School Camp for Children with Special Needs: Our Top Ten Tips

Last week one event made me more highly strung than a Wimbledon player's racket, and when it was all over, the headache, light sensitivity, strange metallic taste and exhaustion of a migraine befell me.

What on earth had made me so stressed? School report? Annual review? Meltdown in the supermarket?

No....   Natty's first school camp! 

Here are my top ten tips to avoid that headache when it's your child's turn.

Natty, who has Down's syndrome, returns happy from her Summer camp
It wasn't the first time I'd seen one of my children skip happily off while I paced around at home for a few days missing them terribly and eagerly awaiting the return of a tired, dirty child and piles of mud-soaked washing. Mia has been away with school a handful of times now and Natty always wants to know where she has gone. The first time they were separated she was so confused and upset.
Today, Mia isn't here. I ate my tea with Mummy and Daddy but she wasn't there to kick under the table.
I had my bath and she wasn't there to splash me.  She didn't wrap me in a fluffy towel afterwards.
She wasn't around to bounce on the bed in our pyjamas which Mummy hates.
I wondered if she was playing hide and seek, but she wasn't in any of our best hiding places.
But this year it was Natty's turn. At the end of Year 3 her mainstream school take the children on a three day residential activity camp. All term this had made me feel slightly sick, my head wrestling with my heart, knowing that she would relish the experience, that she was ready, that she would grow in confidence and develop, bond with her peers and come back a slightly different child. Taking calculated risks is important for us all, it's what makes life worth living.

But I was scared. Would she cope with the activities? Would she get hurt? Would she be able to sleep with the distraction of friends in a dormitory? Would she be homesick? Would she even try to escape? I reined myself in, aware that I was letting my imagination get the better of me.

When school suggested that she could go for one of the two nights, it was my logical brain and not my terrified heart that answered that we wanted Natty to go for the full experience and join in fully with everyone else. Of course during the two night three day trip I constantly wondered if I had made the right decision, but when our happy camper returned, beamed from ear to ear and looking taller and somehow more independent, we knew we'd made the right decision, with the help of her supportive school team and peers.

There were tales of talent contests and loud Frozen singing in the dark as others tried to sleep, boat building and shoes full of water, household chores, hikes and mine visits.

So, if you are looking ahead to a school camp for your child, or wondering whether or not it's for them, here are our tips:
  • Prepare yourself, your child and their support team well in advance. Produce a page of bullets points that their support workers might need to know. This might include information about bedtime routines or whether your child is a 'wanderer'.
  • Make a decision with your child's support team about whether they would benefit from staying at a residential camp. If your child has sleep apnoea for example, you might wish to consider collecting them each day to sleep at home before returning to camp in the morning.
  • Consider setting up a trial run by letting your child have a sleepover at a family member or friend's house.
  • Provide the bedclothes/duvet/pillow/sleeping bag/weighted blanket/teddy your child needs to get a good night's sleep.
  • Get a medical all-clear from your GP before your little camper sets off.
  • Pack all your child's medication in a clear plastic bag. Label the bag and each item correctly and provide a medication timetable if necessary.
  • Talk to your child about the camp, being certain to always make it sound positive and exciting.  Use photos or pictures of the kinds of activities they will be taking part in. You could even consider visiting the location together in advance.
  • Label absolutely everything from toothbrushes to trainers. I find one of those laundry markers the easiest way. Send only really old/second-hand clothes and pack plenty of spares, especially underwear. You might not see some of it again, but you want your child to be clean and dry whatever happens.
  • Pack together. If your child can help you put their items in the case, they will get excited about the adventure ahead, and know what they are taking with them.
  • Ask your child's support team to keep you informed with a text or phone call each day, although it isn't usually a good idea to speak to your child while they are away, as this will spark homesickness.
  • Be prepared to be flexible. You might have to go and collect your child at some point during the stay. This is not a sign of failure but do try to take them back again if possible. It's sometimes difficult to find your feet when you rely on others' support but they'll soon get the hang of it.
I can't promise that even after following these tips you won't still get a headache. But your child will have a blast and it will be worth the planning and the worry. You'll be pleased you pushed your comfort zone when you look back. Honest.

You might like to read Why Take the Chance: The Importance of Calculated Risk for your Child here. 

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