Camp Fun For All

Camp Fun For All: Creativity, Tolerance, and Flat-Out Fun

“Tag! You’re it!” Derek jumped down from the play structure (or as the kids call it, the “Big Toy”). Alexa, the new “it,” chased after him, charging across the playground. Neither of them seemed to pay any mind to the woman sitting on the playground’s perimeter. She was Derek’s aide, here to watch over Derek to make sure his behavior stayed in control.

If they met at school or simply playing in the park, Derek and Alexa would likely be divided, since Derek’s needs would usually set him apart from his peers. But for a week in August 2008, they became inseparable friends at Camp Fun For All.

Offered through Pierce County Parks & Recreation, Camp Fun For All provides art projects, picnic lunches on the grass, and a wide variety of outdoor games. But unlike other camps, it is open to kids of all different abilities. Campers with everything from ADHD to autism play alongside their so-called “normal” peers for a week. As a Camp Fun For All counselor last summer, I got to see firsthand the unique opportunity that this camp provides: a flexible curriculum and the chance for children from different backgrounds to become friends.

Mixing It Up

You might expect that the first day of Camp Fun For All would be full of questions from the children: Why isn’t she playing with us? Why is he so much older than all the other kids here?

But instead, they just jumped in and started to play. The game of tag, after all, is relatively universal. No special abilities needed. During free time, the campers run through the Big Toy, under slides and through tunnels, tagging other kids indiscriminately. Having fun.

Every camp has a slightly different mix of campers. For this session, seven out of the fourteen campers were listed with special needs. Though most fell between the ages of eight and twelve, some campers were as old as seventeen.

Some of the differences between campers might not be immediately obvious. One might expect that five-year-old Melody just had too short of an attention span for games, since she preferred examining blades of grass to joining in. But Melody’s autism made the social interaction of the games almost impossible. So she ran her fingers through the grass of the field nearby, under the watchful eye of an older camper or two, as the rest of the campers participated in the activities.

Whether the campers are younger or older, here they all have an even playing field. When playing Red Light Green Light, for instance, the taller campers can’t just charge ahead of the littler ones. Instead, everyone has to step back periodically when the gap between players grows too wide.

Here, we play most games a little differently than the campers might expect. Take dodgeball, for instance. When we brought out the dodgeballs, Derek thought he understood the game. One hit and you’re standing on the sidelines, right? Not at Camp Fun For All. Instead, the campers play “crossover dodgeball,” where every time a ball touches a camper, she has to run across the line to join the other team. And most importantly, balls are rolled along the ground, never hurled through the air.

Games like these make it hard for anyone to be a poor sport. With everyone switching teams every few minutes, the campers hardly recognized what team they were on. Soon Derek was pitching balls at his new friend Alexa’s feet, trying to bring her back to his team.

Though we counselors had a whole book full of cooperative games like this up our sleeves, sometimes the best games and activities came from the campers themselves. One afternoon Alexa came up and told us about her favorite game— could she show us how to play? Soon Alexa had the rest of the camp sitting in a circle in the grass, teaching us the chant for “Who Stole The Cookie From The Cookie Jar.”

Alexa wasn’t the only camper to help lead that week. Others volunteered to keep an extra eye on Melody and the other younger campers. In a camp with this wide of an age range, older campers—with or without special needs—have the opportunity to be leaders themselves.

Water Day!

The creativity of Camp Fun For All extends to other activities, not just the games. Nowhere was this more apparent than on water day—a camp tradition that veteran campers look forward to eagerly. On this day, the kids arrived to camp in swimsuits. They ran to an equipment bin, brimming with water, to fill up their plastic cups and squirt guns. Campers hid in the tunnels and behind the poles of the Big Toy, just waiting to soak whoever walked by.

Meanwhile, Alexa and Derek were muttering to each other next to the water bin, hatching a new plan. Derek lugged a full bucket of water up to the top of the twisty slide. Waiting for him at the top, Alexa gleefully dumped the water down the slide. Derek sped down with a shout, water soaking the back of his T-shirt. He dashed back to the water bin to refill his bucket and try it again.

When the rest of the campers saw the slide, they charged up the Big Toy steps, hollering for a turn. The splash of water accompanied the campers’ shrieks of delight. “Come on!” Alexa shouted to Derek, who was racing across the playground, ready to pour yet another bucket of water down the slide.

Unique Prizes for Every Camper

For children, counselors and parents alike, Camp Fun For All can provide a good opportunity to learn tolerance. At the beginning of the week, some campers made fun of their fellows’ funny speech. But we counselors squelched this quickly, explaining that here, everyone was to be treated equally. By the end of the week, the campers who had been teased were integral parts of the group. Their noisy tag games included every member of camp, no matter how big or small.

At the end of the week, each camper received an award tailored specially for them. Little Melody’s prize was for curiosity, after she examined every flower in the lawn. Alexa received a prize for creativity, Derek for leadership. We congratulate them for contributing to camp with all their ideas, including the legendary water slide. They grin to remember it, and Derek gave Alexa a quick high-five. The looks on their faces suggested they might already be planning the next year’s camp adventure.

© 2009, Margaret Ellsworth. All rights reserved.

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