This article first appeared in the April 2015 CADDAC (Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada) newsletter.
By Rob Deman & Donna Segal, Directors of Camp Kennebec
Parents and experts agree that non-medical approaches to ADHD, like a summer at camp, play an important role in helping children and teens with ADHD cope, manage and thrive!In February, Camp Kennebec hosted a talk entitled Striving at School, Thriving at Play at the University of Toronto by two ADHD experts, Drs. Doron Almagor and Brenda Miles. Dr. Doron Almagor is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who recently opened The Possibilities Clinic in Toronto, and Dr. Brenda Miles is a pediatric neuropsychologist and children’s book author. Dr. Miles began by discussing non-medical strategies for boosting children’s striving at school and thriving at play. Dr. Almagor, an expert in ADHD, continued by dispelling common myths about inattention and hyperactivity, and explored medical options for children and teens whose striving and thriving is challenged by inattention and difficulties regulating behaviour. (For a follow up interview with Dr. Miles & Alamgor, please click on this link.
In this article, we’d like to follow up on their talk, by offering you our first hand observations as Camp Kennebec’s directors, of the lasting benefits we’ve seen from a summer at camp for kids and teens with ADHD.
Top Benefits of Summer Camp for Kids & Teens with ADHD
Fresh Country Air, Sunshine & Being Physically Active Uses Energy
The most obvious, but often overlooked benefit of a summer at camp is that campers expend so much energy each day, having so much fun that they are exhausted by bedtime! Being physically tired, after a great day is one of the best non-medical approaches we’ve ever seen to help kids manage their ADHD. Campers sleep well when they’ve walked several kilometers each day to activities, games, and adventures. Interestingly, campers often take this increased interest in physical activity home with them, giving parents one more non-medical way to help kids and teens with ADHD thrive.
Effective and Fun Ways to Learn Self Control
Here are a few examples of how campers unintentionally learn self-control and patience at camp:
- Speaking quietly, acting calmly and moving slowly and deliberately around horses, so campers earn the horses’ trust
- Focusing intently, standing still, and concentrating to aim a bow and arrow at an archery target
- Learning the proper sequence for using a safety harness, and following a specialist’s instructions, so campers can try our climbing wall
Increase In Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence
Camp is a wonderful opportunity to gain confidence and self-esteem in a supported, structured environment. Through a system of merits and other acknowledgements, we privately and publicly recognize camper accomplishments. Sometimes accomplishments are activity-based like getting up on water-skis, trying the zip line, performing in the talent show or passing a swim level. Other times we recognize self-control improvement such as completing an academic assignment, improved cooperation or respecting rules. Our third category of “merits” are the ones where we recognize empathy such as helping out at an activity, caring for younger children, being a good friend, and comforting another person.
Overnight camp is the first chance many kids have to be away from home for an extended period. We offer a high degree of choice so that campers must make their own decisions on how to spend some of their activity time. It’s amazing how quickly campers begin to thrive on the freedom that comes from making their own decisions based on their preferences, skills and talents, without parent, teacher or medical involvement. Interestingly, campers typically welcome suggestions from camp staff who they see as helpful and team-like vs. authoritative.
Gains in Cooperation & Coping Skills
Communal camp living provides many planned and unplanned situations to learn and improve coping skills. Campers share a cabin, washrooms and meals with at least six other campers and counsellors and must learn to live and play together. Even “fun” activities like canoeing, sailing and camping require the cooperation of a team or at least a duo. It takes cabin cooperation to build a tree house, start a campfire, prepare for a skit, write a cabin cheer and even clean the cabin. Though the focus is on fun, camps geared for campers with ADHD, have counsellors who suggest and explain techniques to self-regulate, deal with conflict, cope with frustration, and control impulses.
Build and Use Social Skills to Make Meaningful Connections
Camp is a great place to develop, improve and practice social skills. Virtually every waking minute of the day involves interactions with peers, younger and older campers, counsellors and activity staff. Campers quickly learn that their actions and reactions have a very real and positive impact on their community and summer experience. What a great way for campers to hone their empathy skills and practice social skills. Trained staff help problem solve, suggest appropriate interactions, and encourage socializing.
Skills and Improvements Often Last a Lifetime
Most of the research we’ve seen confirms what we’ve known all along: The key to meaningful improvements in ADHD is to identify and begin to treat ADHD as early as you can. That’s why Camp Kennebec now accepts children as young as aged six. We know that the valuable lessons our campers learn about the importance of physical activity, how to interact with others, taking responsibility for the decisions they make, and strategies to improve self-control and cope with difficult situations are transferred to many situations outside the camp season. Perhaps that is one reason why parents often tell us that the improvements that they see in their children and teens after a session at camp, last well into the school year and beyond.
We thought we’d close with a parent testimonial that reinforces all we’ve seen about the good a summer at camp can do for kids and teens with ADHD
“I believe that my son grew more in camp each year, more than school or therapies combined, because of the staff caring enough to help him grow. At Camp, you see the person each child is, and who he can become. My eldest graduated high school last June with 37 credits and the confidence that he could become a chef. In August, he will graduate from Humber College with his Blue Seal. Could he have done it with just his parents behind him? Maybe, but he would not stand strong and tall the way he does now, because he wouldn’t have learned a very valuable lesson…other people…people who aren’t family…can care about you and believe in you when you are at your worst self and show you a way to be YOUR best self! Every child has the right to learn how to grow through going away to camp, but it can only happen for our kids if it’s the right camp…Camp Kennebec.
About the Authors:
Rob Deman and Donna Segal are co-directors of Camp Kennebec, an overnight summer camp for children with ADHD, autism and other special needs located between Ottawa and Toronto, Ontario. Together they have more than 40 years of camp experience. Both bring a wealth of knowledge and hands on experience and have a shared vision that camp must be a fun, happy place that offers one-of-a-kind experiences and huge sense of accomplishment that kids will cherish for years to come.