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MM#25 – What Happens At Camp Should NOT Stay At Camp

Eight years ago a group of parents with special needs children looked at me intently, awaiting my reply to – “will you design a music based camp for our kids?” They referred to their children as having strong affinities to music yet not fitting well into the “regular” music and art camps currently available. They had hopes that their child wouldn’t lose any of the great gains they had made in the school year at their rehabilitation, educational and therapeutic programs.

Marilyn contacted our office during her quest of seeking out summer camps for her granddaughter Kara. She had the hope of helping Kara develop the necessary social skills she would need for kindergarten. Up to this point Kara had limited social interaction with her peers and her grandmother was concerned for a difficult transition to school. Kara is a non-verbal, anxious, sweet mannered girl with a “creative bent” Marilyn explained. After learning about the camp goals and in particular the focus on social development through the use of music, she enrolled Kara into one week of Therapy Express.

At the end of the camp I had an opportunity to sit with Marilyn.  With tears in her eyes she explained a little about Kara and why she is now in her care. Kara’s mom abandoned her when she was 2 months old. Kara’s dad had difficulties raising her due to pre-existing mental health concerns so Marilyn, Kara’s paternal grandmother, took Kara in full time when she turned two and a half.  Now at the age of four Marilyn was afraid she had not prepared her granddaughter for school.

After Kara’s first day at Therapy Express, Marilyn commented that she had never seen Kara pay attention for so long and that it was the first time in a long time she had seen her share a smile with another child.  She enrolled Kara into a second camp that summer and then set up regular music therapy sessions throughout the school year to assist with her transition into the school system. In addition to her class work Kara continues to participate in a variety of therapies and is now speaking.

Goals and Client Criteria
In one camp we may have a child with Down Syndrome and their sibling, two children with cerebral palsy, 3 children on the autism spectrum, 2 more siblings and 1 child with a generalized anxiety disorder like Kara. Therapy Express is open to all children who thrive in an intimate and strong structure. The camps strive to bridge children socially and give every child a voice.

Therapy Express is built on the premise that children feel a strong sense of belonging and connectedness while also empowered to develop new skills that will assist them in successful day to day activities. Specific areas addressed are development of verbal expression, music communication, large and small group social interactions gross and fine motor development as well as improved self – esteem and self-confidence.

A parent or aide accompanies the preschool child and those children requiring special medical assistance.  This is to ensure optimum safety and as a way for caregivers to learn creative and therapeutic strategies to use at home. Children who attend school with no aide are not required to bring an aide to camp.  In this case the final written report becomes the primary communication device between the camp therapists and families. In each report the primary therapy team highlights successes achieved, strengths observed, and recommendations for the future.

The Use of Curriculum for Therapeutic Camps – an unusual blend of function and creativity
When designing Therapy Express we hoped to capitalize on the best music therapy had to offer – high engagement quotient, successful group experiences, natural appeal for children and the ability to work on physical and socio-emotional skills in a single program plan. After much discussion we decided to blend this therapeutic context with educational curriculum.  Each day has a primary theme with written details of activities/interventions/experiences that echo that theme.  Themes include: “My Body’s Special” “I’m Like the Weather” “Friends and Family.” Every planned interaction provides the therapy team flexibility to improvise to ensure maximum success.

Camps are divided into 3 age categories: Preschool (3 – 6), Elementary (7 – 12) and Teens (13 – 17). Therapy Express has the same daily structure each day that includes an opening large group (maximum 10 children), a small group therapy session (maximum 5 children), snack, relaxation exercises, outdoor play, a secondary small group therapy session and concludes with a final large group interaction.  Each year our binder grows with new ideas on how to express the core curriculum pending the student’s age, abilities and interests.

The Final Performance
On the last day of camp the aides, parents and friends of the children are invited to attend a 30-minute presentation that allows each child to shine.

The final performance highlights the child while also giving the therapists an opportunity to speak to families who may not have participated directly in the camp. Our mission is that families, months after camp has ended, inform us that their child has continued to build on the skills they developed during Therapy Express. What happens at camp SHOULD NOT stay at camp.