Summer Camp for Kids in Foster Care: A Place for Building Meaningful Connection

Making s'mores around a campfire, learning how to swim, playing a massive game of capture-the-flag—summer camp is about relaxing, trying new activities and making new friends. But for children in the foster care system, summer camps that recognize their unique situations can be even more meaningful. 

“There’s a real policy around the importance of normalcy in the life of children in foster care, and an extracurricular activity like camp really does an excellent job in bringing that into the lives of kids,” said Lindsay Elliott, executive director of Santa Monica–based Happy Trails for Kids, a camp for children in foster care.

For kids who may experience complex emotions related to their family status, these camps provide them a place to leave their troubles at the door. Debra Waters-Roman, clinical associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and expert on children and families, noted that youth in foster care may feel as if they have a negative label or stigma attached to them. 

“Sometimes, they’re embarrassed to have to disclose that they are in foster care, or they wonder what people are going to think about them,” Waters-Roman said. “If they’re in a camp with other foster youth, they don’t experience those negative feelings, or at least not to the same level, because everybody’s in the same situation.”

Benefits of Summer Camps Dedicated to Youth in Foster Care

Provides a space for biological siblings to reconnect.

Social workers may be able to coordinate with caretakers of biological siblings who are separated and have them attend camps at the same time.

Allows siblings and friends to celebrate special occasions that they may have missed.

Brothers and sisters who are separated can celebrate birthdays or other important holidays. Many camps will allow children to pick out gifts for each other or make keepsakes to exchange.

Offers activities tailored to the experiences of youth in foster care.

While typical classroom activities can be isolating if children don’t come from a traditional family, the programs at these camps allow kids to reflect on their unique experiences with activities like scrapbooking.

Helps to broaden experiences and develop social skills.

Many youth in foster care don’t have the same opportunities to participate in activities that their peers do. Camp activities can help them build confidence, learn to collaborate with others and develop new passions.

Provides role models who have also experienced foster care.

Many camps hire counselors who have experienced the foster care system. They are not only better equipped to understand the challenges of attendees but can also help to inspire kids about their future.

Encouraging Youth to Attend Summer Camp

Some kids may jump at the chance to go to summer camp. But for children in foster care, they may feel like they are being sent to camp because they are a burden or unwelcome, Waters-Roman cautioned. Caretakers should present the idea of attending summer camp with sensitivity. Waters-Roman and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offer the following suggestions for talking to kids about attending summer camp (PDF, 126KB).

How to Pique Children’s Interest in Attending Camp

Try to have the child attend camp with biological siblings.

If they have family in foster care, enlist the help of social workers and camp administrators to coordinate their attendance.

Give the child a sense of ownership.

Involve the child in early discussions about summer camp, allowing them to ask questions and review information with you. Always show care and concern for their questions.

Talk about activities that appeal to the child’s interests.

If they like music, art or athletics, highlight the chance to participate in those activities at camp.

Describe camp in positive terms.

In addition to the activities that they would enjoy, talk about opportunities to meet new friends, try new things that they couldn’t do at home or reunite with biological siblings.

If a child is shy, consider a camp where they know another child.

If there are no biological siblings at camp, they might find that having a familiar face nearby makes it easier to meet other kids.

Discuss what kids should expect.

Review daily routines and consider visiting the camp location in the off-season to make the place familiar.

Let the child help pack for camp.

Encourage them to bring their favorite toys, books, music or other comforting items, if the camp allows.

Remind the child that they are returning home.

Let them know that you look forward to hearing about their experiences when they return. 

Summer Camps for Kids in Foster Care

If you are interested in proposing the idea of attending a camp to a child in your care, consider these options: 

 Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.