Learning Disabilities in Campers

by Lorraine C. Peniston, Ph.D., CTRS

How often do you see the following examples occur in campers? Kenny, a bright ten-year-old, focuses his attention on the counselor's directions during an activity. He appears attentive, but always needs to ask the counselor or a peer to repeat portions of the directions. Sue, an impressionable thirteen-year-old, likes to participate in sports activities, but finds constant misjudging of distances to catch or hit a ball is embarrassing. She slowly withdraws from these activities. And Bob, a competitive fellow, enjoys playing table games except for the ones that require him to spell. He is not going to show you his words or ask for help. If Bob doesn't have the slightest chance of winning, he's not going to play.

The examples describe characteristics of learning disabilities that can interfere with participation in recreation activities.

Most information available regarding learning disabilities focuses on educational intervention and language instruction, usually in a school setting. However, learning disabilities do not disappear when a student is on summer break. At camp, a child is required to read directions, write a letter, and remember important tasks or chores, just as in school. Just like teachers, camp directors and counselors should be familiar with learning disabilities and their characteristics.

Defining Learning Disabilities

The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (JCLD) defines learning disabilities as a "group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities." They are presumed to be due to a dysfunction of the central nervous system and may occur across a person's lifetime.

A person with a learning disability may also have problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction. People with other disabilities, such as sensory impairment, mental retardation, or serious emotional disturbances, or those with extrinsic influences such as cultural differences or inappropriate instruction may have learning disabilities as well; however, the disability is not the result of those conditions or influences.

Once camp directors and counselors understand how learning disabilities affect a camper's recreation skills, they can assist in providing accommodations and/or modifications. They can also teach compensation strategies to improve the camper's success in camp activities.

Accommodations Level the Playing Field

What is meant by accommodation and why is it used? Accommodation means making some kind of arrangement or change for the person having learning disabilities, such as introducing materials, policies and procedures, or equipment, so that the person has an equal opportunity to fully participate in the program.

Accommodations can be as simple as having a baseball catcher wear red gloves under his mitt for administering signals to a pitcher who has visual-perceptual learning disabilities. Audio recording the directions to a craft project for a camper who has dyslexia would be another example. Complex accommodations might consist of breaking down steps and rewriting the rules of a game. The revised game rules with additional steps would then be given to the camper to use as a reference guide to follow during participation in the game.

Modifications Enhance the Activity

What is a modification? This is where an agency reasonably modifies its policies, practices, or procedures to avoid discrimination, allowing equal access and participation to persons with disabilities. Unlike accommodation, modification affects others within the program. For example, Jane, a participant in a recreation exploration class, has a visual impairment in addition to her learning disabilities. Slides are used to depict examples of recreation activities and equipment. Modifications to this program include moving the slide projector as far away from the screen as possible to create a larger image of the slide and employing sound effects of the game in play (e.g., bat striking a ball, racket hitting a shuttlecock, and cheers of the crowd). The latter modification introduces sensory awareness of the activity to Jane and the other participants.

Modifications can serve as innovative teaching techniques for the entire group, not just for the person requiring a different presentation. Other kinds of modifications consist of allowing extra time in a timed word game, using bright green tape to create the boundaries of an inside foul line on a volleyball court, or teaching all soccer players the following mnemonic to remember a play sequence: PIFS (Pass ball with Inside Foot to Stationary player) or PIF SAMP (Pass ball with Inside Foot Slightly Ahead of Moving Player).

Adapting Activities

The following are guidelines to consider when looking at adapting an activity to the needs of campers having disabilities:

  • adapt only if essential for participation, success, enjoyment, or to reduce failure and frustration.
  • adaptations should be considered temporary or transitional if possible.
  • adapt on an individual need and age-appropriate basis.
  • adapt for normalization by keeping the activity as close to the standard version as possible.
  • adapt considering availability and cost in the agency.
  • ask participant, family member, and other camp professionals for adaptation suggestions.

Various parts of an activity, from equipment to rules, can be adapted to improve a learning disabled camper's success. Primary types of adaptations include:

  • Materials: the weight and size
    of equipment can be altered, target size increased, ball resiliency changed.
  • Procedural: expectations can be altered, rules can be modified, and choices reduced.
  • Space: distance from the target or between bases, height
    of targets, etc.
  • Force: force or speed required for activity slowed or substituted.
  • Skill sequence: use of task analysis to illustrate steps.
  • Lead-up activities: tasks, exercises, or games that are prerequisites to activity.
  • Communication: taped message, magnification of volume or print, other audio or visual needs.

The use of accommodations and modifications through adaptive measures are helpful in improving a person with learning disabilities' success in recreation pursuits, but another important factor is the use of compensation strategies to refine recreation skills.

Compensation Strategies

Compensation strategies are useful techniques or methods to effectively solve problems, approach mastering a task efficiently, learn procedures within an activity more elaborately, and understand a concept when integration and assimilation are required. Some individuals learn these strategies through life experience (the school of hard knocks), while others are fortunate enough to have someone provide them with guidance. It does not matter how compensation strategies are obtained, as long as they are mastered and utilized to render effective participation in an activity of choice. Some examples of self-learned compensation strategies in children and youth include:

  • Learn from doing
    Jim cannot understand the chalkboard plays in football so his mind frequently "fades out" during chalk talk sessions. Jim asks the coach if he could first watch the play in action and then run the play a few times. Jim feels confident of learning the play since he will run it at least three times out on the field.
  • Observe what others do
    Sally is always one step behind when the counselor verbally explains a series of activities for the relay race. Sally chooses to stand near the end of her relay team line so she can watch her teammates in action. By the time her turn comes, she can successfully perform the tasks just like everyone else in her group.
  • Develop a buddy system
    Keith has a problem interpreting what his camp computer instructor says during class. During the weekly viewing of computer instruction videos and demonstrations, Keith may catch only about a third of what is explained. Keith develops a close friendship with George, a camper from his leatherwork class. Keith and George get together for about a half an hour after class to discuss what the computer instructor wants the class to accomplish for the next assignment.
  • Awareness of instructors' expectations
    Often in group activities one person's wrongdoings or mistakes can jeopardize the entire group. April is often tardy to her gymnastics class. When she is late, her coach makes April and her teammates run laps around the gym. She immediately becomes aware of timeliness because she knows her coach expects her to arrive on time.

In Pursuit of Having a Good Time

When camp professionals learn the characteristics of learning disabilities, recognize these behaviors in campers, acknowledge the need for accommodations or modifications, and deliver those services in an efficient matter, then campers can enjoy a quality camp experience. It may take extra work and special effort to ensure that the Kennys, Sues, and Bobs at camp can enjoy activities as much as their non-disabled peers, but their smiles and laugher will tell you it is all worthwhile.

Originally published in the 1999 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

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