Ann Cathcart is director and founder of The Learning Camp in Vail, Colo., a summer camp for first-through eighth-graders with learning disabilities or AD/HD. Cathcart founded the camp in 1996, as an outgrowth of her efforts to find a summer program for her son Tucker, who was diagnosed in the first grade with both AD/HD and dyslexia. Cathcart is interviewed by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
NCLD: What are some of the primary questions parents should ask themselves when searching for a summer camp for a child with a diagnosed learning disability?
Ann Cathcart: Many of the questions depend on what a parent is seeking for a child. The first question that I would ask is what type of program they want. Do they want an academic program, a purely recreational program or a mix of the two? In my son's case, he absolutely needed academic support over the summer to be ready for the school year. In fact, many children with LD have problems with regressing if they don't receive any academic stimulus over the summer. There are many camps out there that include an academic component, though the mix between academics and recreational activities varies. At Learning Camp, for example, we have academics in the morning, and then the rest of the day is devoted to traditional camp activities, such as swimming, horseback riding, fishing and hiking.
There are other parents, however, who may feel their children should get a break from academics, and they're looking for a program that is entirely recreational, but supervised by adults who understand children with learning disabilities and some of the social issues that go with that. So they might be looking for activities that will be purely fun for the child but also enhance their sense of independence and self-esteem.
Parents have to decide if their children are really ready for a residential camp or whether a day camp would be better for them. They need to ask themselves how their children are doing socially, and how they feel about the children being away from home. They need to listen to the children, too. Often, when children say they're ready to go to sleepover camp, that's usually a good indication you can let them go. This is especially true if the camp is skilled at supporting children with learning disabilities—the organizational challenges, the social challenges and all the other components that go with handling kids with LD. It's another opportunity for the child to build a sense of independence.
NCLD: What are the best ways to find a camp that most closely fits the child's needs and interests? What are good ways for a parent to background check the camp and the camp's credentials?
A.C.: There are, first of all, some great resources on the Internet, and I think online really is the first place to start. Kidscamps.com, for example, is one of the best sites out there for finding camps—very comprehensive, and they also include a special needs section. If you're interested in finding a camp in a particular region of the country, you might try checking with the local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association (LDA). LDA also publishes a directory of summer camps for children with learning disabilities; it's not online but you can order it from their home office in Pittsburgh, Penn. And, of course, there's good old word-of-mouth.
In scouting out a camp, I would recommend that a parent include a lengthy discussion with the director. Ask about the ratio of campers to staff. Ask how they handle children's medications. Ask where the children will be sleeping and will there be adults in the cabins or close by? The ratio of campers to counselors is particularly important, especially with the LD community. The American Camping Association recommends one counselor for eight kids, though my recommendation for camps for kids with LD is no more than four children to a counselor, and 1:3 or 1:2 is preferred. Also, ask about the foods, and make sure you approve of the menu.
Another thing to ask about is the return ratio—how many campers come back the next year? If the camp has a 40- to 60 percent return rate, that's a true sign it's a good program.
And always ask for references, and ask for several of them. It's the best way to find out about a camp, in my opinion. Your best resources by far are parents who have sent their children to that camp. If a camp has a list of published references, you might want to ask for others, or ask if there's someone in your area you can call.
NCLD: In considering the activities a camp offers, what would be a good criteria for deciding on the balance between scholastic and recreational activities? Is it a good idea to consult with a child's regular teacher in deciding?
A.C.: It's a very good idea to speak with a child's regular teacher or tutor in determining the amount of support they'll need over the summer. Parents have to keep in mind, though, that it's also very important that a child be able to be a child in the summertime. So I strongly encourage a balance and recommend talking to the child's teacher to try to determine how to strike that balance.
It's a very personal choice, however. At Learning Camp, for example, we ask for information from the schools or teachers with every application, we get parent and teacher recommendations, we get IEPs for the children, and then we determine which class the child should go in. Then, every morning after breakfast there's 3-1/2 hours of reading, writing and math, and then at lunch time the books are put away and the rest of the day and evening is camp. There's no homework or testing. Many parents, however, are looking for an academics-heavy program for their children, and ours is usually not the program for them. For other parents, though, an hour or so of academics for their child is enough. It's purely a judgment call on the part of the parents and teacher, and you have to take careful consideration of the needs of the child.
I have to say, though, that one of the truly wonderful things we see with our kids, is the way a child comes out of his or her shell when they have a success that's not related to school work. They can spend their whole morning working on academics in a subject that's really hard for them, but there's nothing like seeing them conquer something like rock climbing. We try to make sure that each child has at least one success a day outside of the academic arena. It shows them that their whole life isn't just about the way they read and write.
NCLD: Are there any camps out concentrating primarily on physically challenging activities for young people with LD?
A.C.: Yes, there's S.O.A.R. (which stands for Success Oriented Achievement Realized) for kids with LD and AD/HD, which was started by a man named Jonathan Jones 20-plus years ago in North Carolina. He has programs year round, such as scuba diving and snorkeling in Belize, or treks with llamas through the North Carolina hills, or backpacking and whitewater rafting in Wyoming. I think they have a little bit of schooling in there, but it's primarily outdoorsy type programming specifically for children with learning disabilities.
In making the decision on whether to send a child to a camp that emphasizes physical activities, though, it's important for a parent to make a realistic assessment of a child's abilities and interests. Speak with the director about the choices the child will have with regard to the camp's programs. If a child has some motor skills problems, will he be able to take art classes instead of playing soccer? Are there quiet activities or is everything focused around a child's physical abilities? Again, at our camp we try hard to keep a balance, but a program involving physical activities that really challenge a child can be great for building self-esteem, if the activities aren't so rigorous as to be beyond a kid's abilities.
NCLD: What is the one key thing that a parent needs to keep in mind through the entire process of finding a summer camp?
A.C.: The most important question overall, I think, is whether or not your child and your child's needs are going to be understood by the staff at the camp. You can't ask that question straight out to the director, but ask enough questions so that you're satisfied they have the understanding, patience and experience to work with your child's special needs.
Also, summer camp is for the child, and whatever type of summer camp a parent chooses, the focus should be on enhancing the child's self-esteem and independence and, above all, having fun. Make sure your child will get to do the things he or she wants to do—if your child has an interest in art, make sure there's a good arts program. If they're interested in music, make sure there's a good music program. Make sure they're going to be able to do things they love to do and that everything doesn't involve reading, writing and math all the time. Our goal is that all children should leave the camp experience happier and feeling better about themselves than they did when they arrived.
For more online resources about camps, visit the Learning Camp Web site and LD Links.