While making your summer plans this year, consider checking out an inclusive summer camp as a way for your kids to spend some quality time with children of all learning and physical abilities. According to the American Camp Association, an inclusive camp is one that creates space for all children, regardless of ability, race, language and income, to be integral members of a community, feel a connection to their peers, have access to meaningful activities and receive the support needed to succeed.
These are the core tenets upon which Design Hive, located in Mid-City L.A., was, well, designed.
Science teacher Lauren Arshad and technology teacher Jennifer Cefaly founded Design Hive so kids could have access to cutting-edge, hands-on programming. Primarily a science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) workshop, the program also focuses on helping develop children’s emerging fine and gross motor skills.
Design Hive is intended to be flexible. A regular day runs from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., but the model allows for attending half or full days, and you can decide whether one or several days a week work best for your family. There are virtual options in place as well. Arshad says they serve children of many different backgrounds and physical abilities in ages ranging from 5-12 years. “We’re good at paying attention to the needs of the individual student and providing opportunities for them to excel,” she says.
The world’s a stage — for all
For your tweens and teens, check out California State University, Northridge’s six-week Teenage Drama Workshop, a camp that has inclusivity written into its script. CSUN has been educating kids ages 11-18 in the theater arts for the past 64 years.
Executive Director Garry Lennon says the goal has always been to create a safe environment for students to learn about theater. “We have kids of all learning abilities,” Lennon says. “Our approach is making everything as inclusive as possible and in an encouraging environment.”
The program’s core curriculum includes acting, dancing and singing. Students can add elective classes in areas such as improvisation, puppetry and playwriting, and they have the opportunity to be cast in either a musical or non-musical play, with rehearsals happening in the afternoons during camp time. Through the magic of performance art, Lennon says, staff members help guide students in discovering who they are and who they want to become.
Focusing on friendship
For 33 years, Camp James, located in Newport Dunes, has offered kids (ages 4-13) an inclusion-based camp experience. Executive Director Scottie Roach says Camp James is committed to meeting children where they are and offering campers the opportunity to play and grow with their peers. Camp James works together with parents/caregivers to help campers of all abilities feel a sense of belonging. “Kids just want to be accepted for who they are,” Roach says.
Camp James focuses on a child’s whole being, which is why the camp offers a wide range of activities. From arts and crafts to bounce houses to canoes and kayaks, children are able to step into a new experience or solidify established interests during their four-week day camp. All activities are intended to get the creativity flowing and support kids in cultivating friendships.
Chani Mintz, director of The Friendship Circle in Newport Beach, says the program’s main goal is to give kids a sense of feeling included. “Every child deserves to have friends,” she says. The Friendship Circle “seeks to provide every individual with special needs the support, friendship and inclusion that they deserve.
“We do lots of field trips that can accommodate all kinds of kids,” Mintz continues. When the campers aren’t taking trips, they’re engaging in onsite activities such as arts and crafts, music, dance and sports.
Solving social mysteries
If you’re looking for an inclusive camp that centers learning and playing in small groups, then all clues lead to Social Detective Academy in North Hollywood. Jeffrey Jessum, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works with adults and kids on social-emotional intelligence across the development spectrum, founded the academy.
In the summer camp program, children ages 6-12 are given opportunities to learn how to navigate social terrain through structured activities. “We teach verbal/nonverbal communication and listening skills,” Jessum says. Campers spend their days making new friends and solving “social mysteries” designed to increase awareness, self-regulation, creativity, mind/body connection and social/emotional aptitude.
This year, Social Detective Academy is focusing on a group experience of six kids per group. “We will continue doing the social-skills groups, which is a microcosm of camp,” Jessum explains. Children have the opportunity to practice their social skills with a strong emphasis on cultivating healthy, good relationships with their peers. Jessum says the program benefits all campers and develops a culture of acceptance for everyone.
If you’re searching for a camp for your littles, the Child Success Center in West L.A. is ready for you. Camp Director Melissa Idelson, a pediatric/sensory integration trained occupational therapist, founded the Child Success Center so children who are struggling with learning and socializing have a place where they can feel safe and successful. “Our kindergarten readiness camp is for parents seeking to enrich their child’s readiness skills,” she says.
With 10 kids per class for two- to three-week sessions, this camp provides help in areas such as social and fine motor skills.
“For a child that needs a small play learning environment, with a kindergarten readiness emphasis, this has been a beautiful camp,” Idelson says. The Child Success Center also offers camps for kids ages 6 to 8. The Social Brain Building Camp is run by a therapist and is a week-long camp with eight kids to a class. Idelson says the camp centers work on taking social perspectives, group dynamics and sensory motor play.
Offering structure and diversity
If a more specialized summer camp fits your child’s needs, The Help Group provides services to children with a variety of needs. “We’re most known for our programming for children and young adults that service the entire autism spectrum,” says Laurie Stephens, Ph.D., and senior director of autism and LGBTQIA+ programs.
The Help Group’s summer programs includes camps that focus on social skills development where the goals encompass teamwork and high-level conversation, as well as camps that offer more activity-based courses such as sports and/or cooking and travel camps.
“The number one thing is that our programs are designed to go with the camper’s interests and make them feel comfortable,” Stephens says. This support can look like taking breaks from activities when needed with access to sensory materials. The Help Group works to accommodate as many students as is safe, she says, and creates a space for kids to interact in a way that bolsters confidence and learning.
Meeting twice-exceptional kids’ needs
Seeking to create an “immersive ecosystem” for twice-exceptional (2E) children and their families, Samuel Young founded the Young Scholars Academy. “Twice-exceptional students can be gifted in one area and struggle in others,” Young says.
A virtual program, Young Scholars Academy offers classes and camps that support 2E students year-round. Its summer camps are capped at eight students per class so kids can build lasting friendships. “The backbone of this program has been to connect with students around the world,” Young says.
Virtual campers ages 8-18 can choose from hour-long courses such as speech and debate, engineering, sketching and even a class in Dungeons and Dragons. Young says having an hour a week to have your strengths appreciated builds confidence, and kids leave the academy feeling proud of their accomplishments.
Choosing the right inclusive camp
If you’re unsure an inclusive camp is right for your child, Roach of Camp James advises calling the camp and asking questions specific to your child’s needs. This approach is also supported by Undivided, an organization that aims to help parents who are raising kids with disabilities dream bigger and achieve more through community, collective knowledge and resource support.
Undivided recommends asking camps these three critical questions when searching for an inclusive camp:
- Do you have experience working with kids with disabilities? I’d love to speak to the camp director to see if the camp could be a good fit for my child.
Tip: Think about specific accommodations your child might need to be successful and ask how the camp can support them.
- Can a 1:1 aide accompany my child to provide extra support?
Tip: Some camps put extra restrictions on the number of people allowed due to COVID-19. Aides take up one of those spaces, so it’s important to ask how that factors in.
- How do you encourage socialization with kids who might communicate, behave or interact in unique ways?
Tip: Go deeper by asking whether the camp enthusiastically supports inclusive play, accessibility, camp buddies, peer modeling and celebrating each child for who they are.
An inclusive camp can have positive benefits for all, including boosting self-esteem and increasing compassion. “Many kids who have vulnerabilities are struggling with isolation as a contributing factor, and part of the healing will involve helping kids be a part of communities and groups,” Jessum says.
Tonilyn Hornung is an author and freelance writer who lives with her husband, son, many furry friends and never enough closet space.