Over the past several weeks parents have begun to ask me about my thoughts on summer camps for their child My answer often surprises them because it seems counterintuitive to what most professionals and educators would suggest.
If your child is attending a day camp I believe the goal is for your child to come home really tired each day. If they’re not than the camp program may be too sedentary or they may not encourage your son to participate in enough physical activities. I find that the kids whom I work with that attend day camps have are highly structured and have a a lot of physical activity (including swim twice a day) can often be successful despite the fact they may sometimes struggle socially with their similar-age peers.
There are cases where I find that as long as the camper is not having any behavior issues the camp will essentially leave them alone and allow them to sit out of activities for as much as they’d like. I don’t consider the child to be successful in that situation, rather they are simply being maintained.
I believe there are 3 components that are important for kids with ADHD to have a successful summer camp experience:
- The camp offers swimming, and campers swim least once per day. I tell parents that if a camp does not offer swimming, I would not recommend them.
- The camp has ample physical activity. (This does not need to be organized sports.)
- The level of physical activity is age-appropriate and not designed for kids with more significant challenges than ADHD.
- The camp does not offer screen-based activities or provide campers access to screen-based devices for more than 30 minutes per day.
Overnight Camps/Travel Camps
As someone who spent most of his summers at overnight camp and now directs a summer travel camp I believe overnight and travel camps are a great experience for kids with ADHD as they can provide opportunities to cultivate independence, develop social executive functioning skills and mature as a result of their experience.
When parents are interested in overnight/travel camps I encourage them to ask these questions:
- To what extent does the camp allow unstructured time. While I strongly support kids with ADHD having unstructured time as this helps build executive functioning I find that some overnight camps have a “lazy day” or a day of the week where there are few structured activities. This can be problematic for many kids with ADHD.
- If a child needs a “sensory break” so they can calm/quiet down how does that look at camp.
- Who will be the child’s “point person” if they’re struggling. I often find that at overnight camps there is a maternal figure who takes the role of dealing with campers with neurodevelopmental challenges. While this is fine, the issue I’ve seen is that it often becomes an escape for the child rather than a way to learn how manage themselves and problem solve independently. I find that the best overnight camps have people in support positions such as a Camp Guidance Counselor, Social Worker, etc.
There are two types of camps I do not recommend for kids with ADHD:
- “Social Skills” Camps: In my experience, most social skills camps tend to be too sedentary for kids with ADHD and most do not provide swimming. The physical activity they do provide is often designed for campers with more significant challenges. Furthermore, most social skills camps are really designed for campers with autism but accept kids with ADHD. In my experience grouping kids with ADHD and Asperger’s/higher-verbal autism together often does not lead to a cohesive group as kids on the spectrum often have difficulty understanding and getting along with kids with ADHD. The kids whom I work with who have attended social skills camps have found them to be too sedentary and the social skills instruction is often not applicable to their social learning needs.
- Screen-Based Activity Camps (Coding Camps, Minecraft Camps, Video Game Design Camps) etc.. While these camps have activities that appeal to kids who prefer screens to physical activity I do not recommend them because I believe that engaging with screens is not a way to develop social or executive functioning skills. Many screen-based camps often do not offer swimming or ample physical activity nor do they help kids learn how to effectively play or “hang out” with a group without the use of screen based devices.
I also think it’s important to keep in perspective that just because a camp markets themselves as an “ADHD Camp” or “social skills camp” does it mean they necessarily provide a better summer experience for kids with ADHD. Throughout the years I’ve known many kids with ADHD who have done beautifully at mainstream camps (and a fair amount who have not). I’ve also known kids who did not have a successful experience at ADHD or social skills camps, mainly because they were amongst a peer group who had more significant needs or they were bored by the lack of physical activity.
Parents often rely on other parents to make decisions about summer camp and I always recommend that parents have a list of questions, specific to their child that they can ask a Camp Director so they can make an educated decision rather than just relying on word of mouth recommendations.
Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the Director of Center for ADHD/Ride the Wave Counseling located in Bryn Mawr, PA/Linwood, NJ and Summer Trip Camp located in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Summer Trip Camp is a day/overnight travel camp for boys ages 11-15 who need help improving their executive functioning, social and independent skills.