Camp for Autistic Spectrum Campers?

Summer vacation for students on the autistic spectrum can be extremely challenging at best.  The lack of routine and structure during the summer increase general anxiety, while a lack of social and recreational programming can further isolate children already trailing their peers in social development.IMG_7998  Yet, this traditional school break can also present a unique opportunity for socially anxious and isolated students to immerse themselves in the socially rich culture of summer camp.  As an added bonus, these same students develop their independence as they learn how to transition away from home.

All too often, parents of autistic spectrum children are unaware of summer camps that strive to provide socially therapeutic programming to this unique population.  The general inclination is to feel that their children are not ready or able to make the break from home in order to experience what thousands of neurotypical children experience each summer in the camp setting.

Yet, there are camps out there that specialize in providing exactly what autistic spectrum campers need in order to maximize their summer camp experience.  Social skills, just as independence, cannot be learned in a vacuum, or at home. With the appropriate supports in place, there is no better setting for social skill development than a summer camp.

What are these supports and how should families gauge a camp’s ability to meet their child’s cognitive and socially developmental needs?  The criteria in the following list are critical factors to consider when families are seeking an appropriate camp for their autistic spectrum child.

Does the camp, their administration and cabin counselors:

  • Understand the developmental needs of children on the spectrum; in particular the non-verbal processing and other learning challenges experienced by this population of students?
  • Provide direct and formalized social skill instruction as well as ongoing support to reinforce their curriculum in order to help students internalize social strategies?
  • Emphasize social skill development as a critical goal for the camp community and use traditional activities as the vehicle for achieving social goals?
  • Recognize and acknowledge the debilitating impact that anxiety has on the performance level of autistic spectrum children?
  • Create a daily structure and routine to reduce anxiety and in doing so, maximize social engagement?
  • Provide age appropriate social opportunities for campers so that they can apply social skills in structured and supervised settings?
  • Maintain a continuous social dialogue between campers and their counselors designed to reinforce skills or redirect behavior in real time to provide immediate feedback?
  • Foster a community environment in which non-competitive and non-judgmental programming deemphasizes competition, reduces anxiety and celebrates unique interests and skills?

Age appropriate social skill development for students on the autistic spectrum is challenging at best.  There are too many factors related to processing, anxiety, rigidity and immaturity to take your chances with programs not specifically prepared to provide the necessary supports and structure to foster success and growth.  When researching campsIMG_6665 to determine their ability to meet the needs of your child, don’t hesitate to ask plenty of questions and be honest and upfront about your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  It is in the family’s, camp’s and, most importantly, camper’s best interests to find the right summer camp community to meet their individual needs.

There is no one camp out there that is able to meet the needs of every child.  The community of camps is as diverse as the children we serve!  Yet, there is a camp out there for every child!  When a family finds the right match, their children find a second home that can provide a lifetime of wonderful memories as well as a community that they can call their own!

Intro Social Skills Newsletter, 2017

Hello everyone, Rebecca here, the social skills coordinator at camp.  Our social skills program is called Pow Wow. It is an integral part of our social skills curriculum at Northwood and helps to facilitate the social dialogue that is embedded within our program. Each week the Pow Wow program has a theme that targets different social skills. Cabins participate in Pow Wow once a week and receive related activities to complete in their cabin.

Today, I had two wonderful Pow Wow sessions with the gentlemen from Cedar 1 and the ladies of Deer 1 and 2. We have just begun our second week of Pow Wow and each cabin has had at least one session.

Last week, we began the Pow Wow season with an introductory session centered around the quote “Be together, not the same” (yes, this was inspired by an Android commercial). Our first week introduced the social skills program and focused on the development of the 2016 Northwood community. Beneath the umbrella of our theme, groups focused on different targeted skills. Some groups, practiced introductions where they practiced shaking hands and introducing themselves to members of the camp community. Other groups, identified conversation starters and topics for meeting new campers and counselors, as well as conversation starters to catch up with friends from past summers.

All groups learned about the Northwood Super Hero Program and began the process to select their “Super Power” for the summer. The Super Hero Program began five years ago and it is a program that we use to positively reinforce examples of campers using their strengths to enhance the Northwood community. Each camper and counselor selects a personality trait that they identify as one of their greatest strengths. Throughout the summer, campers are recognized for their Super Powers and become “Super Heroes, marked by a bright green bracelet, when their counselors catch them using their strengths.

This week, we began our second week of Pow Wow. Campers returned to Pow Wow and shared the Super Powers that they came up with in conversation with their counselor team over the course of the week. The introductory session activity this week reinforces our theme of community and the way that each camper has unique qualities that add to the Northwood and cabin community. On popsicle sticks campers wrote their super power, their cabin, and their name. Cabins were instructed to throw the individual popsicle sticks as far as they can. The activity was then repeated with all of the popsicle sticks joined together with a rubber band. The campers from Cedar 1, this afternoon, made very insightful connections debriefing the activity about teamwork and the benefit of operating as a cabin unit.

In addition to building community, the social skills focus for the week is on “trading information” and conversations. Campers are discussing, role-playing, and debriefing conversations where information is shared equally between two people. We are focusing on finding common interests, sharing air time, and initiating conversations. Over the course of the week, counselors will be following up on the session with related games and activities in the cabin designed to promote identifying common interests and facilitating conversation.

Next week, we will review trading information and moving into skills focusing on reading and interpreting nonverbal body language.

A Path to Social Development- Northwood Style

There is nothing spontaneous or random about the acquisition of social skills. DSC06409 Observation, opportunity and reinforcement are required steps leading to the internalization of age-appropriate level of social functioning.

A much more direct level of social skills instruction is essential to assist students with perceptual deficits and social anxiety.  This added step is the focus of Camp Northwood’s formalized social skills training program.  To enhance their social abilities and navigate the social maze, campers are presented with specific social skills during social skills training sessions.

Prior to each summer, our curriculum team identifies a series of specific social related skills that form the basis for our social skills curriculum.  Weekly units are presented to each cabin group within our Northwood community.  These cabin groups are made up of 5-8 campers that share a similar social potential and are poised to experience their instruction, activities and social experiences together during the course of the summer.

Each cabin group is assigned a minimum of three counselors to insure that a positive level of support and structure is maintained in order to promote social growth.  Northwood counselors target and reinforce our social curriculum in consultation with our social skills team to help campers put theoretical skills to practical use.

Example of some of these specific skills addressed within Northwood’s social skills curriculum are:

  • Specific scripted language used to initiate or enter into a conversation or respond to typical age-appropriate interactions
  • Interpreting and use of non-verbal language cuing as part of a conversation
  • The importance of personal space when interacting with peers
  • Acknowledging the importance of other people’s interests
  • Identifying our personal strengths as well as those of others and using them to add value to our social community
  • Being a Friend 101- How to maintain friendships after they have been established

Camp Northwood recognizes that social skills cannot be taught in a vacuum.  Without opportunities to practice socializing with peers in an informal setting, these skills cannot be truly developed and in time internalized; becoming a part of established routine of socialization.  Following the formalized instruction of key social skills, perhaps the most important step in the process of social skills development in Northwood’s setting is what we call the “continued social dialogue”.

Staff Photo 2015There is no substitute for socialization.  Our campers receive constant feedback and support from our staff as they interact with the camp community throughout their day.  Identifying and reinforcing successful social skills strategies while providing redirection and guidance if necessary are essential to establishing comfort with newly learned social skill strategies.  The key to this aspect of social skills training rests squarely on the shoulders of staff members that play the role of primary caregivers/ instructors.

Northwood counselors recognize the priority placed on social skills development within the Camp Northwood community.  Specialists in any of our 40 traditional activities are social skills instructors first and foremost whether it is on the ball fields, down at the lake or walking to a meal with their campers.  After safety, there is nothing more important that social skills!

The environment and activities during which campers are practicing their social skills, using scripted social language and engaging in age appropriate non-verbal social rituals are critical.  Campers must be able to practice their social skills and receive feedback while engaged in structured activities as well as during informal periods and transitional times.

Meals, dances, talent shows, free swim periods and low structured time around the cabin are all critical times for the staff to support social interaction so that campers do not opt for the much safer option of isolation and avoidance.

With Northwood’s 2:1 camper/ counselor ratio and emphasis on social skill development, campers can be supported in these more potentially socially challenging settings.  It is during these low structured times that campers hone their skills and confidence creating success and a sense of belonging within the social community.

Social skills are much like artistic or athletic skills.  Once learned, then refined, there must be a continual process of practice or newly found skills will deteriorate.   For many children that struggle socially at home and in school, it is a challenge to find quality social opportunities that promote continued growth.  Furthermore, many school districts charged with providing social structure, instruction and opportunity for their students are not prepared to do so at a level necessary to avoid stagnation or regression.  Already overwhelmed with the task of finding adequate time to present state mandated curricula there just are not the resources or time.

For our Northwood campers, we encourage families to take advantage of the Northwood network and stay in touch with friends from the summer.  Periodic get-togethers and supervised communication using the latest technology can provide wonderful opportunities to supplement social opportunities with peers from the neighborhood and school.  Continuing the social dialogue is also a critical aspect of continued social skills development.  Parents, friends and family can help to provide positive feedback, encouragement and redirection if necessary to help children identify social successes and gain confidence in using scripted social strategies.  With each successful step taken by our children comes a greater likelihood that their isolated steps will develop into a path leading to achieving their social potential.

Anxiety- Strategies for Success

ANXIETY is perhaps the greatest inhibitor for achieving academic, social and emotional potential.  For those with learning challenges, it creates an insurmountable roadblock that unless addressed diminishes developmental growth and establishes a cycle of recurring failure.  For many of our children, the energy spent trying to hide in plain sight while existing in a parallel fashion within a strange and confusing world is all encompassing and leaves no room for anything but continued vigilance.  Imagine existing in a social or academic world where everyone speaks a foreign language and your only concern is trying to not let others know you only speak English.  You smile, you nod your head, you gravitate to the edge of conversation or perhaps spend time tying and retying your shoes; you essentially learn to go with the flow but are so filled with anxiety that you do not have time to learn the language spoken by those around you!DSC04895

At Camp Northwood, we have integrated specific systems into our programming in order to reduce anxiety within our camp community.  The results, as many of our families will attest, can be magical.  The reduction of anxiety can have a profound impact on a child’s ability to integrate into a peer based community.  The overwhelming level of energy previously spent trying to survive a social experience can instead be focused on engaging peers in a social community.

Steps for reducing anxiety:

  1. Establish Routines and Schedules. Consistency is predictable and eliminates the fear of “what’s next”.   If for some reason the schedule must change, plenty of prior notice should be given with a clear explanation as to why the change is being made.
  2. Transitional Preparation. Discuss new events, activities and environments in order to prepare children for what is to come. Provide appropriate social language that may be useful in new situations and discuss safety strategies and language that will enable the child to properly seek support when necessary.
  3. Create Compatible Social Clusters. Age, developmental levels, interest areas, language development all play a role when determining appropriate social peer groups.  When children share these aspects of “Social Potential” they have a better chance of experiencing reduced levels of social anxiety.
  4. Foster a Culture of Respect. Everyone belongs.  Everyone is unique with their own strengths and challenges.  Everyone deserves an opportunity to participate without fear of being judged.  Children and Adults should give and receive equal degrees of respect.
  5. Highlight Success. All too often children don’t recognize social success and identify the steps/strategies that enabled them to succeed.  Catch children using successful social strategies and let them know you noticed.  Praise doesn’t always have to be over the top and often is more meaningful when given in a one to one setting.
  6. Redirect social interactions when necessary. These “teachable moments” are opportunities to identify and evaluate successful vs unsuccessful social strategies offering children with a clear direction for success in the future.  Focus on the positive and while making amends to those that may have been offended is important, emphasize that everyone makes mistakes.  As long as we learn from our mistakes, we can move on looking for success in the future.
  7. Continue the Social Dialogue. There is no better way to help reduce social anxiety than to reinforce to our children that they are not alone.  Continual feedback and dialogue regarding social interactions and activity based experiences helps to not only provide a constant stream of positive feedback and redirection when necessary, but also reduces a child’s sense of isolation.

DSC04743At Camp Northwood our staff has been trained to integrate these strategies to reduce anxiety into every aspect of their campers’ summer experiences.  Because of this, we see great strides made as the campers develop their social skills, self-esteem and independence.  A thoughtful approach to creating a safe social community is critical to providing healthy programming to our vulnerable camper population.  Anxiety, if allowed, would overwhelm and dictate the outcomes of our campers’ summer experiences.  Yet, when held in check through the use of intentional strategies, our campers are able to leave their debilitating coping mechanisms at the front gate and join a camp community of children that just want to belong.

For more information about Camp Northwood, our programming and admissions for the summer of 2016, please visit us at: or give us a call in the office at:  315-831-3621.


DSC08907  INDEPENDENT LIFE SKILLS TRAINING– 14 years ago a number of our long-time camper families requested that Camp Northwood expand its programming in order to create a bridge program that would provide transitional preparation for young adults approaching the end of their secondary school experience. There is, perhaps, no time in the life of a neurotypical young adult fraught with more anxiety. For the families of young adults with developmental delays, this transitional time can bring an overwhelming sense uncertainty and despair. The reality of the future is front and center and unless proactive steps are taken to develop the highest attainable level of independence, these students can drift for years awaiting placements and programs that may or may not meet their individual needs.

The Northwood Center (NWC) program was created to prepare learning challenged, socially immature and high functioning autistic spectrum students, ranging in age from 16-21, for life beyond secondary school. There are a variety of post-secondary options available to these students such as college programs focused on academics and/or vocational training as well as post-secondary transitional life skills training programs. In some cases families may look for a direct placement in a residential group home for their young adults. In each case, leaving home is a significant aspect of the “Next Step” and a transition that can be quite a challenge. Preparation for this transition is essential and is most effectively done away from home. For two to three summers leading up to this transition, NWC students practice living away from home; applying the independent living skills that they will be expected to perform throughout the rest of their lives. Specific NWC curriculum units addressing the following skills are included, but not limited to:

• Food & Nutrition
• Kitchen Safety
• Care of Clothing
• Apartment Safety & Maintenance
• Cleaning
• Money Skills & Budgeting
• Health & Fitness
• Personal Hygiene
• Social Safety & Self-Advocacy Skills
• Planning for Social/Recreational Events

The NWC’s program involves on-site instruction, field trips out into the community to establish relevance and then application on a day to day basis as needed in order to help our students refine and internalize their life skills.

The skills required to function independently away from home go far beyond the aforementioned isolated tasks that many students can develop functionality in a relatively short period of time. The true test of independence is whether students can successfully apply these skills in a social community in which they are required to interact with others on a regular basis. Social anxiety is a paralyzing condition that often is the greatest indicator of future independence. Unless this anxiety is addressed and reduced, it can have a significant impact on a student’s future life. The socially therapeutic environment of the NWC creates opportunities for students to refine their abilities to function successfully within a social environment. Camp Northwood’s formalized social skills training program is integrated into the NWC’s curriculum and the NWC students take part in the social/ recreational opportunities available to the entire Northwood community. Northwood’s supportive setting involves what we call a constant “Social Dialogue”. Students receive continual feedback from our staff; helping to identify successful social strategies as well as redirect and explore alternative social decisions when necessary. It is in this social environment that students can explore and refine their social skills and at the same time reduce levels of social anxiety. Our staff understands that every skill we teach needs to be framed in a social context- since without a strong social foundation, a student’s full potential cannot be achieved.

Too young to leave home, but facing the eventuality of doing so. Our students need time to prepare for this “Next Step” and we have found that many post-secondary programs prefer applicants that have successfully begun to make the transition by attending The Northwood Center. For more information pertaining to our programming, please visit our website: or call the Northwood office at 315-831-3621. We are currently interviewing applicants for the summer of 2015.

Craving Normalcy

DSC02341To many overachievers, the concept of “craving normalcy” might seem a tepid or timid approach to life.  Why should a person crave normalcy when “aspiring to excellence” is a more fitting recipe for achievement and individual affirmation of success?

Yet, for many children and young adults faced with social anxieties and various learning challenges, there is comfort in a sense of anonymity.  The state of “normalcy” for children that struggle in social settings comes with the blissful experience of fitting in and not being singled out for their unique differences that can create havoc in social settings.

As social beings, we all are constantly concerned with how and where we fit in on the social ladder of our various social communities.  For the more socially gifted among us that are perched on the uppermost rungs of this social ladder, this concern is subconscious and rarely acknowledged.  Their ease of employing social techniques endearing them to peers flow naturally.   For those that struggle in social settings and experience near constant social isolation, the question of social survival can produce debilitating levels of anxiety- only exacerbating the very cycle of anxiety that limits social success.  The majority of adolescents are neither social superstars nor social strugglers.  Unfortunately, this group often employs a strategy of highlighting the weaknesses of the social strugglers in order to deflect attention from their own weaknesses as they climb the ladder of social acceptance.  Many of us could never conceive the painful torture socially anxious adolescents must withstand when exposed to unstructured and unsupervised peer interactions.

Where and how can we create a sense of normalcy while at the same time reinforcing the value unique strengths and talents to a community?  At Camp Northwood, we have been specializing in this very process for years and find the following criteria essential for creating successful experiences for our unique population of campers:

  1. COMMUNITY OF RESPECT– When children are in an environment that fosters positive feelings, reinforces individual strengths and provides a sense of safety; they no longer have to worry about being the object of ridicule.  Every member of a community must feel that they play an important role within the community and those feelings must be continually reinforced by peers and mentors alike.  This type of community does not happen naturally and must be managed with care and intention.  The ladder of social success must be replaced with the understanding that we should not be concerned with how we measure up against each other, but rather how we all play an integral role in the social health of our community.
  2. DIRECT INSTRUCTION– For many children that struggle with social success, a more direct approach must be taken to foster the development of age appropriate social skills.  The basic pragmatics of socialization can be taught, but the lessons must take place in a social environment.  Interpreting non-verbal social cues, conversation starters, the act of shaking hands, identifying and appropriately responding to emotions as well as respecting personal space are just a few of the topics that are presented to Northwood campers during the course of their summer experience.  These lessons are woven into the fabric of camp so that campers often consider the instruction more of a fun activity as opposed to a socially therapeutic session designed to foster age-appropriate social skills!  There is no more gratifying experience than witnessing our campers employing the techniques and specific social language that we teach at camp during various events throughout the school year!
  3. TRAINED STAFF– The most important cog in the machinery of social skill instruction is without a doubt the people working directly with children.  It is critical that this group of dedicated mentors fully understand their role.  They are charged with creating a safety zone in which everyone is treated with respect.  They must also understand that second to safety, social skill development is supreme.   The actual activities of camp are not a priority when creating a healthy social environment.  The activities of camp become the vehicle with which social skills are taught.  Whether it is on the soccer field, in the dining hall or on a hike, what the staff is doing is creating opportunities for children to practice their social skills.
  4. SOCIAL DIALOGUE– Like most subjects that we study; the real learning takes place outside of the classroom.  A lecture or lesson is designed to present material that students are expected to master.  Yet, mastery only comes with practice and the successful application skills.  Social skills are no different and we have found are perhaps far more difficult to learn in a vacuum than most other lessons!  When working with a population of socially immature and anxious children, it is critical that their practice and application of social skills is well supervised by staff members that are able to conduct a constant social dialogue.  This dialogue helps provide a constant source of feedback to children so that they can learn which social strategies and skills are being applied correctly and which may need some modification.  All too often, the only reinforcement children receive when it comes to social skills is negative when in fact they may be employing an alternative strategy because no one told them that what they had tried the first time around was correct!  The Social Dialogue also allows for continual reinforcement throughout the day during all aspects of a camper’s daily routine.  Walking between activities, mornings, evenings and everything in between becomes fair game for staff to highlight social successes and redirect behaviors that are not age-appropriate.

Craving Normalcy is by no means an attempt to be unexceptional.  For our population of campers, craving normalcy is an attempt to exist on a level playing field.  When children are not overwhelmed with the anxiety of how they fit in to a social community, they can become active and contributing members of that community!  An immersion in this type of healthy community environment over the course of a summer season can work wonders for a child and help provide the necessary social skills and self-esteem to become a more successful member of their communities at home and school!

The Unique Construction of Children


Even the most flexible of us have no option but to bring our own singular experience and perceptions to the table as we conduct our affairs on a day to day basis. All too often as adults we have an expectation that our way is the best way, or even the only way when it comes to the process of how we approach the world.  This type of rigidity in our thinking can bring disastrous results to any form of social/educational interactions that involve children whose perceptual abilities are atypical.  Success for this portion of the population must be found using the “Unique Construction” design in which mentors learn to adapt to the strengths and learning styles of children as opposed to expecting the children to squeeze themselves into a rigid one size fits all model for learning.  Camp Northwood has been developing this model of interaction with children for nearly 40 years and found real success in applying this educational philosophy to our socially therapeutic environment.

For the most part, we live in a world where our interactions are with people that share a similar functional level enabling the successful navigation of our day to day affairs. This portion of the population has the cognitive and perceptual flexibility to adjust to a variety of social and educational experiences.  However, what we don’t often see, or acknowledge, is a huge population of people within our community that struggle to understand their community, let alone the wider world.  These are the members of our communities that display hugely varied levels of perceptual development; individuals that walk a unique path and require equally unique considerations when in social/educational settings.  Fortunately, the strategies necessary to produce successful results with this portion of our community can also produce a greater degree of success when working with the more neuro-typical population.  In order to help facilitate a greater degree of universal social/educational achievement, we need to accept a few basic developmental principals that lead us to acknowledge what I like to call the “Unique Construction” of individuals.

Just like a jigsaw puzzle, each person possesses a number of attributes that lead to our uniqueness. Some of the more important of these unique aspects are, but not limited to:

  1. The Environment in which we are raised;
  2. Experiences and Opportunities that add depth to our perspective of the world;
  3. Language Development that determines our ability to communicate both verbally and non-verbally;
  4. Perceptual Strengths that regulate how we process information and determine optimal Learning Style.
  5. Cognitive Development that greatly influences learning and social potential.

When training our Camp Northwood counselor staff to identify the potential of the children under their care, I have found the best analogy for understanding this concept of “unique construction” is to consider the thought that each of us is a jigsaw puzzle. Every child, and adult, is a separate and distinctive individual endowed with a variety of strengths, challenges and experiences that determine their unique construction.  Our task as camp counselors is to understand this uniqueness by identifying these distinctive qualities in our campers as well as ourselves.  The following questions can help begin the search for these individual puzzle pieces:

  1. What are the receptive/expressive language characteristics of the child?
  2. Is the child a concrete or abstract thinker?
  3. Can the child interpret non-verbal language cues?
  4. How does the child handle transitions and change within their micro and macro environments?
  5. Does the child have any motor functioning limitations?
  6. What are the normal activity and attention levels of the child?
  7. Is the child more of a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner?
  8. How comfortable is the child in social settings?
  9. What type of experiences from outside of the camp environment may impact a child’s rate of social and activity based success?

As you can see, these questions offer a diverse look at a variety of abilities and just scratch the surface of questions that can lead to a better understanding of the child’s unique construction.

Our puzzle pieces impact each and every social interaction and educational opportunity. When staff embrace the concept that each child possesses a unique perspective and set of developmental skills, it becomes apparent that the approach we take to create success for each child must be individualized for that child to optimize their success.  One size does not fit all and in forcing all children into a standardized construct of learning, we are setting many up for mediocrity at best or more likely for our more vulnerable students, failure.  Can we expect a child with weak non-verbal processing and social anxiety to survive on a ball fields or in a dining hall with no structure or support?  Is the child with significant visual processing deficits going to experience success when required to read instructions to a project aloud in a group of their peers?  Is the extremely gifted abstract thinker going to reach their full potential if required to sit through repetitive activities focused on rote movements supporting concrete concepts?

Once trained to look for the puzzle pieces, mentoring children becomes a continual intellectual challenge. Each newly discovered piece of the puzzle creates additional opportunities for staff to modify the construct of each child’s social/educational experiences in order to maximize learning styles and strengths while minimizing areas of weakness.  This process also helps children to learn their unique construction and styles of learning so that they can advocate for themselves as they mature, helping teachers to better understand what they need to experience success.

There is nothing unique about “Unique Construction” theory. As educators, we experience the diverse construction of students on a daily basis.  It is how we use that information that makes us, as educators, unique!

For more information about Camp Northwood and/or our unique programming, please feel free to contact our office: 315 831-3621,,

The Superstar Counselor

“Who is watching the children?” is a critical question to ask when considering a summer camp. The leadership of a camp sets a tone, establishes policies, trains staff, provides supervision and oversight, communicates with families and is responsible for the overall wellbeing and integrity of the camp program. However, a camp’s administration is not “in-the-trenches” spending significant periods of time with the same small group of campers throughout the summer season. A camp’s administration is not in the position to get to know the children best and play the role of mentor, advocate and primary caregiver. Who are these young adults willing to take on such a great responsibility and what is it that makes them uniquely qualified to succeed at camp and quite often in any number of future professional endeavors? While all camps are required statutorily to conduct a significant degree of due diligence when hiring their counselors in order to insure that their staff are suited to work with children in a respectful and healthy manner, there are a number of unregulated attributes that transform a good or great counselor into what we call at Camp Northwood, the “Superstar” counselor.

I am routinely asked if our counselors at Camp Northwood are all special ed. teachers as if this status would be a singular indicator of excellence. Quite often my response of “absolutely not” is not what is expected, but when combined with the following explanation helps the interested party understand a bit more about the culture of camp.

Many teachers can make great camp counselors, but not all, just as many camp counselors can be phenomenal teachers, but not all! Whereas teachers are trained to work with students within an academic setting, residential camps operate on a much more social basis in a 24 hour cycle that quite often takes teachers out of their zone of expertise and comfort.

At Camp Northwood, in order for an applicant to be considered for a staff position, we require that they have completed a minimum of one year of undergraduate studies. We do not hire high school students, accept volunteers or operate a Jr. Counselor/ CIT program. This minimum age/ education requirement is designed to set a basic standard of maturity and independence. It also allows for a higher concentration of applicants already pursuing a career in education or related field that would establish a greater degree of familiarity with the unique nature of Camp Northwood’s camper/ student population. As a special educator myself, I am often humbled by the raw talent of the college students and young professionals that join our camp community each summer. I am envious of their ability to take on the role of cabin counselor. The demands on the cabin counselor are extensive and require significant physical, emotional and intellectual commitment. Regardless of my professional training, I have come to the conclusion that my talents and expertise are better suited to guide and mentor the next generation of counselors/educators, whether they become teachers or take there talents into other fields.

So what are the attributes of the “Superstar Counselor”? What unique qualities do camps seek in applicants that want to work with children in the camp environment? While the following list is far from complete, I have tried to offer some suggestions of what I have found to be most consistent in the Superstars that have passed through the Northwood community over the years:

EMPATHY. Hands down the greatest gift one can bring to camp. The ability to sense and be affected by the emotional condition of those around us creates a compassion that drives a counselors desire to help their campers succeed.

STAMINA. Long days over a period of weeks can be draining. A superstar counselor needs to be able to maintain high levels of energy throughout the summer season.

EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING. The ability to stay focused, remain flexible, function efficiently and solve problems under stressful conditions is a critical attribute of the superstar counselor.

COMMUNICATOR. Because the camp community requires a constant ebb and flow of information to be shared amongst counselor teams and the camp administration, the superstar counselor must be an effective listener and be able to articulate their thoughts.

PASSION. A counselor must be willing to immerse themselves in the culture and mission of camp with an overwhelming desire to not only learn the craft of camp counseling, but to share their life experiences and uniqueness with the camp community. The superstar counselor at Northwood bleeds Northwood green and drives their family and friends at home crazy because all they talk about is their summer home away from home!

SENSE OF HUMOR. Being able to chuckle at ourselves and remain positive in all types of situations is a characteristic of the superstar counselor. Humor must always be kept respectful and for the benefit of the entire community.

I have often said that only 5% of those people working with children are superstars- the “Naturals” that are recognizable within minutes of seeing them in action. 85% of the people working with children can be taught to be incredibly effective in their craft and 10% of those working with children would be better suited in a different profession. Obviously all camps strive to avoid the 10%, search endlessly for the 5% and are mostly staffed by the 85%.

As a parent seeking true quality in a camp and it’s counselors, consider the aforementioned attributes of the superstar counselor when speaking with references. When talking to parents about their experiences with a camp’s counselors, do they mention any similar qualities? If at all possible the best method of evaluating a camp’s counselor staff is to plan ahead. There is no substitute for an observation of a camp in action in order to see for yourself how a camp’s staff interacts with their campers. Most camps schedule tours throughout the summer for this very purpose and these visits can give families a real sense of the camp’s culture.
There are so many factors to take into consideration when selecting a camp for your child. Facilities, programming, schedules, food, health care etc. all play a role in establishing a camp’s ability to provide a successful summer experience. However, please do not ever forget that one of the most critical factors to the safety and success of your child is the question: Who is watching the children!

Finding the Right Camp

DSC_0764[1]Finding the right camp for your child takes time.  Preparation and persistence are key to the process and will greatly increase the chance for success.  Before delving into a series of specific steps that should help unlock this complex process, however, it is important to understand that there is no such thing as the perfect camp!  Equally important to keep in mind is that just because a camp worked well for a parent or sibling does not necessarily mean that it will work well for the next child in line.  Each camp, like each child, is unique and possesses various strengths and weaknesses that formulate an individual character.

Parents can rarely start their search for camps early enough.  Ideally, the process should begin at least one summer season prior to the child’s enrollment in a program.  Hands down, the best way to understand the nature of a summer camp is to make a visit and spend some time observing the operation in action.  Seeing the camp population, facilities, staff and programming up close and personal peels away the promotional aspect of websites, brochures and conversations with camp directors and allows for the observer to get a real sense of the character of a program. With a tour in hand, a parent will be far more prepared to interview the camp director when the times comes to make a decision as to whether a particular camp is best suited to meet the needs of a child; and make no mistake about it, parents need to interview camp directors as much as camp directors need to interview campers in order to determine compatibility.


There are thousands of camps of all types scattered across the United States and Canada.  Each shares certain aspects of the camp culture.  However, each also has their own evolved culture that creates a certain uniqueness.  It is these differences that parents need to take into consideration when narrowing their search.  Truly effective camps know what they can do and equally important know what they cannot do.  “One size fits all” may work for some industries, but certainly not the camp industry.  Camps of quality should be able to articulate their philosophy and offer parents with a clear understanding of the type of experience that they aim to provide their campers.  Specialization in particular activities, varying levels of competitiveness (athletic and social), rigidity of structure and routines are all building blocks on which camp programs are built.  Each camp should have a clear set of goals for its campers and be able to articulate how they intentionally work with campers to achieve these goals.  If parents can identify their preferences for some of these basic attributes of a camp and establish a set of goals that they have set for their children, it will quickly allow for the identification of potential summer camps and generate a list of programs for further study.

Parents can find camps and generate lists of potential programs through a variety of avenues.  Speak with other families about their experiences; speak to school counselors and therapists for recommendations.  Parents can look on-line at dedicated search engines designed to help families find camps such as , .  Additionally, families can seek out camp placement specialists that work to help match children to appropriate camps.


Once a preliminary list of camps has been made, it is time to get to work.  Even before you pick up the phone to speak with a camp, parents should scour the internet reviewing websites, Facebook pages, reading reviews and generating a list of thoughts, questions and comments about the electronic and print image the camp has established.  Keep in mind that summer camps are businesses first and foremost.  This is not a bad truth as there are 1,000s of camp professionals that have dedicated their lives to the industry and create excellent summer experiences for children year in and year out.  However, like any industry, camps are going to promote their strengths, diminish their weaknesses and create a marketable image with which they will attempt attract potential clients.  “Buyer Beware”- with newfound information and questions at hand, it is time to make contact with the camps that could be a potential match for your child.

Whenever possible, speak with the director.  The director is the face of the program and your first impressions can give you a fairly good indication of the culture of a camp.  Tone of voice, ability to answer questions, willingness to take the time you need to understand their camp program and level of interest in your particular needs and those of your child often indicate a style of leadership and professionalism.  Remember, the director is going to be responsible for the life of your child!  You certainly want to feel a sense of comfort and trust in their ability to accept this awesome responsibility.  Ideally, parents should set up a time to meet, or video chat, with the director.  Face to face meetings offer a far more efficient method of information exchange.  Considerable information is shared in these meetings via non-verbal communication that is totally lost on the phone or through correspondence.  It is critical to always remember that the directors and parents are interviewing each other.  The decision as to whether a child should attend camp should be the outcome of a mutually inclusive process during which both sides exchange critical information necessary to determine the appropriateness of a working relationship.  Do not sugar-coat any aspects of your child.  A complete exchange of information outlining your child’s strengths, interests, medical considerations, allergies, learning challenges, personality and other behavioral aspects will help the director determine the camp’s ability to meet your child’s needs.


What to ask a director?  The following list is a sampling of a number of important questions that a parent should consider when speaking with camp professionals.  Some or all may be pertinent to your needs and there will be others that you will want to ask specific to your child.  Perhaps the first question that a parent should ask is whether the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association.  In order for a camp to be accredited, they must comply with certain standards for safety, staffing, facilities and operational excellence.  Accreditation is by no means a guarantee that a camp is right for your child, but it does indicate a level of compliance with industry standards.  Also, remember that yes / no questions do not elicit details.  Prepare your questions carefully!  For organizational purposes the following questions have been organized by category.


  1.  Who is the person in charge on-site at camp and how accessible are they to parents?
  2. What are the steps involved in hiring staff members and how are background checks conducted?
  3. What are the minimum requirements to be considered for a counselor position and does each group have experienced counselors working with the campers?  Are Jr. Counselors or CITs utilized by the camp to supervise campers?
  4. What is the percentage of returning staff?
  5. Have staff members ever been let go during the summer season and what were the circumstances?

Camper Population:

  1.  What is the percentage of returning campers?
  2. What is the ratio of campers to counselors?  How many campers per group?
  3. How would you describe the typical camper profile?
  4. How many boys/girls are at camp at a similar age and compatible with my child?
  5. Have campers ever been sent home during the summer season and what were the circumstances?

Program Structure:

  1.  What is a typical day’s schedule?
  2. Which activities are emphasized and what is the level of competitiveness?
  3. How often can my child take part in their favorite activities?
  4. Are there any field trips built into the program?
  5. Are there any additional fees related to programming?


  1.  How many campers are assigned to cabin?
  2. Where are showers/toilets located?
  3. What facilities are provided for rainy day programming?
  4. How extensive are the camp’s medical facilities?  What type of medical staff is on duty and how are medications handled?
  5. What permitting state agency inspects the facilities/ program on a regular basis to insure safety and quality of program?


The final piece of the puzzle is to ask for references.  This is a critical stage of the process during which families can speak to other families about their experiences with an individual camp.  Parents should be sure to ask the director for the names and contact information of families that:

  1. Have a child similar in age and would be potential bunkmates of their child.
  2. Are just coming off their first summer experience.

These two requests will insure that families will not only get a sense of the children that will make up their child’s primary social group while at camp, but will also enable families to speak with other parents that have most recently gone through the camp search process.

When speaking with families, ask questions that will elicit a maximum amount of information.  Many of the questions that were asked during the camp director interview can be applied to references as well.  In addition there are a few questions that parents should consider asking:

  1. Did the camp produce the experience they advertised?
  2. How did the camp keep you informed as to the progress of your child during the summer?
  3. Were you comfortable with the leadership of the camp and was the camp’s administration available to you?
  4. What type of social growth/ independence have you noticed in your child following their experience at camp?
  5. How would your child describe their experience at camp?
  6. What was your child’s favorite meal and did they gain or lose weight while at camp?
  7. What was the greatest strength and weakness of the camp program?


Finding the right camp for your child takes time and requires research, due diligence, interviewing and reference checking.  The decision is not one that should be made lightly or under pressure.  It is not unreasonable to ask for a short period of time to evaluate a program following the selection process.  Quality camp programs typically will not require deposits at the time of the interview.   At the same time it is important to realize that it is unreasonable to expect a camp to hold a spot for more than a week or two as you make your decision.  Be sure to fully understand the camp’s expectation for this period of consideration and remember that the more information you have, the better decision you can make.

If you have made a selection and are ready to register your child with a camp, be sure to review the registration contract so that you fully understand the terms of payment, refund policy, added charges and any other specified items related to your child’s summer experience, all of which should be outlined in the registration contract.


Finding the right camp can provide a lifetime of memories for your child.  If you were a camper as a child, most likely there are wonderful memories that continue to warm your heart and perhaps produce a chuckle or two.  The key to success is preparation and persistence.  There is an appropriate camp out there for every child!  Good luck and have fun with your search.

Emphasis on Social Development

DSC07017     The child/mentor relationship between campers and counselors in a quality summer camp is quite different than that of students and teachers in most school settings.  With the emphasis placed squarely in the social/ recreational realm, summer camp staff can provide a more social specific mentoring role to children far beyond that of teachers who are required to focus in much more detail on mandated academic curricula.  Both settings, school and camp, are extremely charged social environments that play pivotal roles in the social emotional development of children.  Both have opportunities to integrate social skill and character education into programmed curriculum.  However, the camp setting is one in which the intentional approach to instruction of these critical life skills is a priority whereas in more academic settings, state mandated curricula must take precedence.

Consider the following:  Social skills are much like athletic or artistic skills.  They are similar to the learned vocational skills that determine one’s success or lack thereof as we enter into our adult lives.  Those individuals that have achieved the greatest success in any area of expertise most likely share two common factors:

  1. A predisposition to a specific skill or attribute
  2. Opportunity and desire to practice their craft.

Ask any successful physician, welder, athlete, writer, lawyer, teacher, electrician, banker etc… did their success just happen or did they have to learn a set of skills and then dedicate a significant amount of time to honing their application of those skills?  Furthermore, do they need to continually practice their skills in order to maintain their level of competence?  Of course, their answers will be a resounding YES!

Perhaps a third, and typically neglected during professional development, attribute for success beyond the aforementioned two would be:

3.   Ability to function in a social community.

This is where, unless we take great care and actively seek opportunities for growth, we let our children down.  A well-practiced and predisposed superstar scientist, secretary, journalist or any other vocationally gifted person that is not able to understand the social dynamic of the workplace and is unable to relate to others will most likely have great difficulty succeeding in life.  Functioning in a social community (meaning any time two or more people are together for any reason) requires a set of social skills that must be developed and practiced.  There are some children that have a natural ability to function in a social environment.  There are some that can learn these skills with little guidance and minimal practice.  However, the overwhelming majority of children can greatly benefit from specific social skill instruction and enhanced/supportive environments in which these skills can be practiced.

Social skills must be taught, reinforced and practiced before they are internalized and performed successfully.  The environment in which this is done most efficiently is a social one.  These skills cannot be learned effectively in a vacuum from a purely theoretical perspective.  Can one learn to fly a plane by simply reading a manual or in a discussion group?  There are few environments better suited to teach social skills than residential summer camps!

Camp counselors play a pivotal role in the process of acquiring age appropriate social skills.  As campers experience the vast range of activities and social scenarios throughout the course of their day, counselors are able to continue a constant social dialogue.  This constant process of providing feedback to campers allows staff to highlight the successful use of social strategies as well as redirect campers if their choices/actions are not appropriate.  Critical to this process is the act of identifying successful strategies.  All too often, we as adults focus solely on correction of negative behavior.   This clearly is not as fun for either children or adults and tends to lead children to think of the learning process as more punitive as opposed to a discovery process.

In a summer camp environment, every aspect of the daily routine can be treated as a vehicle for addressing social development.  Furthermore, the potential for exposure to multiple social skill sets is endless.  Consider the fact that the patterns and unwritten rules for socialization vary depending on many factors.  Size of group, age of participants, coed vs single sex, social activity etc… are just a few of the factors that determine appropriate conduct in social settings.  When teaching social skills, this micro-specializing must be taken into consideration and opportunities to practice these various skill sets must be frequent.  In a camp setting, with a staff trained to promote social skill development, quiet time in cabins, walking back and forth to activities and meals provide an opportunity for campers of a similar age to reinforce social skills in small group single sex or coed settings.  Sporting activities, talent shows, free swims and dances create opportunities for coed groups campers, of all ages to socially interact and hone their social skills in large group setting.  When the activities of camp are viewed as opportunities to reinforce social skills, and the actual goal is providing a quality social experience first and exposure to the specific activity second, staff are able to modify each experience to maximize the social potential of the activity.  Imagine a physics teacher regularly giving up on lesson plans so that the class can have impromptu discussions related to strategies for dealing with various social scenarios!

The healthy development of our children requires intentional consideration to many factors.  Academics, independence, socialization and vocational training are just a few topics that must be addressed to give our children the best foundation on which they can build a meaningful life.  Through academic and vocational training/exploration, schools aid students in finding their predispositions to specific skills and foster a desire to excel in these areas of interest.  Unfortunately, there is no “Mall of Life” where one stop shopping can provide quality instruction in each critical area and phase of development.  Furthermore, there is no doubt that the social aspect of a child’s development is the catalyst that can foster greater degrees of success in each of these developmental factors and I would encourage each and every parent, mentor and educator to consider that perhaps camps can play a meaningful role in this one specific area.  Recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, what we can and cannot do is critical to any organization or industry.  In the realm of social development, camps can make a difference!