Scouting and Special Needs Children: Camping, An Introduction

Going camping is a traditional part of growing up here in America.  I guess it all goes back to the pioneer days and our westward expansion.  In any case, if a child doesn’t have that opportunity, they’ve missed out on a significant part of childhood in my opinion.  For special needs children, however, camping may seem impossible because of their disabilities.  There are genuine safety concerns as well as a lot of prejudice and lack of preparedness that get in the way.  In this series of articles, Scouting and Special Needs Children: Camping, I’ll explain what can be done to make camping possible and enjoyable for many special needs children.  All of these suggestions should work within the framework of either the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, although my experience comes from the Girl Scouts.  They can also work for just family camping.

The most important aspect of making any activity successful for a special needs child is understanding the many different aspects of the activity and separating them out for individual attention.  This is usually called “breaking down the activity.”  Much of the time, people aren’t successful teaching skills to these children because they fail to account for the complexity of the task and overwhelm their students with too many new things to assimilate at once.

Camping is an excellent example.  It sounds straightforward enough to an adult.  You spend a night or two in a tent or cabin enjoying the outdoors, cooking over a fire, and doing lots of fun things with your friends.  Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?  But let’s look at some of the things the child will have to be able to handle to do even a simple camping trip.

You have to pack your gear.  This involves understanding what you need to bring, what the weather conditions will be, how to fold things, how to fit things that are very irregular in size into a suitcase or pack, what not to bring, how to label everything and so forth.  Suppose mom does the packing for you.  You still have to be comfortable living out of a suitcase or pack and keeping up with your stuff.

You have to be able to sleep in a sleeping bag.  This involves rolling the thing, dealing with a pillow that doesn’t fit anywhere, keeping it dry and clean, and somehow carrying the bulky thing when it’s almost as big as you are.  It is also a very different sensory experience to sleep in a bag with a zipper.  It doesn’t feel the same, smell the same, or maintain the same temperature as you are used to.  Sensory issues can be very important to a special needs child.  If you can’t sleep, nothing else is going to go well.

Then there’s the great outdoors.  Here are just some of the issues that a child will have to handle.  There are bugs you’ve never seen before that can appear unpredictably.  The world is full of dirt, leaves, and other things you don’t usually have in your house.  It gets really dark at night.  When it’s dark, nothing looks the same, feels the same, or even smells the same.  Using a flashlight takes some getting used to.  It can be hard to manage it at first and the light covers such a small area that you can be scared of the shadows.  Nothing sounds the same as at home.  You have to walk more than you are used to and deal with temperature changes.

Camping food is also different from home.  It doesn’t taste like mom makes and may not be anything you’ve had before.  New tastes and textures will have to be dealt with.  Eating outdoors is a very different experience than eating at home.  There’s wind and bugs to contend with.  The cooking techniques also provide a wealth of new experiences to assimilate, like smoke, heat and bright, dancing flames.

All of these differences must be processed by a child.  It can be very exciting to experience all these new things.  Taken altogether, however, they can be too many new things at once.  It isn’t easy for even a normally developing child to handle all this input.  For a special needs child for whom daily living is a struggle, it can easily be too much.  Each new experience takes effort and cumulatively you wind up exhausted.

I’ll show you how I taught my young Girl Scouts how to handle camping in future installments of Scouting and Special Needs Children: Camping.   I’ll take the different elements of the camping experience and give you some activities to do with your scouts to help prepare them for a first trip.  Scouting and special needs children can go together with a little forethought and planning.

© 2013, Margaret. All rights reserved.