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An inclusive experience during a summer camp

Here we are, my patients have all leaved Boston for the summer break. In order for me to stay occupied, I work in a French school as a camp counselor for a summer camp. Around 20 children from 3 to 10 years old come everyday to do some activities and games according to a theme, in French!

Two weeks ago, a mom came to pick up her last son and she was accompanied by her first son, Lucas*. As I welcomed them, I found myself in front of a sweet boy with blues glasses and a huge smile. As soon as he saw me, he hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. Lucas is a child with Down Syndrome. I took the time to talk with his mom and to help her putting her sons in the car. I explained briefly what my profession is as she did not know it because she is American. She then told me she would have loved for Lucas to be in this summer camp because she would like him to speak more French, but she did not asked because she was afraid it would be to much trouble for the school and the counselors. I knew her other son Jack* was registered for the next week so I suggested to talk to the school director and to my colleagues to see if they would be ok to take Lucas with us for a few hours during the following week. She agreed with enthusiasm. When I explained the situation to the school direction and my colleagues, they were all in! We found an arrangement with the parents: during a week, we will welcome Lucas for two hours every morning.

On Monday, Jack et Lucas arrive at 9 a.m. with their mom. She helps them put their backpacks on the coats rack end stays around 10 minutes to observe Lucas in his new environnement. It has been decided that I will be the one focused on Lucas when he is at camp because I am the only one with a experience and training in the field of special needs.

Lucas loves to play with the other children, he goes towards them to give them a plastic fruit, a pencil, a toy car or a construction bloc. For almost every children, it is the first time they are meeting a child with special needs. The reactions are different for every child: some watch him from a distance, some are afraid of him and try to avoid him, others nicely answer to his demands. A few of the campers ask me questions like "What does he have?"; "Why is he always putting things in his mouth?"; "Does he understand what I am saying?"; "Why does he push us sometimes?"; etc.

Pretty quickly, a small group of 3 kids starts to play with Lucas and they will continue to do so everyday during free time.

Lucas tries to participate in manual activities, he likes cutting paper with scissors and painting, but does not stay focus on his work. When he has had enough, he says "All done!" and stands up to go play. Together, we create a game that will become his favorite game of the camp and that will help the most shy and fearful children to connect with him. It is a game of hide and seek.

In our classroom, there is a small alcove where Lucas loves to go. By looking in our supplies, I find some cardboard boxes and a long piece of fabric. When Lucas hides in the alcove, I go with him and put the cardboard boxes in a way that closes the entrance of the alcove, then , I hang the fabric above us so that we are in a small hut. At first, Lucas observes the hut and plays with me inside. Then comes Amber*, a 7 years old girl, sweet, curious and patient. She plays a lot with Lucas and is very interested by him, she asks me thousands of questions about him. She heard us in the hut, so she slowly approaches and calls Lucas' name. He stops his play, looks at me, smiles, puts his arms up, catches the fabric above his head and pulls on it while laughing: the fabric falls, Amber sees us and exclaims "Hi Lucas!". Lucas hands me the fabric so I can put it back up and there we go again: Amber pretends looking for Lucas, he makes her wait for a few seconds, then pulls on the fabric to see her. This game continues for almost 20 minutes! Other children come and start to look for Lucas with Amber. Some even come into the hut with him, in particular Olivia*, a 10 years old, who was very afraid of Lucas.

When the children go outside in the park, Lucas loves to go in the big structure with the slide. He sits on top of the stairs, takes off his shoes and throws them above the barriers or makes them slide on the slide. A few other children run to fetch the shoes and bring them back to Lucas. He then throws them away again and the game continues this way for a long time. Again, the children who were shy with him at the beginning of the week are happy to play with Lucas and try to make him laugh.

At the end of the week, the results of this inclusion are positive for everyone:

- Lucas had a great week, he made some friends, he showed nice capacities to adapt to the other children, he progressed in French and had a lot of fun.

- Campers discovered what is a child with special needs, they overcame their fears, misunderstanding and apprehension and they realised Lucas is a child with the same needs and desires than them.

- Jack and Lucas' parents had the opportunity to take some time for themselves and were happy to see that Lucas could spend some time in an ordinary camp.

- The other children's parents told us they were happy they kids could have the opportunity to meet and play with a boy with special needs and that this experience generated interesting discussions about open-mindedness, tolerance, difference, even with young children of 4 or 5 years old.

- Counselors had also the opportunity to discover Down Syndrome and some could change the bad or wrong representation they had about it. We also had to think and find the right words to explain things and answer the questions.

*All names have been changed.

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