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  • Writer's pictureChristine Shifflett

Preparing a Child with Medical Challenges for Summer Camp

“If we want kindness, humility, gratitude, and appreciation of beauty—the character strengths that positive psychology research has suggested lead to authentic happiness—then we need to recognize what engenders those qualities. It’s not a vacation. It’s camp. Camp with just the right amount of rain, sun, competition, cooperation, novelty, traditions, creativity, ritual, success, and disappointment to spice things up.”

–Dr. Chris Thurber (Board-certified clinical psychologist, author, consultant and father)

For families with children with medical needs, it can be tough to figure out the best choice for summer activities. Parents must consider a multitude of factors: access to medical care, proper training of staff, duration of stay and potential risks, just to name a few. Summer camp can be a great option for kids with medical challenges. It provides a structured environment to address any potential needs while also giving kids room to grow and form bonds with fellow campers.

Why camp?

Because we want kids to have amazing childhood memories. Because we want children to develop life skills. Because we want kids to have fun. Because we want children to develop grit.

According to Shimi K Kang, MD, there are three things necessary for well-being and self-motivation: play, connection to others, and downtime. Play because it helps develop critical thinking and adaptability and is a valuable social teacher; connection to others because social bonding is an important antidote for loneliness—which is a health risk; downtime because it is during downtime that we assimilate memories, process our morality, increase our attention span and contemplate our futures. All three of these are powerful and can be facilitated through camp experiences.

Let me share a few reasons why summer camp should make the short list for your child’s summer activities:

  1. Camp grows independence and grit. Your child will develop skills like self-confidence, kindness, and how to take risks safely. Campers learn to use freedom wisely. Discovering you are capable is a powerful life lesson!

  2. Camp is a community of belonging. Your child will be part of something important and learn to be his/her best self. Camp traditions create a sense of “being in it together” that teaches inclusion and acceptance of others. It also helps campers see what the world could be like if everyone were working to accept others.

  3. Camp builds relationships. Your child will learn to work together with others and collaborate.S/he will navigate social situations to figure out what works well to strengthen relationships. Friendships at camp develop more deeply than anywhere else. Forming bonds with adults who are not family or teachers gives your child opportunities to learn effective ways to interact with adults.

  4. Camp reignites a sense of awe and wonder. Your child will discover a world outside of technology. S/he will discover skills and abilities previously unknown.

Maggie Janes Tancred, a former camper and contributor at The Mother Co., says, “I can honestly say that camp helped shape me in to the person I am today. Camp made me kinder, funnier, smarter, stronger, more independent and most of all a really happy well-rounded person.”

Is my child ready for a camp experience?

A few things to think about as you decide…

  • Is my child able to stay overnight with family or friends without tears and anxiety?

  • Does my child willingly ask for help from adults other than me?

  • Will my child eat food other than what we cook at home?

  • Does my child warm up to new situations and new people?

  • Will my child try new things if I am not there?

  • Is my child able to take care of personal needs—bathing, toileting, keeping track of belongings, etc?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, your child will likely do well at camp. If there are a few challenges, think about whether your child needs some other experience first or whether camp might help build the desired independence.

Helping your child get ready for a camp experience:

Involve your child in the process from start to finish—this provides a more positive experience. Try to:

  • Encourage your child to talk about his/her feelings about going away.

  • Communicate confidence in your child’s ability to be away from home.

  • Help your child understand a realistic view of camp. Camp—like life—has highs and lows. Not every minute will be wonderful. Discuss what ups and downs s/he may experience. Brainstorm what actions to take during downs.

  • Plan sleepovers well ahead of summer. Let your child pack his/her own bag. Practice not having direct contact while they are gone.

  • Pack postcards: addressed & stamped so letters home are easy to write.

  • Practice taking a break from technology and make that a positive thing. Help them write a statement for their social media pages (“Peace out FB. I won’t be sharing my day-to-day, I will be at camp!”)

  • Homesickness isn’t a sickness and it isn’t bad. It’s great to love your home and your family. Missing home is natural and common. Make a plan. Don’t promise to pick up your child. Instill confidence in his/her ability to handle it. Make a happy place plan (take 10 deep breaths, find a happy place in your mind, packing a comforting stuffed animal or blanket, taking a walk, talking to his/her counselor).

  • Make sure your child has what s/he needs at camp.Double check the camp packing list. Contact the camp if there is something you cannot send—they may be able to provide it.

Helping you get ready for a camp experience:

  • Know that you are giving your child an incredible gift. No one can promise they will love every single minute. You are giving them the freedom to gain independence, confidence and life skills; you are giving the opportunity to learn they can accomplish goals and overcome challenges; you are preparing them for life.

  • How will you fill your time? Read a book, have one-to-one time with your other children, catch up with friends . . .

  • If you are apprehensive, work through it before the time to go to camp. If you are worried about your child’s medical needs, contact the camp and speak to the medical staff. If you are worried your child will be teased, contact the camp staff and talk through your concerns. If you think you may be camp-sick for your child, make a plan with a trusted friend. Share any anxiety with this friend. Make sure your child only sees optimism and excitement from you.

Finding a Camp

There are camps to meet many needs. The options are plentiful: residential camp, day camp, family camp, specialty camps, special needs camps, etc. As you think about choosing a camp, remember to include your child in the process. Explore options together and look at websites to find photos, descriptions and virtual tours of camps you are interested in.

The American Camp Association (ACA) is a wonderful resource for you as you look for a camp experience for your child. Check out this article for many tips and lots of information (including questions to ask as during your search, answers to questions your child may have and packing tips):


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