Fun for Every Child: The Steps Summer Camps are Taking to Be More Inclusive

Each year, summer camps take thousands of kids on an incredible adventure, where they can explore the great outdoors and make both friends and memories that will last a lifetime.

Unfortunately, the camp experiences that many of us parents remember fondly often don’t look the same to campers who felt the pain of exclusion. Because of a disability, they may have been left out of traditional camp activities like swimming, hiking and archery simply because basic accommodations weren’t made available.

The good news for our own kids is that today’s summer camps have embraced inclusivity by breaking down barriers to ensure accessibility for all and respecting the different needs of each individual camper. According to the American Camp Association, for instance, diversity, equity and inclusion are at the core of its strategic plan moving forward.

When camps are more inclusive, it benefits every child ready for summer fun. “Inclusivity allows for meaningful participation and social connection to others – key components to summer camps,” said Katelyn Brieden, inclusion specialist for Parkway-Rockwood Community Education. “It sets the foundation for a sense of belonging, acceptance and tolerance amongst peers.”

Giving every child the chance to play

Through her role at Parkway-Rockwood Community Education, which hosts a broad range of programs and experiences for youth, families and adults, Brieden helps identify accommodations for those wanting to participate. With summer on the horizon, she is also working closely with Community Ed camp staff to educate them on topics of inclusion, work through specific activity modifications, and offer assistance to those who are supporting campers with differing needs.

Through her efforts, Brieden is striving to erase the stereotypes that have prevented many camps across the country from transforming good intentions into actionable steps that truly provide an inclusive camp experience.

“We want to avoid rigid thinking patterns and stigmas,” she remarked. “We want to look at each individual as a person first and strive to create opportunities where they can be successful and have fun in our programs.”

Katelyn Brieden, inclusion specialist for Parkway-Rockwood Community Education

Brieden explained that camps must meet each participant’s needs from the get-go by talking with families at registration and asking the right questions in order to build rapport and determine the best ways to support their child. Community Ed’s camp programs take a collaborative approach to provide accommodations with Brieden taking the lead. She works one-on-one with parents to discuss supports, and goes out to sites to help support campers in whatever capacity she can.

In addition, Brieden stressed that camp directors and staff across the board need to embrace both structure and flexibility when it comes to the needs of each child.

For instance, camp staff may need to lower the noise level on certain games for children with sensory processing disorder or provide different tools during arts and crafts time if a child struggles with fine motor skills. A child with autism who thrives in the swimming pool may be allowed to stay in the water for an extra session instead of heading out hiking with the kids in their group.

“At the participation level, it’s about teaching staff to learn to be adaptive and flexible to meet the needs of the participant – as not everything goes according to plan. Maybe that looks like modifying an activity or making a schedule change to do a preferred activity over a non-preferred activity – especially during the summer.”

Finding the right fit for your camper

Community Ed is currently registering kids for more than 200 youth camp and sports programs this summer and offers both in-person and online activities to anyone in the metro area. Kids can choose from a world of full- and half-day adventures, including Diving Camp, Theatre Skills Workshops and All-Star Basketball Camps, just to name a few.

Parents of children with special needs can also feel comfortable knowing Community Ed offers a variety of camp options to make their kids feel welcome and included. Said Brieden, “I think that inclusion is an on-going effort and development into recreational and educational programs. There is a need and want for more inclusive programming opportunities, but I also think that this comes with comfort levels and finding a place that is safe, reliable and understanding to those with differing needs. My hope is that we can put our name out there and let families know that we are welcoming to participants with all abilities. We want to be that resource.”

Parents and kids can search through the Community Ed Summer 2021 Program Guide, which is available now through the Community Ed website. Families who would like to learn more about accommodations are invited to contact Brieden at 636-891-6644.

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Metro East mom Nicole Plegge is the lifestyle and pop culture blogger for STL Parent. Besides working as a freelance writer & public relations specialist, and raising two daughters and a husband, Nicole's greatest achievements are finding her misplaced car keys each day and managing to leave the house in a stain-free shirt. Her biggest regret is never being accepted to the Eastland School for Girls. Follow Nicole on Twitter @STLWriterinIL 

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