8 Tips to Make Camp More Inclusive this Summer

Photo of a traditional sanctuary decorated for STEM themed camp with adults and children dancing.

For many of us growing up in faith communities, summer faith formation focused around one week of day camp- dubbed Vacation Bible School, we made terrariums, sang “Father Abraham” and the highlight? Pelting the cool youth pastor with water balloons! Vacation Bible School is still a tradition for many of our communities- and whether you do an evening program, a family program, a weekend program, or a morning program, including kids with disabilities is something that you can plan for as part of your summer programming.

  1. Start Early: The secret to a great summer camp experience is a good plan- planning for inclusion is no different. Consider reaching out to parents in your community to learn about the needs of kids- and to anticipate what those might be. Do kids need 1:1 support for breaks and behavior support? How’s your curriculum? Can you add sensory friendly elements to make it more inclusive? How about snacks and food? Are the spaces that you are planning to use accessible? Are you thinking about allergies? Involving people with disabilities and their families on your planning teams is a huge help.
  2. Communicate: Making communication easy for parents makes them more likely to communicate the needs of their kids. Be sure to provide good contact information, make it clear that you are willing to accommodate kids, and don’t be afraid to reach out to parents for more information. For ideas for registration, check out this blog post: https://faithinclusion.com/2021/08/05/designing-registration-to-support-inclusion-of-people-with-disabilities/ and these sample forms: https://faithinclusion.com/2022/01/05/inclusive-forms/
  3. Dedicate Resources: Your biggest resource in camp is always volunteers and staff- and it can be a challenge to feel like you have enough of them- but dedicating staff and volunteer resources to support inclusion really pays off in big ways.
  4. Be Welcoming: Would the kid like to tour the facility before camp? Fantastic! Would they like to bring a support person? Great! Look for ways to be accommodating and welcoming of kids with disabilities- they will bring so much to your camp!
  5. Be Flexible:  The first day of camp will bring some surprises, if you are well organized and have a “deep bench” of volunteers and staff, you will be able to welcome ALL the children that God sends to your church. Sometimes even with the best laid plans, a trip to the sanctuary or some time in the kitchen helping with snacks is just what a camper needs to be successful. Remember, kids are the curriculum, and do your best to focus on their needs.
  6. Plan for Inclusion: Train your volunteers and staff to support kids in making friends with their peers- relationships with adults are good- but those peer relationships are really important to all of your campers and their families.
  7. Use your team: Using a team approach to support kids with more intense needs can be very helpful- you want to be sure that volunteers feel supported and cared for too. At the end of your first day, be sure to leave lots of time to de-brief, and be sure to work together to provide the help and support that kids need to be successful and happy in camp- be sure to rely on a wide network- do you have a friend who teaches special education, parents of kids with disabilities? Youth with disabilities who are willing to consult with you? Great- call them!
  8. Leadership: Finally, kids and youth with disabilities make fantastic leaders- be sure to plan for leadership- start with listening, connect with passions, bring in supports (especially peer supports), and look for the amazing gifts that people with disabilities bring to your program and your faith community.

Published in the July 2021 UCICC Newsletter.

Published by Deborah Huggins, MDiv, PhD

I'm blessed to serve as associate pastor of youth and children at Central Presbyterian church in Summit New Jersey where I get to support families as we find connection to God and our community. My doctorate is in Special education, with a focus in faith inclusion.

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