6 Essential Summer Camp Criteria for Kids with ADHD
Before registering your child for summer day or overnight camp, ask these six questions to understand how kids with ADHD can decompress, how the schedule is structured, and more to ensure your child has a positive summer experience.
The right summer camp experience pushes kids in all the right directions — toward new friendships, new challenges, and new perspectives. In my experience, camp can be a tremendous confidence builder for kids with ADHD, who may otherwise automatically say “no” to anything unfamiliar. Campers are often more receptive to stepping outside of their comfort zones when they’re doing so among a supportive peer group of kids with whom they have no social history. The value of this “social reset,” when it goes well, can’t be overstated.
Of course, we can’t assume things will go well.
Sadly, every year I hear from parents of children with hyperactive/impulsive ADHD who were asked to leave camp. In most cases, the overnight camp was not equipped to support the child — and the parents didn’t realize this until it was too late.
Even campers with inattentive ADHD face unfortunate consequences when a camp doesn’t understand ADHD. Often, these kids are not required to participate in activities and, since they rarely cause problems, they end up wandering around or sitting off to the side alone. That is not the point of camp.
When parents ask me how to evaluate whether a summer camp will serve their kids’ needs and interests, I encourage them to favor programs that involve physical activity, which benefits the body and mind. While some kids with ADHD prefer to sit in front of a screen all day, I do not recommend camps that revolve around screen-based activities.
6 Questions to Ask a Prospective Camp
1. How structured is the camp schedule for my child’s age group?
How much time do campers get to engage in free play or choice activities? Some kids with impulse-control issues do not do well in unstructured camps; “free time” is when they struggle the most.
[Free Guide to Choosing the Perfect Camp for Your Child]
2. Are campers required to participate in activities or can they choose to sit out?
The ideal answer would be that they are strongly encouraged and supported to participate in all activities but are not forced. Additionally, parents should be notified if their child is sitting out of activities.
3. If my child needs some time to “decompress,” where would he do that?
How would you make sure that he returns to the activity? Children with ADHD benefit when they develop self-soothing and calming strategies, which prove invaluable in moments of emotional dysregulation at school and at home. A camp should encourage its participants to develop these regulatory skills while ensuring they aren’t left out or forgotten.
4. Which types of ADHD profiles have you found to be successful, and not successful, at camp?
If the camp doesn’t know what you mean by “ADHD profile,” that is a red flag.
5. How much time is spent on screen-based activities?
If your child likes excessive screen time, less is better here.
6. What can I do proactively to set up my child for success at camp?
I recommend providing information to the camp staff weeks in advance about your child’s strengths and how to support her when she’s struggling. Any good camp administrative staff will appreciate parental transparency, proactive strategy ideas, and the opportunity for a collaborative relationship. What is not helpful: withholding your child’s ADHD diagnosis or timing a “medication vacation” to overlap with camp. Summer camps demand a great deal of a child’s attention, emotional regulation, and impulse control — perhaps even more than schools do. If your child takes ADHD medication during the school day, he should continue his regimen at camp. Discuss this with your prescribing physician.
[Free Template: Introduce Your Child to Camp Counselors]
Summer Camp Communication: Sample Letter
Hi (Camp Name) Staff,
We are excited that our child, (child’s name), will be joining you this summer. We are writing to provide you with some helpful information and to offer our assistance in answering any questions you may have.
(Child’s name) has an (impulsive or inattentive) profile of ADHD, which may present in the following ways at camp:
(Below, provide a list of behaviors or challenges your child has experienced at previous overnight camps or in semi-structured activities like sports teams or Scouts, e.g.,
- He may sit off to the side unless encouraged to participate.
- He may avoid other campers and gravitate toward adults because that interaction is easier for him
- He may respond impulsively in competitive environments and lash out during intense athletic games.)
Here are some strategies you can use to help (child’s name) if you observe any of these things:
- Ask him to return to the game and remind him that his team needs him.
- Offer him purposeful praise and recognition.
- If you see him becoming irritable, he may need some water and time to sit in the shade or a quiet area for 5 to 10 minutes.
- If he seems to prefer talking to the counselors instead of the kids, please suggest topics of conversation he can try with other campers. It is often easier for him to talk to younger kids or adults because he does not always remember to show interest in his same-age peers.
- If you find he is having one-sided conversations and talking at the other kids, please feel free to pull him aside and remind him that it helps us make friends when we listen more than we talk (which is something he knows but forgets).
- To help him avoid losing things, please ask him questions using visual language. For example, if he forgets his towel for swim, you can ask him, “Do you look like you’re ready for swim?” If he leaves his water bottle on the table at dismissal, you can say, “Please check your backpack and make sure you have all the things you brought to camp today.”
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or concerns. We are grateful that (child’s name) can attend (camp name) this summer and appreciate you taking the time to read this.
Overnight Camp for ADHD Kids: Next Steps
- Download: 20 Secrets to a Smarter Summer
- Learn: How Summer Camps Benefit Children with ADHD
- Read: Summer Camp Checklist for Kids with ADHD
Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, is the director of ADHD Dude & Trip Camp, based in Margate, New Jersey, and Tucson, Arizona. He creates videos for parents and kids on the ADHD Dude YouTube channel.
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