Into the Wild for a Summer of Fun

Conventional overnight summer camps target resilient, athletic children who respond well to group control, and can walk confidently from archery to arts and crafts while singing Kumbaya. But for kids who are nonconformists, have two left feet, or need special attention, traditional camps can mean weeks of isolation and teasing.

In contrast, summer wilderness programs designed specifically for children with learning challenges enlist the natural environment as a partner in progress. Other than general good health, the only requirement for an eight-year-old to join a llama trek in North Carolina is to weigh 60 pounds; a guarantee against floating away during whitewater rafting.

For an adolescent whose learning differences may have left him feeling fearful or inadequate, trekking through a tropical rainforest in Belize can provide a giant dose of personal accomplishment and confidence. Likewise a boat adventure that includes canoeing and climbing with experienced instructors offers participants the opportunity to take risks within a supportive group.

Children who face frustration and anxiety during the school year should use the summer to relax, regroup and replenish, ideally through activities that will build self-esteem.

Adventure and wilderness activities that encourage kids to step beyond their comfort zones can help them discover new levels of success and confidence. Facing physical challenges promotes patience, perseverance, and self-regulation under stress—qualities that ultimately translate into increased skills at home, at school, and in social settings. In fact, some programs even combine individualized academic programs with weekend adventure activities.

Finding the Right Program

Before selecting a summer wilderness program, check on accreditation with the American Camping Association. Contact parents of previous campers. Select a program that is appropriate for your child’s age, maturity, experience, and personal characteristics. A child who is terrified of the water will probably prefer rock-climbing in the Canadian Rockies to snorkeling in the Florida Keys. And finally, be honest when you answer the questionnaire about your child’s needs and behaviors. It’s actually reassuring to see an application that says: List ways you and your child’s teachers manage inappropriate behaviors.

Costs can be high, but some programs offer scholarship funds. If your child is mandated for year-round services in public school, some costs may be covered as a tuition-related expense.

Helpful Resources

Although Smart Kids with LD does not endorse or recommend specific summer wilderness programs, two of the most experienced providers are:

  • SOAR: Success-oriented, high-adventure programs for preteens, teens and adults with LD and ADHD. SOAR programs focus on developing self-confidence, social skills, problem-solving techniques, and a willingness to accept new challenges. See or call (828) 456-3435.
  • Talisman Programs: Adventures for Boys and Girls 9-17 with LD or ADHD who can benefit from a supportive, small group environment. See or call (888) 458-8226.