What makes a supportive summer camp?
As a museum educator I have had many experiences working in museum run as well as independent summer camps. People with disabilities account for about 25% of the population and the rate of autism, as measured by the CDC in 2014, is 1 in 59. So whether or not a camp is marketed for kids with disabilities, you can be assured some will be at camp.
Here are some tips to help make summer camp the best experience for everyone.
Often camps will arrange groups to fit the schedule and sometimes this can mean a group may have a lot of difficult activities before a fun one. By having the difficult activity first, a group will be put in a bad mood, and may have trouble transitioning to or enjoying the following fun activity. Make sure there is a consistent, low stakes activity before the difficult one, and prepare kiddos with a written or visual schedule as well as going over it verbally.
Rules and expectations.
Norms, Museum Manners, Rules.
There are many names, but the need to set expectations and consistently follow up is always important. Have a few rules in mind that are essential to the camp, such as physical safety concerns, but work with campers to establish rules together. This gives the campers some agency, helps bond the group, and introduces the museum educators to the phrases that might work best for campers. Avoid vague concepts like “respect each other” unless followed by explicit descriptions such as, “show respect by using nice words, listening when others talk, sharing materials, and giving personal space.” It is also important to explain why the rules are in place, and what happens if rules are broken.
Communicating behavioral issues.
It takes a bit more effort and time to collaborate between groups, but this could critically improve the experience for all campers. For example, if camper A is teasing camper B, and then they are assigned to sit next to each other in the next session by a new educator, there will likely be a fight. On the positive side, maybe one educator noticed camper C loves drawing and this information could really help during a tricky group work section. Also, inconsistent rules between different adults can be very unsettling. A good practice is to give all staff the same training about protocols and norms, and provide relevant information about students’ needs prior to camp. For example, a questionnaire for parents about what kids excel at and what they are working on can help educators scaffold and support students from the first day, rather than having educators try to guess and learn on the fly. This information about campers helps educators best support all students by preparing a setting that proactively addresses potential issues. Planned debriefing time or a potential to share notes about campers between different parts of the camp are also critical for ensuring all around support.
Assistance from a co-educator.
Particularly in the first days or week, having assistance from another trained museum staff member is very useful. There could be a lot of behavioral issues in groups that require one on one intervention: pulling aside and analysing the behaviors and rules, or even helping explain something a kiddo missed while the educator is already on the next step etc. Un-prepared staff might not have the experience or confidence in protocol to know when or what to say to kids acting out, and there isn’t any time to go through role play or training in the moment. If an extra body isn’t available, a staff member on call via radio would help to address the need for an extra hand.
Quiet Room or corner.
It is always good for there to be a space where kids could take a break when needed. This is becoming more common in general classroom settings as well. Have a rug or taped off space in a corner of the classroom where kids could take a break if necessary and still be observed by the museum educator.
Make things fun.
This is for camp, right? Try to make things fun and age appropriate. Allow free play time if possible and teach campers songs or games as well as museum-y content. Create a camp name with your group and draw a banner for it.
Do you have camp experience you’d like to share? How do you feel about these tips? What works, what doesn’t?