Every parent wants to recreate positive childhood memories to share with their children, and often, camping is a stand-out memory that endures from childhood. But when you have a child with special needs, unfamiliar places can be scary for them and the prospect of camping can simply seem too overwhelming. To help ease your worries and prepare both you and your child for a new experience, here are some things to consider before going camping with children that have special needs.
Preparation Is Key
When you’re camping with children that have special needs, focus on building excitement around the camping trip weeks in advance. Read books together that relate to camping or the outdoors, and consider making a countdown calendar to cultivate anticipation for the upcoming adventure. Show them the website or let them keep brochures of the campground you plan to stay at and the attractions you intend to see, so that they can be continuously reminded of the fun that lies ahead! When your child knows what to expect, it will help ease their anxiety so that they can look forward to the new experience, rather than feel fearful of the unknown.
Make a Trial Run
Get your child familiar with the experience and some of the equipment prior to the actual camping trip. Set up a tent in the living room and encourage them to sleep in it for the night, so that they can test out the lifestyle within the familiar comforts of home. If that goes well, take it one step further and set the tent up in the back yard! Build a fire and roast marshmallows to give them more of a taste of what to expect once they’re away from home. The more you prepare your child for what’s to come, the more they will be prepared to handle the transition.
As a generalization, children with special needs like familiarity, so bring along items that will aid in making the great outdoors feel more like the home they are accustomed to. Pack comfort items like stuffed animals, a favorite pillow, or a special blanket. Don’t forget to bring plenty of activities to keep them busy during moments of down time. Make a quick trip to the dollar store and pick up some crayons, bubbles, koosh balls, squirt guns, and other small sensory stimulating toys. These items will all come in handy in the inevitable event of a midday meltdown.
Food for Thought
If your child has special needs regarding food allergies or a sensitive diet, packing the right foods is very important. Check labels and bring ingredients for meals that you know your child enjoys. Bring plenty of snacks as well! Camping can get active and your child may be burning a lot more calories than normal, so you’ll need to compensate for this by bringing plenty of food for fuel. Snacks can also come in handy when trying to incentivize your child into trying new activities that they are fearful of. Little food bribes can go a long way in helping your child discover different activities that they enjoy.
Camping with other families that have kids can make camping with a child that has special needs a lot easier. It will give your child a chance to interact, socialize, and play with other people their own age. Just as this buddy system benefits your child, the added supervision provided through other parents will benefit you! Your child is probably not going to want to participate in every single activity when camping. When you have multiple adults, a parent can stay at the campsite and watch over the kids who would rather stay behind, while the other adults can bring the participating kids off on excursions and adventures.
When deciding on the right campground to stay at, be particular. If this is your first camping excursion with a child that has special needs, don’t pick a location that is excessively far from home. Long car rides can be draining on kids, and you don’t want to spoil the trip before you’ve even reached your destination. Inquire with campgrounds about their facilities. For example, ask if they have handicapped-accessible bathrooms and electric hookup sites. Be sure to look at a map of the campground and pick a campsite that isn’t too far away from the bathrooms.
The less unpredictable your daily schedule is, the less unpredictable your child will be as a result. Giving your child a structured routine will greatly reduce their anxiety levels and make them feel more comfortable during a time that varies greatly from what they are used to. Develop a routine and try to stick to it, while still being flexible. Eat meals around the same time each day so that while your activities may differ from day to day, the general format of your days do not.
Children with special needs may not want to or be able to participate in all of the traditional camping activities that may seem like a staple of any outdoor trip. Be mindful of this and seek out alternative activities that you know your child can enjoy. If your child has mobility issues or fatigues easily, a hiking trip probably isn’t ideal. Instead, teach them to play archaeologist by digging for fossils in the dirt or play architect and design a one-of-a-kind sand castle together! Bring fun campsite games like lawn bowling or hillbilly golf for some easily accessible go-to activities. Get crafty and let them make their own wind chimes, or have a fun picnic under the shade of the forested canopy.
Safety should be a concern with all children, but particularly if you have a child with special needs, as they can be more susceptible to injury. Sometimes the visual stimulation of the campfire can be too tempting, so practice good fire safety education, and be sure to keep the area around the fire clear to avoid falls. As with fire, children with special needs can be drawn to water, so make sure to practice good water safety too. If you are worried about your child being around a large body of unobstructed water, avoid campgrounds with ponds or lakes. For peace of mind while you sleep, consider getting a combination lock to secure your tent closed, so that your child cannot wander off in the night. Being cautious can help both you and your child avoid some of the more common camping injuries.
If you are a parent to a child with special needs, you already know how important it is to be flexible. This is even more imperative when you are bringing your kid into an unfamiliar environment. Expect misadventures, practice patience, and adapt to unpredictability. Remember, taking your children camping is about making memories with your family, not about making sure everything goes perfectly along the way. Don’t spoil your trip by trying to force everything into going off without a hitch, because if those are your intentions, you are already in a losing battle. Meltdowns happen, problems will arise - but they don’t have to define your entire camping trip!
Camping with children that have special needs is a great opportunity for growth and development, not just for your child, but for you as well! It may be challenging at times, but it won’t be without its rewards. Spending time together in the great outdoors will give you a valuable chance to bond, build lasting memories, and witness your child progress in ways that you may never have thought possible!