It is a sunny camper arrival day, and Simon and his mom present for check-in. Simon is giddy with excitement about the fun he will have during his first camp experience. Mom shares a few things with staff regarding the care and needs of Simon.

Simon needs:

  1. Someone to assist in him get¬ting dressed, especially to help with socks and shoes and make sure he does good oral care every morning.
  2. A modified gluten-free diet — mom wants him to have limited access to products containing wheat but is OK with foods containing barley and rye. She wants him to have salad or vegetables with his meals.
  3. A night light to go to sleep as he does not do well in the dark. He may also need to watch movies on his DVD player to help him get to sleep occasionally. Mom will leave his DVD player at camp.
  4. Someone to manage him when he has outbursts of anger. As an only child, Simon has not learned much about sharing and collaboration with others and will “loose it,” according to mom, if asked to do something against his will. He does not typically hit, but he has been known to throw things during these events.
  5. Access to a phone and the ability to call mom in the event he feels homesick.

Do any of these requests give you concern? For some of the requirements above, do you feel overwhelmed and maybe lack the skills, funding, or staff to accommodate the child? Are there things you may not be able to accomplish within your camp setting? What are those essential camper functions that are needed (or expected) in order to provide a positive camp experience?

The intent of this article is to help camp leadership and staff analyze, identify, and proactively share the essential functions of a child who wants to attend camp. In order to do this, camps must first:

  1. Identify the physical requirements for camp.
  2. Identify the behavioral requirements for camp.
  3. Correlate these requirements (physical, behavioral) with the camp structure and programmatic activities.

Physical Requirements

Each summer and throughout the year, camps offer a variety of activities and experiences to spur education, growth, and connectedness to others. Some camps have more vigorous physical requirements, such as basketball camps and sports-related adventures. Other camps may have a more relaxed physical demand, such as art camp or special needs camp. Screening children for basic physical functioning is helpful. Physical aspects of camp to consider might include:

  1. Does the camper need to be ambulatory?
  2. Does the camper need to be able to self-toilet and provide his or her own self-care?
  3. Does the camper need to have a certain aptitude in communication? What if the camper is nonverbal?
  4. Can the camper with Asperger’s participate in your basketball camp?
  5. Is the camper who wears a leg brace able to do the hiking expeditions as part of your camp experience?
  6. Is the camper with food allergies able to attend the all girls’ camp?
  7. What are the cognitive requirements of a camper? Can a child with developmental delay manage your camp experience?

There are innumerable questions that camp staff are asked each year regarding physical requirements for camp. The questions address mental functioning (i.e. developmental delay), heart and/or lung function (i.e. asthma), gastrointestinal disorders (i.e. hypoglycemia, food allergies), orthopedic challenges (i.e. cerebral palsy, casted broken leg, use of splints/braces), and many others. It seems crucial for lead¬ership to have a good understanding of the physical demands of camp and be able to share those proactively with parents and families prior to arrival.

Behavioral Requirements

What seems to be more challenging than essential physical function is the behavioral requirements. Campers of all ages are challenged by different envi¬ronmental influences and experiences and may react differently depending on their coping skills and learned behaviors from home, school, and neighborhood environments. If a child observes an angry parent react with strong verbal outbursts, they are most likely to “learn” this as normal behavior and respond in turn. If a child is bullied at school, they may find the opportunity to “be the bully” in a camp experience with other smaller campers. Positive experiences also help mold childhood behavior. The teacher who assists after a frustrating score on the math test or the after-school counselor who encourages self-determination and provides the tools to succeed can help to create positive coping strategies.

Many individuals have researched information regarding the behavioral aspects of children and implications related to making friends and social connections at camp. Lipof (2010) addressed issues related to self-esteem and that our response to situations in life and relationships are a reflection of how we see ourselves. How we see ourselves directly affects our ability to develop relationships with others. Arizala (2012) discussed challenging behaviors (i.e. freaking out, homesickness, power plays) and that we all make choices affecting how we relate with one another. Although we may not know a great deal about a child’s family, their home situation, or school performance, we need to be able to facilitate effective functioning in the camp setting and, hopefully, create connections with others. Thurber (2013) presents brilliant insight regarding the “dumb things” kids do and how much of our behavior is driven out of sheer curiosity. Sometimes that curiosity becomes genius, but this accidental learning can also lead to injury or death. Camp can be a breeding ground for curiosity and what we have learned over the years about childhood behavior is to “expect the unexpected.”

What does this mean for camp? What are the essential behavioral functions of a camper needed at your facility? Should a camper be able to do the following?

  1. Sleep in a room with six to eight other people or fall asleep without assistance. This may be a challenge for the only child, especially if this if the first time he or she is away from home for an extended period.
  2. Follow a structured schedule. This may be challenging for the ADHD camper.
  3. Follow verbal directions. If your camp is a “hands off” facility, how will you manage a child who has been physically manipulated by parents or guardians to do what they require at home?
  4. Self-manage frustrations or emotional outbursts. How do we promote positive coping skills in children?
  5. Understand camp rules regarding being safe, loved, and respected. A child from a dysfunctional home may not have an appropriate understanding of these terms, especially if they come from situations where they have been physically hit or assaulted because they are “loved.”

Unlike physical function, behavioral activities are a learned response and change over time. When someone has a physical alteration to their gait or ability to walk, we can often find ways to accommodate that challenge. Behavior is more complex in that we may not get the same response to an emotional encounter on different days. In one experience, a child might respond to bullying by retreating to a safe place and crying. On the next event, the child may lash out and strike at the individual causing him or her harm. Learning how to manage these evolutions in behavior and give staff “tools to tackle” them is often a continuous effort. Each camp should address the essential behavioral requirements for their facility in order to establish a baseline of understanding and provide a springboard for growth.

Camp Structure and Function

While there are many physical and behavioral needs of children, camp leadership must try to identify the essential camper functions needed to be successful in their facility. What are some of the questions that we need to consider when doing an analysis of the camp site and the camp structure to make determinations about essential physical function of children?

  1. Does the camp have many steps? Unpaved walkways?
  2. How much walking is required daily? Is it a large, hilly facility or a smaller organization on flat land?
  3. What are your sleeping accommodations, and is there opportunity to make adjustments to these arrangements?
  4. How is your nutritional program organized? Do you have the kitchen staff, funding, or ability to provide food alternatives?
  5. What does camp staffing include? Do you have flexibility in your camper-to-staff ratios?
  6. What training is provided to camp staff for behavioral challenges? Is this included in orientation?
  7. Are there accessible healthcare services? What level of care can you offer to camp participants?
  8. Is the camp program a structured or unstructured schedule? How might your schedule impact chil¬dren with attention deficit issues, heat intolerance, or developmental delays?

There are numerous questions that can be generated in each camp setting. Often, just doing walking rounds of the camp and having a discussion about some of these elements brings to light potential challenges. Through examining the camp and analyzing different situations, camp should be able to make a determination of what essential functions are for their campers. One camp might decide to have significant physical requirements (i.e. campers must be able to walk at least a mile, engage in daily team sports, or tolerate hours of heat) while another camp may have minimal physical requirements (i.e. a camper can be nonambulatory, does not have to provide self-care, and can have assistance with feeding). Obviously these two facilities would have very different programs, structures, and expectations for camper performance. No decisions about essential functions are right or wrong, but rather made to identify what is best suited for the facility and the camper alike.

For behavioral functions, camp leadership may give stronger consideration to safety of the camp community and creating a positive experience for each camper. Identifying essential behavioral functions may be more challenging but is helpful to families. Behavioral functions may include items such as:

  1. Camper can self-calm following an event that causes frustration, sadness, or anger.
  2. Camper can sleep without sleep aids (lights, music, movies, etc.).
  3. Camper can follow verbal directions from counselors.
  4. Camper does not wander.
  5. Camper is not impulsive.

There are an assortment of behavioral expectations a camp can provide to parents. It may also be helpful to ask questions of parents or guardians in the application process that will provide insight regarding the child. Some of these questions might be:

  1. Can your child sleep in a room with other children?
  2. Does your child have problems with anger?
  3. Can your child follow directions?
  4. Has your child had any behavioral issues at school?
  5. What would you consider to be your child’s greatest social challenge?
  6. Does your child seem to get along with peers? Do they have close friends?
  7. How does your child respond when they become frustrated? Do they wander off to be alone?

There are many ways to ask questions that identify potential behavioral issues. Having parents provide this information allows for discussion, questions, and understanding prior to camper arrival day. Giving parents essential behavioral functions will also allow them to assess if the camp is a “good fit” for their child and the support that may be needed.

How many of us want to have the experience with Simon and his mom as we described earlier? Most of us prefer to be educated, prepared, and ready to handle potential challenges instead of receiving a daunting list of requests when they check in. Provide parents information regarding these essential camper functions through the camp Web site, application, brochure, or other applicable documents. Proactively sharing essential physical and behavioral functions will help families better prepare their child, themselves, and staff for a great, quality camp experience.

Download a checklist with the suggested questions from this article.

Arizala, S. (2012). There is a reason: Understanding challenging behaviors. Camping Magazine, 85(3), 54–57.
Lipof, M. (2010). Where we go wrong: Building self esteem that really matters. Camping Magazine, 83(4), 42–45.
Thurber, C. (2013). Kids do dumb stuff: The hidden treasure of accidental learning. Camping Magazine, 86(1), 40–45.

Tracey Gaslin, PhD, CRNI, CPNP, FNP-BC, is currently the medical director at the Center for Courageous Kids. She is the president and board chair for the Association of Camp Nurses and serves on the Healthy Camp Education and Monitoring Program for ACA.