by Faith Evans, M.Ed., and Jane Pemberton, Ph.D.
A well-meaning camp counselor once said to her camper, “Don’t stare at that
person who has a disability.” The camper broadly translated that information
to, “Don’t look.” As a result, people who were different became invisible to
the camper. Her counselor really meant, “Don’t make the individual
uncomfortable.” As a result of the camper’s innocent interpretation, she not
only didn’t see people who were different, she did not invite or even include
them in her environment.
This story isn’t that unusual. At times when people encounter a person who
seems different, for a host of reasons, they may look away because they
don’t know what else to do. Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the
world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
One of the ways to change one’s self and learn to be more accepting of
people with disabilities is to change behaviors when meeting, working, or
playing with people with disabilities in any camp setting. When people,
including children, know what to do and how to behave, perhaps more
positive results will occur, and the world may change one person at a time.
Tips for Special Populations
The following tips are meant to help people know what to do and how to plan
for, invite, include, respect, and play with individuals who may be different
(culturally, physically, emotionally, or intellectually). The general suggestions
listed fit individuals with disabilities and other special populations, and in
most cases, their nondisabled peers will benefit as well. Often, it isn’t
important to know or understand the actual disability or difference. It is more
important to have supportive strategies immediately available to include all
These suggestions specifically address play with individuals identified as
having attention/hyperactivity disorder, learning disability, emotional
disturbance, mental disabilities, hearing and/or visual impairment, autism,
and other health-impaired issues such as arthritis and cerebral palsy. The
strategies outlined may also be useful when playing with English Language
for Managing the Camp
Environment - Universal design
Universal design is an approach to the design of all products and
environments, improving the usability of these products and environments by
as many people as possible regardless of age, ability, or situation. An
example of universal design is the door on the outside of a building with an
entry button displaying the disability symbol. The door’s function was
designed for individuals with disabilities but is often used by people who are
carrying materials and have trouble opening the door or by someone who
just wants easy entrance into the building. The handicapped entry is a
universal design because it benefits a variety of individuals and also provides
individuals with certain disabilities access to the building. The concept of
universal design is an important one in planning and playing with individuals
with a variety of needs and skills.
1. NoiseÑassure that the leader can get the attention of the players when the
noise or activity level is high. Give the opportunity to practice and
master “attention getting” when needed.
2. Attention getting should be strong, clear, and reinforced; reminders may
3. Provide directions when distracting noise is not an issue from other groups,
traffic, planes, trains, etc.
4. If background noise is unavoidable, use a partner system to support
individuals with hearing or attention issues.
5. Participants should be able to see the direction-giving leader. Elevate the
leader’s physical position in the crowd for efficient viewing and
1. Define play boundaries for areas of movement.
2. Provide seating at boundary’s edge for those who may need a break from
Proximity to Leader
Some individuals with disabilities benefit from being physically near the
counselor. For larger groups, consider using a microphone with excellent
sound quality or manage the group by proximity, meaning the leader’s eyes
are always on the group, and the group is never behind the leader’s back or
facing the sun.
Giving Directions to Campers
Practice giving a minimum number of clear, one-step directions, using as few
words as possible.
1. When needed, break the activity into small steps and model each one at
the time. Offer an opportunity to practice if appropriate.
2. Confirm that the campers understand the skill at each step.
3. Number and give all directions in the order in which they will be completed.
4. Keep voice at moderate level and use an attention-getting signal to quiet a
group, rather than talking louder.
5. Tell campers what to do, not what not to do. If it is necessary to identify
what not to do, do so with the nonexample/ example method. (For
example, provide a nonexample of the behavior and then follow
immediately with an example of the positive behavior.)
6. Pay attention to, and immediately reinforce, positive behavior using voice
and facial reinforcement such as smiling or hand gestures (clapping or
7. When possible, connect effort with results; for example, “Good job
listening. Your group heard the directions and finished easily,” or,
”Nice work . . . your team members took turns and came up with
several creative answers.”
Accomodations for Individual Campers
When planning for group play, determine if any campers will need
accommodations. For example:
1. Establish a partner systemÑtwo people function in partnership, playing as
one, or one partner acts as a prompter for another: “Ready, GO!”;
”Now, it’s your turn”; or “Here comes the ball.”
2. Adapt a game for the use of all body parts, such as, for a person using a
wheelchair, use a lap for catching if arms or hands are not fully
3. Adapt game materials, such as substituting a beach ball for a harder or
smaller regulation size ball.
4. If a camper needs modifications to participate (such as using a
wheelchair), begin by asking the individual, in a private and respectful
way, how he or she would like to be included/supported.
1. Be fair, firm, and consistent.
2. Individuals have the most control over their own behavior. If the group or
individual behavior isn’t going as expected, first check your own
behavior in terms of directions, environment, players versus leaders,
activity appropriateness, length of game, time of day, and schedule
3. Use time wisely. Prepare all materials in advance to avoid wait time and
the consequent loss of player focus. Regaining player focus is harder
than maintaining it with a steady and natural flow of activity.
4. Expect the unexpected! Be prepared for stray dogs; dramatic weather
changes (or danger, such as lightning); surprise illnesses or accidents;
technology malfunctions or loss of electricity; late beginnings; or early
endings . . . and a host of unimaginable challenges.
Modifying a game scenario for one person sends a powerful message of
acceptance and respect to all players, as well as a message that conveys that
any player’s needs will be met.
Jen’s Story Jen (not her real name), a former Winter Olympic Games
candidate, was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. From the
sidelines, Jen listened with her fellow players to the directions for
accomplishing the Electric Maze, an activity focused on communication.
Navigating a grid of squares taped to the carpet, players discover the
unknown path through the maze, using signals developed by the team
members. Each of the thirty-four taped squares was sized just large enough
for one person to stand. Jen declined the invitation to be an observer and
reporter of the team’s processÑtypically, a familiar attempt to involve her,
but not a fulfilling alternative for her. One of her friends responded with,
“Why not, Jen?” and she replied, “I’d play, but the squares are too small.”
Bingo! The tape was pulled up by camp staff, and the squares were made big
enough to accommodate the base of the wheelchair. Jen rolled her chair from
square to square, as easily as her colleagues stepped from square to square.
Jen began the maze with skepticism and ended with elation. Jen reported
feeling equal, engaged, and successful in a gameÑa first since her accident.
She remembers that seemingly innocuous game as a beginning step toward
her work today, as a spokesperson for persons with disabilities.
Sam’s Story Sam, a member of a group tossing balls for Group Juggle,
joined the standing circle seated in his wheelchair. Each player brought a
chair to the circle to level the tossing field, thus bringing the game to Sam’s
eye level. Sam, unable to catch a ball with his hands, could receive a wellaimed
toss in his lap. A partner sitting next to Sam picked up the ball and
sent it on to the next catcher. Two people acted as one player and each
played a viable role in the game.
Sandra’s Story During a game session, Sandra, for religious reasons,
could not touch or be touched by any member of the opposite sex, other
than her spouse or family. Planning ahead, several same-gender colleagues
volunteered to be her partner whenever she needed one. The anxiety, which
could have resulted in an untenable situation for the group, transformed to
fun and comfortable inclusion for all players.
Jose’s Story Another player, Jose, new to the English language and not
familiar with a traditional game played in the U.S., connected with a partner,
whom he shadowed. The two played as oneÑrunning, catching, giving
signals. Soon the newcomer was playing with confidence and enthusiasm and
able to take his turns alone.
Understanding Specific Disabilities and Situations
When individuals are reluctant to play with particular persons, it is helpful to
set parameters and expectations.
In setting up the game:
1. Give the time frame. “We’ll play for ten minutes . . . it’s a short game.”
2. Tell the reluctant player that new partners and groups will be formed and
reformed throughout the game playing time.
To aid individuals who are hearing impaired, give visual cues. Consider the
use of written instructions, or if indoors, put instructions on an overhead or
For the person who is visually impaired, find a partner with whom he or she
is comfortable and safe. Braille instructions are an option for written
materials. Be spatially cognizant when planning games: arrange for open,
easy access to seating and assure that any materials are within reach. Be
aware of the proximity of stairs or uneven ground, and carefully orchestrate
movement within groups.
Most campers benefit from knowing what to expect. Post or verbally offer an
agenda of the day, including what to expect, how long, the number of
activities, an indication of the timing for breaks/lunch, and the ending time.
Organizing and sharing the beginnings and endings of sections of the
program give players structure, predictability, information for appropriate
movement, and a feeling of control because they have knowledge (power) of
the schedule for the day.
Some campers with learning disabilities and/or emotional disabilities may
have difficulty reading social cues. Basically, the behavior does not fit the
task. For example, players may have difficulty taking turns; may dominate;
may withdraw; become inappropriately loud (use outside voices in inside
settings); or become energetically out of bounds.
Some campers with learning disabilities may hear instructions literally,
spending the entire activity time finding the perfect partner who “has the
same shoes,” and never get to play the game. Individuals may be seen
mistakenly as socially incompetent, unable to follow directions, uninterested,
or even rebellious, when they are merely trying to follow the directions to the
Some campers playing games have difficulty connecting effort with results or
action with consequences. If an individual has an internal locus of control, it
implies he or she understands effort is connected with results. Interestingly,
some individuals have an external locus of control, and the connection is not
clear between the effort and the results.
An individual camper could be viewed as nonparticipatory, reckless with the
outcome, or simply uncaring. Being clear about the expectation is helpful.
Some individuals may display learned helplessness or an overall feeling of
powerlessness, an attitude of “what’s the point?” or “why try, it never works
anyway.” Be aware that many factors converge to create a play behavior that
may call for sensitivity, thoughtful planning, and positive strategy
Draw a Circle That Includes
Play can be used to draw a circle that includes players from diverse
backgrounds and skill levels. It is important for leaders to recognize abilities
rather than disabilities and use invitation and inclusive strategies to draw all
players into the activities. When one player succeeds, all players have a
better chance for success.
In summary, it is important to know that all members of a camp community
have strengths and areas of need. To increase success in play experiences,
staff leaders must embrace the opportunity to make inclusive changes,
honoring H.D. Thoreau’s statement, “Things do not change. We do.”
Faith Evans, M.Ed., owner of PlayFully, Inc., specializes in experiential
learning. She is a staff trainer, author, and presenter whose professional
camp history spans forty-five years. She can be reached at
Jane Pemberton, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Special Education
Program, College of Professional Education at Texas Woman’s University.
She has a background in camping as a camper, counselor, director, and staff
trainer. She currently teaches undergraduate and graduate students
interested in working with students with disabilities. She can be reached at
Reprinted from the November/December 2007 issue of Camping Magazine by
permission of the American Camp Association¨ ; copyright 2007 American Camping