“Why My ADHD Summer Camp Is Sold Out This Year”
For 6 weeks this summer, families across the country will send their boys to Margate, New Jersey, for Summer Trip Camp – a rare opportunity for kids with ADHD to share new experiences, talk about tough subjects, and build new skills with other campers who don’t judge them for their differently wired brains. Here is why we decided to open, and why we’re at capacity this year.
When it became clear that “social distancing” was not melting away with the spring frost, my mind immediately went to the kids with whom I work as a school social worker, and to those who attend my annual summer camp. COVID-19 distancing has been particularly isolating and challenging for kids with ADHD who do not have social relationships that exist outside of school.
When I teach kids about cultivating and sustaining friendships, I spend some time explaining the difference between “school friends” and “outside-of-school friends.” Many kids with ADHD have difficulty understanding how to build outside-of-school friendships with the people they hang out with in school. Others would be happy to spend time with school friends on the weekends, but the ADHD brain often falls victim to “out of sight, out of mind” thinking and they simply forget to reach out. This is not a conscious choice; it’s a reflection of the fact that kids with ADHD live in the present and have difficulty with future planning, or what I call “future thinking skills.” The end result? Kids with ADHD are sitting alone playing a lot of video games these days.
When kids with ADHD miss out on opportunities to have real-life experiences, based on in-person connections, they also miss out on creating important memories. Without these shared bonding experiences and memories, friendships remain shallow and social communication through video games does not mean much because it’s not experiential.
Experiential Summer Learning for Boys with ADHD
In 2017, I created Summer Trip Camp because nothing else like it existed (and still does not). I wanted to create an opportunity for boys with ADHD to come together, share new experiences, and learn alongside peers who “get them.” I wanted to make the learning piece of camp experiential by making it relevant to the daily and weekly schedule of activities — for example, learning how to manage spending money while on a day trip to a waterpark. It is a device-free camp.
Many kids with ADHD have never had the condition explained to them in a way that is relevant (and not pathologizing). They have never learned that nothing is wrong with them; this is because ADHD is typically pathologized as a mental health issue, whereas I see ADHD as a learning issue requiring kids to learn how to work with their brains. At camp, we spend a little time each morning learning executive functioning strategies for things like managing money and future planning, and well as how to connect and sustain friendships with other guys. We talk about anxiety openly because, in my experience, most boys with ADHD and social anxiety think they are the only ones experiencing those feelings; they have never had the opportunity to speak openly about social anxiety with other boys.
Everything we learn is relevant to our daily trips. Academics are never discussed during camp. We do not work on academic executive functioning because who wants to talk about school in the summer? There’s no “therapy” because sitting around in a circle talking is not how most boys learn effectively; instead, they enjoy learning experientially, which is what we do during camp.
Would Camp Be Canceled in 2020?
Because families travel from all over the country and take time out of their busy lives so their sons can participate in Summer Trip Camp, I anticipated one of two things would happen this summer: the governor of New Jersey would mandate that camps could not open, or so many families would drop out as a result of COVID-19 that holding camp would not be possible. Neither of these scenarios happened. I gave all registered families the opportunity to withdrawal from camp with a full refund. A few travelling a good distance did drop out, but other families took their places right away.
38 families from across the country will participate in Summer Trip Camp over five weeks this July and August. Why would they do this in this unprecedented time? Because their kids have been cooped up at home for months and they want them to connect with other guys their age, to have a learning experience where ADHD is not treated like a pathologized deficit, and to learn experientially. This year, like the others, campers will have the opportunity to connect with other kids their age and create memories through shared experiences. Yes, we will wear masks and limit capacity and remain vigilant about washing hands and surfaces, but none of that will weaken the bonds created or detract from the real-life learning. In fact, it might bond the campers even closer together. All of the families participating in camp this year are doing so because they want their sons to experience a degree of “normalcy” in abnormal times.
How Camp Succeeds Where Therapy Fails
I have heard from more than a few families that they have tried therapy (often multiple therapists) without results, so their sons are now extremely resistant to participating in therapy. I don’t blame them. The experience of going into an office that is unwelcoming (because it was designed for adults) and being asked to verbalize feelings on-demand is not exactly conducive to learning how to work with ADHD.
During camp, the guys learn how to cultivate and sustain friendships in a way that is organic to boys (and not in an artificial setting such as a social skills group). They also find practical applications for useful, non-academic executive functioning strategies such as “future planning” and conceptualizing the passage of time. We use going to the beach, fishing, surfing, and dolphin watching trips as the backdrop to learning these new skills, so the reward is baked in. And as the campers begin to understand that ADHD is just a description of how their brain works — and not their identity — I see an openness to learning I have not seen or heard about elsewhere. Parents tell me that they see it, too, which is why they were so determined to make Summer Trip Camp happen this year.
Whatever your summer plans, I encourage you to allow them the opportunity to be with other kids their age. This has never been as important as it is right now. Simply talking through video chat won’t cut it. They need to be together — whether in structured activities or unstructured “hanging out.” Please give your kids the opportunity to replenish their skills and their relationships, after being physically distanced from other kids for so long.
Camp is by far the most exhausting aspect of the work I do, but it is also the most rewarding. Knowing that so many families are travelling across the country this summer makes it even more meaningful for me, and my hope is that it will be even more meaningful for the kids joining us this summer.
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