Let's ALL Play: Helping to Make Inclusion in Summer Camps a Success

by Gary N. Siperstein, Ph.D., Sarah Pociask, and Kristy Barnes
September 2011

For nine months of the year, children spend most of the day in school, and when the bell rings for the final time in June, most cannot wait for summer to start. During the summer, children are free from daily class schedules and get to spend most of their time just having fun. Some get to spend the summer hanging out with neighborhood friends, others might play on a community sports team, and many even get the chance to go to summer camp.

Not all children are this lucky. For some children, particularly those with disabilities, summer is not a time of freedom and fun, but a time of isolation and boredom. These children are faced with a bleak landscape of things to do, and are often limited to their houses, not just on the occasional afternoon or weekend, but every single day.

In September, when teachers ask their students what they did over the summer, children with disabilities often don't have the chance to raise their hands like their peers and say with radiant smiles on their faces, "I went to summer camp, I had a great time, and I made friends."

The recent movement for inclusion has led to the development of various curricula to help schools and other programs ensure that all children are given equal opportunities to participate in activities within their communities. Let's ALL Play (L.A.P.), a model for inclusion in recreational settings developed by the Bubel/ Aiken Foundation, is one such example. In the summer of 2008, twenty-four programs across the country implemented Let's ALL Play, providing numerous opportunities for children with disabilities to attend camp, some for the very first time.

This article provides a brief overview of how Let's ALL Play fits into the growing movement for inclusion and also highlights the successes that programs experienced after implementing Let's ALL Play last summer.

The Growing Movement for Inclusion

Throughout the past three decades, there has been a major push to include individuals with disabilities in all aspects of society. Various legislative and policy mandates have been enacted to ensure the welfare and rights of these individuals (e.g., the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, the Regular Educational Initiative in 1981, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the initial passage of IDEA in 1990), and, as a result, inclusion is becoming a reality — particularly in schools. Instead of spending the day in separate classes, more and more children with disabilities are included in general education classrooms for at least part of the day.

While it is promising that children with disabilities are being physically included in general education classrooms, full social inclusion has yet to be achieved in this setting (Heiman, 2000; Sale and Carey, 1995; Siperstein, Parker, Norins Bardon, and Widaman 2007). In order to develop positive social relationships, it is important for youth with and without disabilities to participate equally in activities and see the similarities in one another (Siperstein, et al., 2007; Jacques, Wilton, and Townsend, 1998; Siperstein and Chatillon 1982). One of the main challenges in the classroom is that children with disabilities are all too often singled out and seen as different by their fellow classmates, which holds them back from succeeding socially.

Fortunately, the movement for inclusion does not end in the classroom. An increasing number of opportunities are becoming available outside of school for children with and without disabilities to participate in together including recreational activities, sports, and even summer camps (Brannan, Arick, Fullerton, and Harris, 1997; Siperstein, Glick, Norins Bardon, Harada, and Parker 2007). In these settings, children get the chance to participate in activities and games with peers on a daily basis, and with the focus on fun and games, children learn and develop both individual and teamwork skills. A growing body of research suggests that these non-academic settings are especially effective in promoting a number of positive outcomes among those who participate, including: improved social skills, communication skills, self-esteem, and even social acceptance (Henderson, Whitaker, Bialeschki, Scanlin, and Thurber, 2007; Mulvihill, Cotton, and Gyaben, 2004; Rynders et al., 1993; Siperstein, Glick, and Parker 2009).

The benefits of inclusion in recreational settings are far-reaching and extend to participants without disabilities as well. By participating in an inclusive environment, children and staff without disabilities learn more about tolerance, acceptance, and what it means to have a disability (Mulvihill, Cotton, and Gyaben 2004). Directors of these programs see the advantages of inclusion and parents of children with disabilities are advocating for these opportunities so that their children can have the same experiences as their peers. Although, the benefits of inclusion are not achieved by simply extending invitations to individuals with disabilities. For inclusion to be successful, certain changes need to be made to existing programs to ensure that all children are truly able to participate at the same level. Today, given the rising demand for inclusive opportunities, directors and staff members of recreational programs and summer camps have been asking for assistance to make it happen. But what resources are available to help programs become inclusive?

The Bubel/Aiken Foundation and Let's ALL Play

Recognizing the benefits of inclusion and understanding that summer programs need help to make it happen, The Bubel/Aiken Foundation has become a major force in promoting inclusion in recreational settings, particularly summer camps. After witnessing the segregation of children with disabilities first hand, The Foundation set a goal to ensure that all children have equal opportunities to be included — not only in summer camps, but in all aspects of society. Specifically, their mission is to promote the inclusion of youth with disabilities by creating communities where all children can learn, live, and play together.

In order to provide programs with the support needed to foster inclusion, The Foundation developed Let's ALL Play. This field-tested model includes tools, guidelines, and advice for directors interested in moving forward with inclusion in recreational settings. It consists of three basic components: 1) program modifications to enhance program structure and communication; 2) inclusive games to foster cooperation, personal achievement, and social relationships; and 3) training guidelines to prepare staff to implement the curriculum.

Program Modifications
Children with disabilities often need structure to feel comfortable in their surroundings and participate in new activities. Since camp schedules can be hectic at times, strengthening the way camp is organized is especially important when creating an inclusive environment. To help make sure that children stay relaxed and on-task, especially during transitions or unexpected schedule changes, Let's ALL Play offers tools like Picture-Schedules, "Fidgets," Activity Scripts, and Task Cards.

In addition to assisting with the organization of camp, the modifications provided by Let's ALL Play also help strengthen communication lines among camp staff, campers, and their parents. When picking up their children, the first question that parents ask is often, "So what did you do at camp today?" With so many activities that take place in a single day, it becomes hard for children to remember and explain everything, especially new activities that they have never done before. Serving as a conversation starter, Family Communication Cards help remind children of what they did during the day. Also, for children that might have a hard time expressing themselves verbally, these cards are an alternative way for them to tell their parents about the things that they did at camp.

Inclusive Games
Just about every camp has its own collection of games that are played each summer. However, traditional camp games that involve competition and elimination do not always provide children with the same chances to participate. Instead of encouraging teamwork and cooperation, games that are too competitive end up separating campers based on their skill levels. Take dodge-ball for instance — children who are experienced with the game get to stay in and play, and those who are less experienced are often the first ones out and on the sidelines. When out on the sidelines, children miss out on opportunities to practice the game, interact with their peers, and most importantly, have fun.

To make sure that all children can participate and have fun in camp games, Let's ALL Play includes a variety of team, tag, and movement games that are fully inclusive and geared towards all ability levels. In addition to the new games, the curriculum also describes ways that existing camp games can be adapted so that they are more inclusive. For example, if a favorite camp game does involve elimination, counselors might start up a new game on the sidelines to keep the "eliminated" players engaged. Instead of having to sit out, players would simply jump from game to game instead, all the while having fun and learning the skills necessary to stay in the game. By introducing new games and adapting old games to better suit the needs of all campers, everyone gets a chance to learn and have fun together.

Training Guidelines
Counselors and camp staff play a crucial role in creating a cohesive camp environment. Since they interact with children on a daily basis, it is important to be sure that all members of camp staff feel prepared to serve both children with and without disabilities. In order to help educate staff, Let's ALL Play includes a full set of training guidelines that covers reasons for inclusion, "People-First Language," disability etiquette, respectful accommodations, and behavior management.

Implementing the L.A.P. Curriculum

In the summer of 2008, twenty-four summer camps across the country were funded to implement Let's ALL Play. Demonstrating the versatility of the curriculum, these camps varied in size, were geographically diverse, and included a range of facilities available to campers. Although activities offered at each camp were different, most offered a combination of sports, team-building games, arts and crafts, drama, and field trips. Across camps, directors reported serving campers with a wide range of disabilities of varying severities (e.g., intellectual and developmental disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, and physical disabilities). While staffing varied depending on the size of the camp and the needs of the campers, all camps reported a 10:1 or lower camper/ staff ratio, and the majority of camps utilized volunteer support.

In order to begin to understand the benefits of the curriculum, we asked directors, counselors, campers, and parents from a number of these programs to provide information about their experiences during the summer through interviews and surveys. Providing us with early evidence of the benefits of the Let's ALL Play, directors and counselors agreed that program modifications and activities enabled them to better serve their campers with and without disabilities. As one director explained, "Let's ALL Play modifications such as fidgets and Family Communication Cards allowed campers with disabilities to be successful, while group-based initiatives such as 'People-First Language' contributed to an environment that was more accepting and inclusive."

Many directors found the modifications useful for all campers. One commented, "Most of the L.A.P. accommodations and modifications help all campers, not only those with special needs." Another director expressed similar feelings, "All of our kids benefited from picture schedules, which were much easier to read than our written schedules." Highlighting the success of the Let's ALL Play games, another director explained, "The games were very good in terms of being conducive to success by all campers, as well as being fun for everyone. A favorite new game is the 'musical hoops,' which is a vast improvement over the traditional musical chairs."

Let's ALL Play provided valuable support for both programs new to inclusion as well as programs that have had prior experience. After implementing Let's ALL Play for the first time, one director new to inclusion commented, "We were able to provide a safe, fun, interactive, and meaningful environment to campers who have very limited options when it comes to summer activities in our area. The tools that the Bubel/Aiken Foundation provided us with prior and during camp came as a big help in cooperation this program into our camp for the first time this summer." Another director who had experience with inclusion and had been moving towards inclusion for the past few years explained that Let's ALL Play was helpful in unifying the camp group by saying, "We have been working in a very limited way with children with special needs for a few years in a program parallel to that experienced by our typical campers, so it was very encouraging and inspiring to be able to actually become inclusive and to see healthy supportive relationships develop among all campers."

Four camps in particular stood out in their implementation of Let's ALL Play: Mountain Day Camp (Boulder, Colorado); Camp Shriver Boston (Boston, Massachusetts); Camp by the Sea (Margate, New Jersey); and Caring Strategies (Drestrehan, Louisiana). These camps participated in Let's ALL Play training, implemented the majority of the program modifications as described in the guidebook, and made a significant effort to incorporate inclusive games into their existing camp structure.

Focusing on these four sites, we looked at the impact of the Let's ALL Play on campers with disabilities. During the final week of camp, counselors rated the improvement of the campers with disabilities that they worked with on a scale of 1 ("no improvement") to 5 ("a lot of improvement") across five areas: sport/motor skills, self-esteem, social skills, social relationships with campers without disabilities, and engagement in camp activities. Table 1 presents the average camper improvement in each of the five areas, and Table 2 lists the percentage of campers at each level of improvement.

Evidence from counselors suggests that campers showed improvement in each of the five areas assessed. In fact, over half of the campers improved "a lot" in engagement (64 percent); social skills (56 percent); and self-esteem (58 percent). These results reflect the positive nature of inclusive programming at the camps. Modifications and games gave children with disabilities more opportunities to interact with their peers and also allowed them to be more engaged during the activities. Experiencing success and developing confidence in their abilities, children also showed improvements in their self-esteem. For many campers with disabilities, sports and motor skills are a real challenge, and the fact that the majority of campers (88 percent) were able to show moderate to high improvement during camp illustrates the value of the games and activities provided by Let's ALL Play.

Supporting the data provided by counselors, parents also noted that their children improved in a variety of areas over the course of the summer including communication, social skills, and sport skills. For instance, one parent mentioned that her son's experience was "an ongoing learning experience" and that throughout the summer she noticed "an overall improvement with speech and communication skills." Likewise, another parent noticed that her son "talked more as a result of camp." Improvements in sports skills, notably swimming, were mentioned by many parents, and one parent commented specifically, "[My daughter] improved her swimming — they did that every day and she loved it!"

Successfully Fostering Inclusive Environments

With the support of Let's ALL Play, summer programs across the country were able to successfully foster inclusive environments. Children with disabilities were able to interact with their peers and participate in activities that were previously unavailable to them, and the benefits from these opportunities were unmistakable.

Across all programs, directors expressed that Let's ALL Play played a key role in creating an inclusive environment. The model not only provided the necessary support, but it also oriented staff and helped to spread awareness about inclusion. What counselors and directors found particularly useful about Let's ALL Play was that they did not have to drastically change the structure of their existing program to incorporate the program modifications and activities. Also, while most of the Let's ALL Play tools were simple and could be integrated with few difficulties or added expenses, the benefits they provided to the campers were dramatic.

The daily anticipation that parents saw in their children further reflects the positive nature of participating in camp. Illustrating this point, one Camp Shriver parent commented, "I noticed that every morning it was like I was giving [my son] a million dollars. He loved going, and on weekends he would ask, 'Oh mom . . . I am not going to camp today?'" Similarly, a parent from Camp by the Sea mentioned that her son "could not wait for camp every day."

Overall, parents were thankful to have the opportunity to send their children to camp, and since it was such a positive experience, they reported that if it were possible they would most definitely send their child to camp again in the future. Emphasizing the value of inclusive programming, one parent explained, "I have spoken with some parents whose kids were turned down for camps, and I know that could have been us at one point. I'd like to hold out hope that someday everyone will have the chance to participate."

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Siperstein, G.N.; Glick, G.; Norins Bardon, J.; Harada, C.; and Parker, R.C. (2007). Camp Shriver: A Model for Including Children with Intellectual Disabilities in Summer Camp. Camping Magazine, 20-26.

Gary N. Siperstein, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Center for Social Development and Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Sarah Pociask is a research assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education. She received her B.A. in psychology and French from Skidmore College.

Kristy Barnes is the director of marketing and operations for The Bubel/Aiken Foundation.

Originally published in the 2009 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.