, VA, kids, who are initially fearful, climb ropes and ring a bell at the top by the end of a two-week session. Some SI camps like Summer Adventure in Washington, DC break down kicking, catching and throwing into small steps focusing on body position and movements. Before they know it, children with all kinds of motor issues are scoring goals, making home runs and baskets.

Arts and Crafts

Painting and gluing are not fun if you cannot tolerate dirty hands or sticky fingers. At Over the Rainbow in Maryland, they start slowly with non-threatening tactile materials like odorless play dough. As a child‘s tolerance for tactile experiences increases, he moves to creating masterpieces with shaving cream, finger paints, and finally that white glue that most find intolerable. Fine motor activities, like cutting and writing, are broken into smaller steps to help small hand muscles develop coordination and precision while building confidence and nifty art projects.

Playground and Swimming Activities

Of all problem areas, the playground and swimming pool usually present the greatest challenges. They also offer the most opportunities to increase confidence, self-esteem and socialization.

Volunteers, consisting of typical teens completing community service requirements and developmentally delayed veterans from previous camps work with OTs and PTs to assist children in learning hand-over-hand maneuvers and overcome their gravitational insecurity. Grouped by age and ability levels, non-swimmers take to the water one step at a time. More experienced swimmers work on stamina and endurance. On visiting day, families are always amazed with their new water babes!

Bring in the Animals

Animals can also be part of SI camp experiences. Therapeutic Horseback Riding is offered by SI Challenge in Texas. Targeted for riders with differing sensory issues in touch, smell, taste, hearing, and/or seeing, this camp combines a therapeutic riding camp with a SI therapy program. Other camps offer opportunities to hold guinea pigs, reptiles or a warm, newly hatched egg.

Get the Whole Family Involved

While most camps are for children alone, others like the weekend camps run by SI Challenge are for the entire family. Set in the beautiful Texas hill country, they provide parental education, therapeutic group and individualized treatment for children, respite and a fun-filled family vacation for everyone. The Center for Creative Play in Pittsburgh, PA offers families a different weekly camp experience in their fully accessible indoor play environment. Their Sensory Adventure Camp allows children of all abilities to explore a variety of sensory challenge stations based on a weekly theme. Parents and volunteers provide support along the way.


The price tag for SI camps is about $500/week; some offer financial aid. Your child‘s school system may be willing to foot the bill as part of the Extended School Year (ESY) program. Some of the camp costs may be covered by medical insurance as therapy sessions, since occupational and physical therapists often provide traditional one-on-one services within the many group activities. Any out-of- pocket expenses are tax deductible as expenses for a child with special needs.

What should your child with sensory issues do this summer? Why not work with your OT or PT to create a SI camp in your neighborhood? Everyone will benefit!

Ingrid Kanics is the Vice President of Play Environments at the Center for Creative Play in Pittsburgh, PA. She helps communities across the country create similar play environments so all children can play.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 9, Number 2 - Winter, 2003-2004]

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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