Growing up in a Christian family, Church camps were just as much part of the yearly calendar as birthdays, Christmas and Easter!
I am incredibly thankful that my parents (who aren’t very fond of camping!) took us year after year as I have some very happy memories and looking back I see these times as being key in me finding my own faith and shaping me in to the person that I am today!
However now having my own children…I like the idea of Church Camps but in reality spending a week in a field isn’t particularly my idea of fun…especially with an SEN child…
We have attended our Church camp Transform (we are part of the Salt and Light Network of Churches) every year since Toby was born. The first year we stayed off site in a cottage with a hot tub (Toby was only a couple of weeks old!) however we haven’t had that luxury since then! Every year as Toby grows older, we find that it presents a different challenge in terms of these camps and quite honestly I’m not particularly look forward to this year…but I’m choosing to try and stay positive and I know that we would regret it if we didn’t go.
So I’ve made myself a plan ( I love a good plan!) to try help myself to be organised and enjoy our Summer camp. I’ve tried to remember some things that have worked for us in previous year and work on things that haven’t to try and make this year a success! Some of these things are usually for camping in general with kids and others are particularly relevant in terms of it being a Church event….I’ve done it to the letters of CAMPING TIPS…
C is for comfy
Camping is such a strange concept! So I have a lovely comfy bed, in a lovely warm house, running water etc etc and I choose to give all that up to live in a field for a week and sleep on an airbed (which usually goes down!) and then queue for toilets and showers…weird…even more weird if you have SEN! My first tip is to try make the camping experience as comfy as possible! We always make sure we have electricity (for Toby’s iPad…and my phone…and my hair straighteners…!) We take a duvet and pillows for us (I hate sleeping bags!!) and Toby takes all his bedding from home (blankets, things to chew, cuddly toys from his bed at home etc!) He sleeps on a ready bed but wherever we go he takes his own blankets because they feel and smell like home. Toby has sensory issues and making sure that he’s as comfy as possible helps to make the experience better for everyone!
A is for adventure
I aim to make it as fun as possible for everyone…being around lots of people with lots of noise isn’t really a child with autism’s idea of fun…we try to plan in things to help Toby enjoy his experience. These include having a car pass so our car is on site for him to sit in and have some space if he’s feeling overwhelmed, taking him off site to do something he enjoys…playgrounds…swimming etc These are things we would do on a family holiday and just because we’re away with friends from Church doesn’t mean we need to stay with people all of the time. Going off and having our own little family adventures on an afternoon helps Toby to enjoy the experience and makes it feel like a holiday. We have National Trust passes (and they usually have good playgrounds) so we like going off on a little family adventure…even if everyone else in the Church is happy just to stay on site and socialise.
M is for manageable
Having manageable expectations is key. Thinking ahead and deciding on what is going to be manageable for a child with SEN is key to making the experience work for everyone. I know sometimes when I get upset and disappointed I know its because my exceptions of something or someone have been too high. Thinking ahead and deciding what will be manageable for Toby will help us all to enjoy the experience once we are there. I don’t expect Toby to go in to a group with other 4-5 year olds who will sit and do crafts, listen to stories and sing songs…that’s not where he’s at…We’ve decided the best thing for Toby is to go in the creche (where he’s been every other year) in the creche its free play, he can wonder around, play outside and he can wear his headphones and listen to music or sit in the corner and play on his iPad. Also I think Toby will find meal times hard (they’re hard at home never mind eating strange food and sitting outside!) So we will also be putting things in place so he can sit and eat in the same place and making sure food is Toby friendly – i.e. plain, bland and dry….
P is for practice
Practice, practice, practice! We practice sleeping on a ready bed, practice eating a meal outside, practice sitting on camping chairs, practice putting the tent up and playing inside etc! Last year we even went on a practice holiday the week beforehand! We booked a cheap site in Northumberland to practice sleeping in a tent and experiencing the camping experience! We did this so that Toby experienced sleeping overnight and waking up in a tent (and he did actually sleep!!) and also to iron out any problems before we were away with lots of other people too. We had a lovely time and are planning on doing it again this year the week before we go away.
I is for inside
The point of camping is to enjoy life outdoors…outdoors can be challenging if you have SEN – new smells, textures, noises, lots of people, usually expectations and routines, wide open spaces with little enclosure. We try to make sure Toby has a safe and secure environment indoors (own little tent and in the car if he need to) Toby sometimes needs to feel enclosed to feel safe. This is a challenge if the weather is warm as tents can become to hot to sit in during the day so he has a gazebo with fly net walls so he can be outdoors but still feel like he’s safe. Being prepared for all weathers is also key…we take EVERYTHING from wellies and waterproof suits to paddling pools and suncream.
N is for noise
Camping can be noisy. Toby struggles with noise.
Whether is people chatting and enjoying themselves, music from the meetings, children playing, noise from generators or birds tweeting or other outdoor sounds. There are lots of new noises to get used to and it can be overwhelming for children with SEN. It’s only recently (last month!) that Toby has started to wear eye defenders…before that he would just throw them as he didn’t like anything tight touching his head. One thing that does really work for Toby is wireless headphones.He can’t use normal ones as he ends up chewing the wire (which isn’t particularly safe!) But he loves listening to music and so we often put headphones on him while we are out and about connected via bluetooth to our phones (in our pockets) with one of Toby’s playlists on. Music really chills Toby and helps him to engage with what other people would see as normal everyday tasks – shopping, going for a walk, going to Church etc. So the wireless headphones will definitely be coming camping with us! Above is Toby wearing his wireless headphones in the garden with Teddy.
G is for groups
Our Church camp runs groups for children on a morning so that the adults can engage in the main meetings. As mentioned above we didn’t feel that Toby would cope with children his own age and so he’s been allowed to go in the creche and have free play (as he will happily just sit in there with his iPad and headphones) I’ve been in contact with his group leader and the SEN coordinator so that everyone is aware of Toby’s needs and they have been incredibly accommodating which has been such a blessing to us all.
T is for toys
Toby doesn’t ‘do’ normal toys…he loves his iPad and playing games on there. He loves soft toys (to chew) and sensory chews toys. We also take a paddling pool with us for two reasons firstly to cool down if its warm and secondly to use as a bath – so we don’t end up with dirty, smelly children! We will be taking toys for Ted to play with (he loves cars and books) that can be used inside the tent and outdoors too.
I is for inclusion
Inclusion is important. We’ve got some fantastic friends at Church who really make an effort to include Toby and help support us as a family. Such people help include us as a family and allow us to have a break from worrying about Toby and sometimes I need to remind myself to let go and to let these people help us.
P is for preparation
Preparation is key. I like to be organised anyway and I talked about preparing Toby for camping in our practice section above. Meal planning is important (making sure there’s Toby friendly food!) making sure he has his own plates/cups etc from home, making sure we have enough melitoin (crucial!!) Also deciding before hand on a routine and sticking to it helps! Think about bedtime routines (who/when/how etc) and morning routines to make transition times easy. we know that however we do mealtime/bedtime on the first night will set the routine and exceptions for the rest of the time and so thinking and planning before hand releases some of the stress. These can always be adapted and tweaked!
S is for slings
Toby loves being in the sling. He feels enclosed and safe and it means we can easily carry him round (as often he refuses to walk) Slings work in all weather conditions (unlike pushchairs that sink in mud!) We will be defiantly taking slings for both boys!
And finally relax and enjoy it – must keep reminding myself of that! And pray that he sleeps!