Adaptive recreation programs and summer camps

Information and advice for parents of children with different abilities



Rebecca enjoys a hike on the Gregg Trail at Crotched Mountain in mid-summer with Kristin Harris, CTRS/L, while therapeutic recreation intern Marissa Pailing follows with a trail rider.

Recreation and outdoor experiences are important for kids of all abilities. Play and outdoor exploration help kids develop physically and mentally, and make friends.

But what if a child has a disability? How can he or she enjoy the summer camp experience?

As certified recreation therapists we help children with disabilities experience the outdoors through all types of adaptive activities and sports. New Hampshire’s summer camps can also offer outdoor experiences to kids with disabilities by assessing individual campers and incorporating adaptations to help them experience the joy of camp.

Accommodations run the gamut from simple to complex. One size does not fit all, but can make outdoor activities accessible to everyone.

Accessibility is possible

How can camps accommodate campers with disabilities? The first and most important step is to assess campers to determine what it will take to ensure they will be safe while participating and have the best possible experience.

Camps should incorporate an assessment process to determine campers’ needs and abilities, and appropriate accommodations needed for each camper. Is he or she verbal? Does he or she ambulate or use a wheelchair? Is he or she easily frustrated?  What does the child – and his or her parents – want from the experience? Some parents may want their child to achieve the highest level of independence, while others will focus on participation. Some kids may want to learn a new skill, or may simply want to be a camper.

Fun in (and on) the water

For water activities, it is important to know how comfortable a child is around the water, whether he can right himself from face-down to face-up, and whether he can close his mouth or hold his breath.

For swimming, depending on the assessment, the child might need assistance getting in and out of the water, or may require a personal flotation device, which will keep his head above water and turn him face-up. The best accommodation for this is a U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type 1 PFD.

A child who has cerebral palsy, for instance, may have limited range of motion and coordination in her extremities, which can make it difficult for her to swim safely and independently. For this camper, we would try a Danmar float, which will support her head and keep it above water, allowing her to use her arms and legs to swim more independently and safely. She would still need supervision, but with fewer physical supports from counselors, she can experience the freedom of swimming on her own. 

For kayaking, seating and stability are important safety considerations. For example, a camper who is on the autism spectrum may have anxiety about the water and balance issues. We might choose to pair him with an experienced partner in a tandem kayak and adapt the kayak using special seating, foam blocks, and outriggers for stability. Other kayaking adaptations could include back and lateral supports, foot blocks and simple paddle adaptations.

Once campers have the supports to help them feel safe, those who were nervous or who had difficulty supporting themselves physically often fall in love with the feeling of swimming, paddling and being in — and on — the water. 

Take a hike!

Hiking is a great way for campers to participate in camp activities and experience the outdoors. There is a wide array of adaptations to meet the abilities of each camper, while ensuring a safe and enjoyable hike.

Campers with disabilities may require accommodations such as special wheelchair tires for traction, trail riders, jogging strollers, push assistance, or for those who ambulate, perhaps a hiking buddy to provide guidance or a hand with balance and stability.

Many camps have trails on-property or nearby, and New Hampshire has some accessible trails. Mud Pond Trail in Jefferson, the Lincoln Woods Trail off the Kancamagus Highway in Lincoln, and rail trail systems throughout the state are good locales for camp day hikes.

The camp experience can help them engage in adventures they might not otherwise get to experience. Participating in outdoor activities is leveling for children with disabilities – it allows them to define themselves by their skill as ‘a swimmer’ or ‘a paddler.’

There are many experts and organizations in New Hampshire that can provide guidance and services to help children of all abilities participate in summer camp. Parents can learn the questions they should ask of camps, and camps can learn how to include campers with disabilities in their programs.  

Geoff Garfinkle is the director of accessible recreation at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center and Kristin Harris is the program director of Crotched Mountain Accessible Recreation and Sports. Both are licensed, certified therapeutic recreation specialists (CTRS/L).

More articles you might be interested in

How to deal with homesickness while at summer camp

If you prepare your camper to be out of their comfort zone, they can overcome and thrive

Getting Generation Z to disconnect so they can connect

Analog kids learn to relate face-to-face in the real world

Summer camp vs. other opportunities — how do you choose?

Here’s what a camp experience can offer your child

Resilience, self-confidence and s’mores

Build a partnership with the camp to make sure your child gets the most out of their summer

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The unexpected benefits of camp are some of the best reasons to attend
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