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Shaking Up the Status Quo: Improving Summer Camp for Neurodiverse Kids

Behind the scenes of the Bearfoot OT Summer Camp in San Francisco.


When school lets out for the year, many Bay Area families look forward to the adventure, friendship, and fun of summer camp. 


However, the social demands and free-for-all of many typical summer camps can feel like torture for kids who struggle socially or have sensory needs.



Wondering what might be a mismatch for your neurodiverse child at typical summer camp?


  • Activities they don't feel confident doing (or don’t like)

  • Sensory or social needs that don’t match with the bigger group

  • Overwhelming social dynamics 

  • Needing more individual attention to feel regulated


That makes finding the right summer camp more difficult for caregivers of neurodiverse kids who might think, learn, and relate to others differently (and when we say differently, we mean awesome-ly - there's nothing wrong with your kid!). 


Whether your child has autism, ADHD, anxiety, sensory processing differences – or just needs a small group to thrive and connect socially – the gap between your child’s capacity, wants and needs and the demands of a "typical" camp can feel like a BIG one. 


Here’s what we know: with the right adjustments and staff support, your child can have a fun, memorable camp experience while growing their skills by leaps and bounds! Let us introduce you to the Bearfoot OT way of doing summer day camp for neurodiverse kids. 


We offer all the big fun and memories of outdoor summer camp with added finesse and attention for kids who need different types of support than what's offered in a typical camp. Keep reading to see how we do this. Plus, learn what to look for in a day camp for your neurodiverse child. This includes staff expertise, schedule, skill development, individual attention, and level of communication with you (the parent!). 


Beyond the Ordinary Camp Counselor


The first thing you need to consider when selecting a camp is who is the staff and how many kids will each staff member be responsible for.


Stop and think for a minute about the typical camp. 


With their youthful energy and free summer breaks, high school and college students are the go-to staffing solution for most summer camps. However, they aren’t always equipped with the knowledge or experience to support kids who might need something besides a quick intro before being thrown into the day.



Additionally, groups in a typical summer camp are HUGE. Making each camp counselor responsible for a lot of kids. Sadly, some kids are in danger of getting overlooked or lost in the shuffle with that kind of ratio. 


Compare this to the training and knowledge of the staff at Bearfoot Summer Camp.


Not to brag, but at the core, it’s our camp staff of nature-loving occupational therapy providers that really make the Bearfoot Summer Camp a different experience for neurodiverse kids. 


Each camp group is led by a trained and experienced occupational therapy practitioner who deeply understands childhood development and neurodiversity. We’re not jumping into working with kids for the summer — we work with kids outdoors all year round! This means each member of our staff is a magical combination of expertise, playfulness, and deep compassion.  


Then on top of our regular staff, we bring in extra support from occupational therapy graduate students who understand our campers and volunteers that are passionate about the OT field and pediatrics. With a max number of 6 kids per group, this keeps our adult-to-child ratio extremely low. We have a minimum of three adults for the 6 kid camp, but sometimes even have 4 or 5 adults to support! 


Our staff not only has the training to meet additional needs, but we also have the ability to actually move our campers toward their goals. 


A week of camp is a big, 20-hour dose of occupational therapy. This intentional time gives kids the time, focus, and repetition they need to see bigger results than just weekly sessions alone¹. That’s why summer camp is celebrated as a fun, intensive model of therapy for kids with neuro-differences¹﹐².


Camp Day Designed Around Neurodiverse Needs


Want to set kids up for success? Start with the daily routine. 


This is where most traditional camps miss the mark for kids before campers even arrive. Kids are expected to hop from activity to activity without having time to decompress or respond to sensory needs. 


Overall, there are some pretty big expectations about everyone being able to do the same craft, group, or nature activities. Or, kids are expected to direct themselves during wide open free time. 


In comparison, our daily schedule reflects a balance of structure and unstructured time. Plus, plenty of skill development tucked inside crafts, outdoor adventures, and group games


Elements of the Bearfoot OT Camp Day


Morning kick-off — We ease into the day with morning circle time by reviewing the schedule and everyone’s name. 


Group game — Fun games to help your child build gross motor and social emotional skills. 


Hike 


Snack time — Team building to get out and share a snack to fuel our bodies. 


Story time —  Books help us explore a social-emotional concept or provide inspiration for our project or activity. 


Project — We break out a craft or nature art that gets kids creative, problem-solving, and building fine motor skills. 


Supported free play —  Freedom for campers to choose how they play with facilitation as needed.


Hike


Lunch — Time to slow down and recharge over lunch.


Group game — A second dose of group games to build physical and social skills. 


Closing circle— This time of wrap-up helps campers transition and emotionally process their day at camp. 


children at summer camp in san francisco

It’s a big day but it has a wonderful balance of structured and free time to build a variety of skills. Plus, a mix of high activity and chill-out time. 


Personalized Attention to Meet Specific Needs


When deciding on a camp, consider if one of your concerns is your neurodiverse child getting lost in with the crowd. Or do they have unique preferences or goals that need a more custom approach?


Every child is unique, so we prioritize knowing each of our campers! 


This starts out with an intake process to fully understand your child and their goals before heading out into the woods.


With each camper’s goals in mind, we design activities and provide individual support to ensure a good experience and progress for each camper. 


Small groups and trained professionals mean we’re able to provide specific support and attention so no one gets left out or overlooked. 


Keeping Families in the Loop


With a typical summer camp, you’re likely not going to know much about what’s going on with your child during their day.


We’ve found better communication is the key to a successful and happy camp experience for everyone involved. 


After all, our intention with summer camp is to combine both fun and IMPACT so the benefit of camp makes a difference in daily life at home and other settings. To keep you in the loop about the camp experience, we’ve rolled out useful and convenient caregiver communication. 


This looks like: 


Daily Debrief Google Classroom Post

We use Google Classroom as a way to efficiently and effectively centralize communication. Quickly get a rundown of what skills we worked on and why those skills matter. You also get tips and strategies for home so that you know how to get the most out of gains from camp for the future. We also post photos and videos from the day so you can go through them with your kid to share about the day!


Individualized Video

This is where you get specific information about your child. We record a short 3-5 minutes video just for you that talks about how your child did that day and any specific details you need to know. 


Honestly, parents fall in love with these emails and videos. They provide a powerful way to show you both the fun and the victories your child has with us each day! 


Big Memories, Big Gains — San Francisco Summer Camp for Neurodiverse Kids


Whether you’re in the San Francisco area or elsewhere, hopefully, you gained some ideas on what to look for when it comes to finding the right summer day camp for your neurodiverse child.  


Ultimately, we want all kids to find places where they're celebrated and supported as they are — whether that’s inside Bearfoot or somewhere else. 


So ask yourself, does your child need a camp that is smaller, more supportive, and more tailored to their needs? 


If the answer is yes and you live in the Bay Area, check out Bearfoot OT Summer Camp. registration is open for summer camp 2024!




References


  1. Lewis, D. M. (2020). Occupational Therapy and Accessibility in the Outdoors and Summer Camps. [Doctoral project, University of St Augustine for Health Sciences]. SOAR @ USA: Student Capstone Projects Collection. https://doi.org/10.46409/sr.IMPZ5077

  2. Clark, M.K., & Nwokah, E.E. (2010). Play and Learning in Summer Camps for Children with Special Needs. American Journal of Play, 3, 238-261. 

  3. Ibrahim, A., & Cronin, K.A. (2020). The Impact of Summer Camp on Social Skills for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Education and Practice, 11, 129-137.

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