Summer Camp Means Fun for All: How to Create a More Inclusive Camp

The sun is high and school is out. The most fun season of the year is finally here! And you know what that means: it’s camp season, too. As you begin planning the programming and activities that will make your summer camp successful, we invite you to consider disability inclusion as a top priority.

Defining Inclusion in Summer Camps

Pinpointing exactly what it means and looks like to be inclusive can be tough because creating a sense of belonging for each child will differ from person to person and camp to camp. But, that’s really what it is – creating a sense of belonging for each camper.

So, where do you start and how do you know if you’ve gotten there? Well, providing a meaningful experience for every camper may look varied, but it will be rooted in a few universal principles. Add these considerations to your inclusion checklist:


A school aged girl with Down Syndrome paddling on water in a yellow canoe.

A school aged girl with Down syndrome paddling on water in a yellow canoe.

Eliminate Barriers

When talking about disability inclusion, we may think of “eliminating barriers” as removing physical barriers to access such as adding a ramp to a building for wheelchair users. The first barrier we need to address, though, is attitudes. Stereotypes about people with disabilities are everywhere. These stereotypes can impact how we think about people with disabilities, including whether we think a child with a disability should be included in camp with their non-disabled peers.

One way to start eliminating barriers is by reflecting on the different stereotypes about disabilities you’ve seen in television and movies. Then, think about the influence these stereotypes might have and how the story could be told differently. Reflecting on our potential biases and shifting our thinking can lead to a more inclusive mindset, which can open the doors to a more inclusive experience for kids with disabilities.

Another simple change is to consider the language you use to talk about disabilities. Whether it’s in your camp marketing materials, training sessions with camp staff, or interactions with campers and their families, language can make a big difference.

There are two types of socially responsible language you can use when talking about disabilities: person-first and identity-first. Person-first language puts the person before the disability such as, “a person with autism.” Identity-first language acknowledges that disability is an important part of someone’s identity. People who prefer identity-first language might say, “I’m autistic,” instead of “I’m a person with autism.” When it comes to language, the most important thing to remember is to honor the preference of the person and family.

Key Takeaway: Eliminating barriers to disability inclusion at camp starts with reflecting on our thoughts and ideas about disability. We’ve all grown up in a world full of stereotypes. Considering how these stereotypes influence us all helps us expand how we think about inclusion.

Be Prepared – But Also Flexible

Camp facilitators put a ton of effort into creating their annual programming. As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail. However, the best-laid plans often go awry.

Building an inclusive camp experience will require you to go with the flow, but too much of a free-form, seat-of-your-pants strategy will likely stress out your campers and staff. The secret is to plan for flexibility.

Flexibility needs to be baked into your activities because every single camper that arrives for the season is an individual with their own set of needs and expectations. No matter how much they have in common on paper, no two campers are exactly alike.

For example, you may have multiple kids with autism on your roster, but you cannot paint them with a broad brush when planning your programming. They will all arrive at day camp with unique interests, needs, perspectives, and preferences. Some may crave sensory input, while others avoid it. Some may be shy and others outgoing.

For that diversity to constantly be celebrated, planning is important; it offers structure and bolsters your staff’s confidence. When we train for various possible outcomes, it’s less intimidating when they arise in real-time. A calm, collected approach to things that don’t go as planned lets campers know that camp is made with them in mind and that counselors are there to support them, not stifle them.

So how do we strike a balance between structure and flexibility to keep camp fun for everyone? There are a few questions you can ask yourself as you develop your seasonal programming and practices:

  • What can we map out ahead of time?
  • What variations in activities and transitions can we plan?
  • How can we be better prepared to respond to unexpected challenges?
  • Which potential complications and opportunities can we anticipate?
  • Who is currently being left out and how can we intentionally include them?

The goal here is to thoughtfully consider your campers before camp ever begins and to plan for how they will experience camp once it starts. Disability Inclusion, especially when you are first taking action to encourage it, requires a proactive approach and an open mind. Allow for fun and folly within a structure that feels safe instead of restrictive.

Key Takeaway: Expect the unexpected! Give your staff the tools they need to successfully support your campers when things are running smoothly and when they are not.

Go Beyond Encouraging Enrollment

Welcoming campers with disabilities into your program is a great first step to having a more diverse camp. We’ve made progress so kids with disabilities are not excluded as often from community activities like summer camp. To be truly inclusive, it requires more than the camper’s physical presence. Inclusion is intentionally creating a sense of belonging for every camper, so they are not just at your camp, but meaningfully participating in your camp.

A graphic to show what it looks like to move from exclusion to inclusion.

A graphic to show what it looks like to move from exclusion to inclusion.

KIT uses this graphic to show what it looks like to move from exclusion to inclusion.

Some families prefer a segregated setting, which could be a camp specifically for children with disabilities, but no family wants their child to be or feel excluded from any camp opportunity.

If your goal is inclusion, then it’s important to be aware of the pitfalls of integration. Integration is when children with and without disabilities are together in the same program, but the children with disabilities are not supported or interacting with their non-disabled peers. This might look like a youth with autism attending camp every day but wandering about the periphery of the group rather than being invited to participate in the activity by other campers or counselors.

What’s probably happening in this situation is a combination of stereotypes and uncertainty. There is a stereotype that youth with autism are not social and don’t want to interact with others. Non-disabled peers and counselors may feel uncertain of how to invite someone with a disability into the activity. That’s why unpacking stereotypes and training on inclusive practices are key. Camp counselors want to feel confident about including all youth and might need support to get there.

Key Takeaway: Disability inclusion is a process. If you’re recognizing times when your program has been at “integration,” that’s a great first step to making a change towards inclusion.

Inclusion is Year Round

Inclusion is always worth the work. Why? Because the effects of exclusion are so clearly documented.

Over the years, research has shown exclusion and social isolation leads to academic and mental health struggles for youth such as depression and anxiety. In fact, even the threat of social exclusion can slow down our thought processes and make it more difficult to solve problems. Youth can end up in a cycle of feeling “less than,” which can cause them to become socially withdrawn and isolated and puts them at-risk of being excluded. Then, the cycle continues to spiral.

The benefits of inclusion are well-documented, too.

Studies show that kids feel safer when they have diverse friendships. There are stronger performance outcomes in inclusive environments as well, from schools to our workplaces. And we know how critical social modeling is for teaching youth how to respectfully treat their peers.

Beyond just a seasonal camp, the principles of inclusion – or a lack thereof – have lasting cognitive consequences for kids. We can hope that their classrooms are prioritizing inclusion throughout the school year, but for many, this will unfortunately not be the case. Parents, caregivers, and camp directors may not have control over a kid’s academic environment, but we do have an opportunity and obligation to use summer programming to create spaces where all youth feel safe, welcomed, and are supported through inclusive practices.

Ultimately, what may be a couple of extra hours of training or activity planning for your staff equates to lifelong camp memories and valuable social skills kids will hold onto forever.

Teenagers are playing basketball game on the court during sunny summer day together.

Teenagers are playing basketball together on the court during a sunny summer day.

How To Be More Inclusive This Summer

1.   Show & Tell Kids How to Embrace Differences

Children are sponges for information. Endlessly curious and still learning how to navigate the social world, they look to their teachers, caregivers, and camp counselors to show them what’s what. And they are always watching!

Be proactive in your behavior toward every single camper. Take the time to learn more about inclusive practices and pass that knowledge onto your kids through engaging activities.

2.   Get Your Entire Staff on Board

Meaningful inclusion will require full participation from your staff. Be proactive with your inclusion education by adding a few sessions to your employee orientation or seasonal training. These additions will not only help to get everyone on the same page before summer starts, but they will help your counselors and facilitators feel more confident navigating new situations throughout the season.

3.   Keep Up the Good Work

Even exploring ways to make your camp more inclusive is a step in the right direction. You’re well on your way to a fuller family of happy campers. Keep the positive outcomes of inclusion in your sights, and you’ll have an amazing summer.

If you want a boost to help you achieve your inclusivity goals for this summer season, let KIT come along! We created some inclusion training sessions specifically for summer camp staff, and we’d love to share them with you.

Orange button that says learn more.

Orange button that says learn more.