The Benefits of Summer Camp for Kids With Learning Differences
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Why summer camp has lasting benefits for neurodivergent kids

Summer camp has become a tradition for many kids. But does summer camp work for kids who learn differently? How do you find the right camp that can support your child’s needs? Will your child make friends?

In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra get answers from the ultimate expert: a camp director. Audrey Monke has been running a summer camp for 37 years. She’s also the author of Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults.

Hear Audrey’s advice on summer camp — from how to choose one to what to tell camps about your child. Learn how camps help kids develop social skills, build relationships, and gain independence. Plus, Audrey shares tips on how to bring the magic of summer camp into your home.

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Episode transcript

Amanda: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It." On this podcast, we offer perspective, stories, and advice for and from people who have challenges with reading, math, focus, and other types of learning differences. We talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids. I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership for Understood, and I'm a parent to kids who learn differently.

Gretchen: And I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. And today we're talking about summer camp.

Amanda: Sending kids to summer camp and especially overnight camp can be kind of daunting, especially for parents of kids who are neurodivergent. So how do you find the right camp?

Gretchen: And what if the camp can't meet the needs of your child?

Amanda: And is it really worth it to send them off when it could be so much easier, probably cheaper, and certainly less nerve-racking to keep them at home or with a caregiver nearby?

Gretchen: With us today to get into all of this is Audrey Monke.

Amanda: Audrey is the host of the Sunshine Parenting Podcast and the author of "Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults."

Gretchen: In her book, she shares the many insights she's gained — as a researcher and as a camp director for 37 years — on how we at home can help our kids develop social skills and become happy, healthy, independent, and responsible.

Amanda: Audrey, welcome to "In It."

Audrey: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

Gretchen: We are so happy to have you here.

Amanda: So my big question for you before we get into the nitty-gritty of this is what's great about summer camp and what does it have to offer that we can't give kids through other kinds of experiences?

Audrey: The unique contribution and this is, you know, there hasn't been well, there's been some research on summer camps, but recently there's been a lot more out of the University of Utah. They did a longitudinal study retrospectively asking people "What is it that your camp experiences contributed to your development?" And the number one thing that came out from everything was relationship skills. Relational skills and the actual relationships and friendships that are formed. And I think a lot of people could say, oh, well, kids form relationships everywhere — on their sports teams and at school.

But the unique thing about camp is that for traditional camps, so ones that aren't focused on a specific like soccer camp or something like that, our main focus is on the community, the friendships, the social-emotional skills. So we are not at all concerned with how a kid is doing in math or how they're doing dribbling a soccer ball. Our focus and what our counselors and what we are trained and working on all the time is the relationship stuff, the connection, and the fun. So it's a unique thing in that way in that our goal, we sit down and we talk about what we're doing. Our goals for our campers at my camp are to have fun, make friends, and grow.

Amanda: I think you just explained something that I didn't understand about my own childhood, to be honest. I went to summer camp every summer from the time I was 8, and I went to overnight camp. And all year long I looked forward to going to summer camp. It was like I missed it throughout the year. And it didn't even occur to me till now that that's where I felt most comfortable. Do you think the same bonds are built through overnight and day camps?

Audrey: I definitely think they can be. It just depends on the program and what the focus is. So I would just say find out what the goals and philosophy are of the program. There are some phenomenal day camp programs that are very focused on building community and the friendships, skills, and all the social-emotional stuff. I have a special affinity for the overnight experience because of the immersion piece of it and the independent piece of it. I think it's pretty magical thing for young kids to have this time away from parents to really discover themselves. You talked about feeling like you loved your camp and you felt at home there. We hear that a lot from campers. We hear that they feel like they can be their best self at camp. And I think part of that is as we're so well-meaning as parents, we love our kids, and we want to be there with them for everything they do because it's so fun to watch them learn new things and all this.

But a lot of the growth that our kids will experience in life happens away from us. You know that look that even little kids, well, you know, they're about to do something new and they turn around to look to see what they're — what the expression is. Is this safe? Should I try this? And even when we're not trying, our expression sometime is like, oh my gosh, that looks scary. I don't know if I want to do that. So there's just this part. And it's not just camp, it's also allowing our kids with other mentors and adults and clubs letting them grow their wings sometimes without us. So that's another just aspect of this, it's a lot of people don't even consider sending their kids to overnight camp. It's just way too scary, daunting. You know, they just aren't comfortable with it, because that's letting other people be in charge of your children. And it is, it's a huge trust leap. But what parents see after their child comes home is this growth and this confidence and maturity that is because they weren't there with them.

Gretchen: So that's such a good point. And I think what you're saying is definitely going to help some families take that leap of faith and send their kids to overnight camp. But I'm wondering about the families in our community, the families with kids who learn differently. They're probably a little worried about sending their kids off to camp because the camp just might not get them, or the camp might not be able to support them. So I'm wondering what you can say to help us feel more comfortable sending our kids off to camp?

Audrey: I mean, I'm not going to say "Feel comfortable sending your kid anywhere." Because I don't. I don't. I think that if it's there, if you've done the research, so I would get references from other families with maybe kids with similar things going on, just to see how the camp was. I would really, really say, talk to the camp, talk to the camp directors, talk to whoever's in charge of placing kids, all of that. I think sometimes parents think, well, I don't really want to tell the school or the camp that my child has this issue or this thing going on because I don't want them to be labeled or treated differently or anything like that. What we see from our perspective is it's a big gift to us to get the information ahead of time because then we know, oh, OK, well, we have this counselor who's really experienced — has worked with these other kids. This could be a really successful group for this camper. We also can get insight from parents about what tools work if a child needs a break. What do you do at home that has been most successful? Is it you have a calm corner or do they like to go for a walk? Or what is it that you've — the tools that you've worked with your child to come up with? You know, if we're only going to have your child with us for a couple weeks, knowing ahead of time and not having to figure that out for the first week. And I will say that over my years, I've had the mix of both.

We've had people who send us all this information and it'll be all about their child and what they're working with them. And we always tell counselors, hey, the parents who fill out that really detailed information? That kid's going to arrive and he's going to — he or she is going to be awesome because this parent has been working with the child they have, you know, they're using a lot of tools. It's the kids that have you have no information for that often end up being for us the most to have the most challenging behaviors because no one told us anything ahead of time. And then they get to camp. And of course, we've worked with a lot of kids and we'll say, you know, seems like there's something going on with this child. And so then we're calling the parent and saying does this ever happen at school? And then the parent's like, oh yeah, I forgot to tell you.

Amanda: It's interesting, and that was actually one of the questions I was going to ask you is about whether or not you recommend parents letting the camp know in advance. And I actually was going to ask you the difference between letting a camp know about what your child's needs are versus what their diagnosis is. Do you think there's a difference there?

Audrey: Absolutely. And actually, what we tell our parents to do is on the form that's for the counselor, it's needs. So, yeah, my child needs to be reminded to drink water. Or sometimes when they get tired, this is what you'll see. They need a nap or whatever that might be. So we encourage parents to not put diagnoses or medications on the counselor information. But then for the nurses and the health staff, of course, if they're taking some kind of medication or need something like that, no alarms are going to go off if someone did put on the counselor form. But we do exactly what you suggested, Amanda, which is what we want to know is what does your child need from their counselor, from the experience, what are tips that will help us be successful and help your child be successful at our camp. But then do make sure that whoever needs the medical piece has that as well.

Gretchen: So that approach — the two separate forms — it seems like a really good indicator that a camp has thought about these things and really thought thoroughly about them. So what are some other signs that a camp could be a supportive place for your kid, or maybe not such a good place for your kid?

Audrey: I would actually recommend, I would call and say, this is what's going on with my child. Tell me about if you've had other children with these similar situations. How has it worked in the past? One of the questions that's really important is the ratio of counselors to campers. And that's something that we know to ask parents as well. Like our camp is, I guess you would call it a mainstream camp. It's for all kids. We do have kids coming to us with lots of different things going on, but it's not like we have specialists for kids, right? So one of the things we ask is how does your child do in a group of 10 kids with one adult? If that is the situation that you've seen your child be successful with in the past — following directions, staying with the group, able to modulate, whatever.

Or, I mean, we have had cases where a child needs more attention and supervision, so then it's talking to the camp. Is there a way of getting an extra helper? Is that something that you can work with the camp? I mean, we've done all kinds of things to try to, you know, just make that experience successful. But I would ask that ratio, the staff training, and the camp's experience with working with neurodivergent kids. What do you do differently, or how do you make sure that this child is successful? I would say from my experience, a lot of my social skills, materials and activities really come from the work of people who work with kids who are on the autism spectrum, because they do such a good job of really clarifying what the steps are in like meeting a new person. So we use this stuff with all of our campers, so we really make it very accessible for like, we have kids as young as 6. So it's like it's for everybody.

So I would just check with them about practices that they do. We all know that more demo time versus making kids sit and listen to instructions is better for all kids. Right? So like, if you're learning how to canoe, it's so much better to show them, get a paddle in their hand, have them practice, so that you're not just having them sit and talk about canoeing. So I would just say, what are your what are your practices that help for kids who maybe have attention, you know, issues? Or, you know, how do you how do you accommodate for that? And I think a lot of camps have learned that that's kind of how you're successful with all kids, right?

Amanda: I love that you say that. I'm grinning. Gretchen's grinning. Because we are all about the "what helps kids who learn differently helps all kids" — it just makes so much sense. You know, you described your camp as a mainstream camp, but what I'm hearing is you're just an inclusive camp. And I think that's beautiful.

Gretchen: So earlier you talked about the goals of summer camp, or at least the traditional type of summer camp we're talking about. How they're different from school, because the focus is on building relationship skills, about forming friendships and having fun, which of course I love and kids love. So can you talk a little bit about how that focus might be especially powerful for kids who learn differently?

Audrey: Well, there's a couple things that come to mind. One is, I just want to say, just given this time we're in right now. I would say that we're seeing deficits in almost all kids socially. So I think neurodivergent kids are more like other kids because I think there's more struggle going on with kids. At least what we saw last summer. And I think a lot of teachers are seeing this less maturity socially, just things like that. What really for us, it's all about is practices that we do. We do a lot of things that require kids to share and listen. So that's just a small example. So you're in your group and the kids learn, and sometimes the first couple of days, it's hard for them right to listen or to share or either one.

But they get a lot of practice at this, and it's really simple things. It might be that the counselor has them share their highlight of the day and their low of the day, a really common thing that a lot of families do. It might be that they have a question that they all answer. But whatever it is, everyone's practicing the skill of sharing with the small group and listening then. And we'll talk about things like, you know, when Sammy is sharing, be sure you're giving him your full attention, like looking at him, and listening, and your mouth is closed. You can say uh-huh, or you can say —. So we really are very clear about something like that. I think that common language and again, just normalizing all of this is really important. I think that's something that I think adults, we didn't, I don't remember anyone ever talking to me about these things, what I was when I was young.

Amanda: And I love that. And I'm wondering, too. So there are going to be kids who have things that are normal for them at home, things that are typical for them at home, that they may worry about when they go to camp. So kids who have trouble sleeping, or kids who have sensory issues, or kids who, you know, have fears that are a little more prevalent than with other kids. What questions can parents ask to reassure themselves that those are needs that are going to be taken into account when their child gets there?

Audrey: I would, as a parent, just ask. I would say, what do counselors do if a child is having trouble sleeping?

Amanda: Yeah, that seems simple.

Audrey: But you know, I mean, honestly, what you know, how do you respond with a child who has night terrors? What's the process for that, or sleepwalking? Because I know that I've been asked, you know, we've had this where there's different things. So again, those are things that I think you just specifically ask what would the process be? And that's another important thing to say. You know, sometimes my child has trouble sleeping. I will say at camp — it's funny, we have this conversation a lot. We had a conversation recently, actually around headphones for sleeping because we are totally unplugged camp. And so we have had a few kids who have to wean themselves off their headphones. And so, you know, we're working with the family and saying this is something important to practice before camp because you don't want them getting to camp and that being the first night without their headphones, if that's their thing that they're using. But also some things that we recognize is that a lot of kids have trouble the first couple of days at camp sleeping. It's very common. You know, you can ask the camp and ask them what their what their processes.

I definitely, for a residential camp, I think it's important to have more than one adult who's with the kids at night, because kids do wake up and need things and you need that. It's kind of like having two parents like you have. If one person has to get up and stay up with a homesick camper for a couple of hours in the middle of the night you want then, the next night, the other counselor to be on duty for the wake-up. So I would just ask about that. I will say kids get really tired into camp and have less trouble sleeping. So if your child goes to camp for two weeks and they have trouble sleeping at home, they might have a couple of nights of adjustment and then they may have the best sleep of their entire lives because they will be hiking around and super active and their bodies will be really busy. They'll be unplugged, which we know is also helpful for sleep, so they won't have the screens and that kind of light. At outdoor camps like ours, we don't have electricity. We live in tents and have campfire. So we're also very much like the whole camp is asleep. By 10 p.m., it feels like the middle of the night at my camp, like quiet hour starts at 9 and the oldest kids stay up till 10. But it is quiet because you know it gets dark. You know, it's like this nice rhythm of the day, and then the sun comes up and you wake up. And so. So, yeah.

Gretchen: Where is this, by the way?

Amanda: Can we get to go?

Audrey: I know, we always have people ask that.

Amanda: So, you know, it's interesting that I hear in your answer, too, is like don't overthink. Right? And as a parent, that was interesting to me because I realize I typically think my kids are a little unusual. And what you're saying is that's not unusual. Camps get these questions all the time. And that's a relief to me. Audrey, one thing I love about your book, "Happy Camper," is that it gives families advice on taking the lessons about social growth at summer camp and using them at home. And you know, we know not all families can send their kids to summer camp. And even if we can, it's just for a few weeks out of the year. So I am wondering if you could give us a few of your favorite summer camp tips to use at home.

Audrey: Good idea. Well, I will just say, OK, I guess one that I really especially love, it's kind of close to my heart is, we really focus at camp on focusing on kids strengths and things that are going well and being positive. So we do something at camp called wows, which is kids and staff can put a little note about something that someone did that was kind or helpful. And we have this big wow board and it gets filled up every day with notes about different people. And then they all get taken down before our assembly, and a few of them are read aloud and then all of them are distributed to people's mail. And it's really, really sweet, some of the notes that happen.

And I know that's not realistic at home, but I will say that it's very powerful as a parent to just take a minute to think about something you really appreciate about your child. And especially when our children can be challenging and there's a lot of things that we're working with them on, sometimes we get kind of stuck in like all the things that they're not doing right. And we forget that, you know, they have this great sense of humor, or their energy just like makes the house more joyful, or whatever it is. So just writing a sticky note to your child and leaving it on the mirror, bathroom mirror, or their pillow, that can be really powerful and really meaningful, even if your child never says anything about it. So that's something that I often tell parents. It's a really positive connection thing.

The other thing and it's super simple, but like part of our counselors' job description is doing a one-on-one check-in with each child. And this is not like a sit-down thing. It's just we're walking to activity I'm going to say hi, you know, I'm going to check in with this camper and say, so you know, what's going well today? And who are you feeling like you're getting closer with as a friend? And what are you most looking forward to, and how can I help you have more fun? So it's the eyeball-to-eyeball or side-by-side checking in where you're giving them your full attention. And I say this to parents, because I think a lot of times as parents, we spend a lot of time with our kids, but often we're distracted, even if it's just in our brain. We're thinking about, oh gosh, I'm so behind on this email or I forgot to pay the taxes or whatever it is.

So I always just encourage parents to think like those camp counselors. And if you have three kids, think about every day, if it's even just two minutes that you just kind of clear your brain, you set your phone aside, and you're just with that child. And just whether it's talking to them or letting them tell you a story, whatever, it's that one-on-one focused attention and it works with spouses I think, too. Like being a little more attentive.

Gretchen: Sticky notes, too?

Audrey: Yeah, seriously, yeah. No, I do think, I just, it's kind of sad when you think about like how what we all need is human connection. And yet our lifestyles and the distraction actually are making us more lonely and disconnected from each other. So any practices that we can do that are just connecting. So, yeah, so I'd say those kinds of practices are some of my favorites.

Gretchen: Nice. So, Audrey, I feel like we've asked you a lot of questions. Is there anything that we didn't get to that we should talk about?

Audrey: I guess the only, I mean, something that you were saying, and I think just for parents, I often have to remind parents that our kids — we need to be comfortable with our kids' discomfort. Because any experience, including summer camp, will hopefully be mostly really positive. But even at whatever camp, there are going to be moments of discomfort, of unhappiness, of whatever it might be. But we all need to remember that those are how our children grow. So I think that's something that I've had to come to terms with my own kids.

You know, it's really hard as a parent watching your child go through something or have to struggle through. But when they come out the other end, they have such a sense of confidence. So I think that's part of it and I think especially parents with — and I would just say like we have, you know, we have neurodivergent kids, but you also have kids with severe allergies, and you have kids with medical, diabetes, or different things. And all of those things, if you just put them all together as a parent, you tend to worry more, right? So you're more worried about them going into a new situation. But all parents are worried, too. So like, even if they don't have that. So I think that part of it is this mindset of and being realistic with your child, too. So not saying "this is going to be so fun every single day."

Gretchen: Right? That's important.

Audrey: Yeah. Realistic. And just saying, you know what? This is going to be really a fun adventure. But just so, you know, like I went to camp when I was little and I really missed home, and it took a while to adjust the first couple of days. And you know, at this camp, there are some people you can talk to if you if you need something. That's another piece that I just wanted to make sure you get to, is find out from the camp, so who does — who is my child's person? They go to their counselor if they need some additional support. Who is that person? I think that's a really important thing that camps need to communicate really clearly to the kids, to the parents, like just how it works. Who's the support network?

Usually, the people with the kids are near-peers, so they might be college students. And that's a really magical thing to have someone who's just like, you know, cool and 20, who's in charge. And kids will grow and learn a lot because they're looking up to this person. And if they're going to try sailing, I'll try it. But they're also 20, so they're not going to necessarily know how to help a child who's flipping their lid five times in a day. They need to get support from someone else. So, I think that's the other piece, too. I think as a parent, you can feel comfortable once you feel comfortable with the structure and the support that your child is going to have. So, I would just familiarize yourself with that. And a lot of times it's very clearly written out on the website or it's in orientation that they cover.

But I would try to really kind of let go a little bit in terms of the constant worry and be thinking, I've picked this program because I've vetted it. And if I get a sad letter from my child, I'll call them and I'll ask them about it. But I'm going to try to refrain from freaking out, because they told me I might get this letter.

Amanda: Thank you so much for joining us and sharing all of this information. It was a joy to have you.

Gretchen: It really was.

Audrey: Well, thanks so much for having me. It was great talking to both of you.

Gretchen: Audrey's book is called "Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults."

Amanda: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Gretchen: This show is for you, so we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from our listeners.

Amanda: If you want to learn more about the topics we cover today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Gretchen: Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Andrew Lee is our editorial lead, and Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Ericco wrote our theme music. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. And Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Gretchen: Thanks for listening and for always being in it with us.

 

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Hosts

  • Amanda Morin

    is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.

    • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

      is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

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