Peterson Works as Aide at Summer Day Camp for Special Needs Children

Ryan Peterson (Jr., P, Edmonds, WA/Edmonds-Woodway HS)
Ryan Peterson (Jr., P, Edmonds, WA/Edmonds-Woodway HS)

By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications

SALEM, Ore. -- Willamette University men's basketball player Ryan Peterson (Jr., P, Edmonds, WA/Edmonds-Woodway HS) spent part of this past summer doing something he also did the previous two summers. His actions didn't involve attending theme parks or traveling to foreign lands. Peterson was an aide at a day camp for special needs children sponsored by Rosemary White Pediatric Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy near Seattle, Washington.

The camp was held at an elementary school, which provided both indoor and outdoor locations for a wide variety of activities. It also allowed campers a chance to feel comfortable in a school environment and around other campers.

Several years ago, while still attending Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds, Washington, the possibility of working at such a day camp was suggested to Peterson by the mother of a friend.

"I had developed a bond with her daughter, a special needs student at our school, over the course of our senior year," Peterson recalled. "A game of tag developed during one passing period, evolving (into interactions) that continued throughout the remaining lunches, passing periods, and football games that year. Her mom was impressed by the patience I could maintain despite occasional disruptions of personal space, and she thought I would be well equipped for the camp."

It didn't take a lot of convincing for Peterson to decide that working at the camp was a good thing for himself and hopefully for the campers as well.

"I was interested in the camp because of how rewarding it is to form meaningful connections with the campers, something they can often struggle with," Peterson said. "Even better than that is watching them forge their own bonds with peers, which always results in a miniature version of the proud parent feeling."

The camp operated by Rosemary White Pediatric PT and OT lasts several weeks each summer. This year, Peterson was able to work during two weeks of the four-week camp. In previous years, he has worked all four weeks. Those in charge of the camp have found that the change from only a few days for each camp to multiple weeks results in tremendous benefits for the children attending the camp. The longer camp allows for friendships to develop and lets interactions grow between campers and employees. As campers spend time with other people over a series of weeks, it also can lead to actions, thinking and relationships that are more complex.

"The camp has been four weeks since I started, and the beauty of this is that it allows the campers to show legitimate progression and become much more comfortable as the camp transpires," Peterson commented. "The campers need different levels of support for their day-to-day interactions. There's one 'player' (camp aide) for each camper, and campers are typically paired with a 'player' for three to four days at a time before a switch takes place forming new pairs. These switches help to expand the horizons of the campers, while at the same time giving them an example of a very comfortable transition."

Campers are affected by many different conditions. They may be somewhere on the autism spectrum, or they may have other conditions that make it difficult for them to interact with others. The camp seeks to reduce any limitations and expand how well each camper interacts with the world around them.

"Early on, I was paired with the youngest and smallest campers so that I could be a big personality (he's 6'7" tall) and give them particular attention, allowing other interactions to seem more routine," Peterseon explained. "Now, I've developed into a role where I'm by most accounts the high-energy player that works with the participants who most require a physical component to their play in order to open up and have more rich interactions."

There are separate groups of children who attend a morning session or an afternoon session at the camp. A significant amount of time during each session follows the Floortime method of creating interactions between campers and camp aides, as well as between campers and each other. The Floortime concept was developed by child psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan, M.D. and Dr. Serena Weider, PhD. Floortime is relationship-based and encourages camp aides and others working with special needs children to get on the floor to be at the same level with the goal of helping the children develop their circles of communication.

Ryan Peterson (Jr., P, Edmonds, WA/Edmonds-Woodway HS) Key elements of Floortime are to start at the child's level of development and to focus on their strengths. It's also important to react to what the child does, rather than only direct the child. The adult working with a child will interact in activities that the child enjoys. This interactive approach engages the child and can allow the adult to help the child build on the complexity of their shared interactions. A sense of accomplishment can be achieved by both the child and the adult. Also, the child may gradually feel more comfortable in more complex activities.

"The goal with every camper is to get them to have enriching interactions with their peers and work toward becoming more flexible so that future play has the chance to develop organically or at least easier," Peterson said. "Through this, our job as 'players' is to seek out situations where children are attuning to one another. Sometimes that means having them strategize as to how to hit you with a water balloon, other times your doll is the villain while the children's respective dolls are the heroes.

"Monitoring body language also plays a huge role in our jobs at camp in ensuring the campers don't get to escalated from their interactions, and allowing us to act as the voice to facilitate interaction between campers who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally.

"By having enough fun in playing the most rudimentary games, it becomes easier to draw the attention of other campers and facilitate interactions, sometimes even between two different-aged campers who otherwise wouldn't interact but are now drawn together."

The switch from working with morning campers to interacting with afternoon campers has challenges and benefits for the camp aides who are involved all day.

"Interestingly enough, the transition is often the easiest part," Peterson said about each day of the camp. "When the kids show up in the morning, they're usually groggy and not very compliant, but over the course of the day they warm up. In the afternoon, the kids eventually tire out and by the end of the day they're somewhat cranky."

Most campers are between the ages of 4 and 13, but there are campers who are older than 18. There will typically be a variety of developmental stages represented in each group of campers. The camp aides, by working one-on-one with the campers, can focus on each camper's personal development. When multiple campers are similar in their development, the campers may be able to gain significant confidence and experience from interacting with each other. Activities vary throughout the day and from day to day.

"In the morning, it seems there is more problem solving, whereas in the afternoon, there are more group activities," Peterson said. Based off this, there's definitely a different feel to both the morning and afternoon despite there never being a schedule for the day... simply the desires of the campers."

The Floortime approach may be used indoors and outdoors. During the indoor activities, camp aides hope to develop situations in which the campers will be comfortable, with the extended goal of the campers being able to make smoother transitions into school classrooms easier when the summer ends.

"It gives campers experience in a classroom setting with a great deal of support so that they can gain comfort interacting with their peers. It also makes the prospects of them existing comfortably in a school much more possible. Additionally, by having so much space available for the campers on a given day, they have the ability to pace themselves and avoid discomfort."

Activities for the campers vary, but many are similar and build off previous encounters. This can be particulary helpful for children on the autism spectrum, who often feel more relaxed when they are involved in familiar projects, games, etc.

"Typical activities consist of some range of water balloons, playing lava monster, using rescue heroes and other figurines, and other imaginary games. Personally, I find the imaginary games to be the most helpful in that they force the campers to slow down and consider all the components of their game while different wrinkles are introduced by other campers.

"My second favorite is definitely the water balloons. Aside from being the most fun, they really help with putting on the brakes while playing. If a child can resist the temptation of popping a water balloon then they can put on the brakes in almost any situation. Additionally, the responsibility to clean up the shards of a popped water balloon before they can get another help to give campers an idea of the full sequence of events. Lastly, they can be enjoyed by any and all campers at any stage in development."

Peterson has been impresses by many things during the camps.

"One of my favorite things about the camp is how lighthearted it is, but how at the same time it can be so constructive and helpful to the campers themselves," Peterson said. "Another has been to gain an appreciation for the development of children, especially while watching the kids of my friends or relatives. The challenges the campers face are shared with a lot of children who develop on a normal timeline, they (campers) just face these challenges at different times. Based on my experiences at the camp I've become much more impressed by children possessing what are commonly considered age-appropriate skills. Lastly, since working at the camp I've become more deliberate with my actions and how they might impact others, a skill that everyone can improve.

"I'm an economics major," Peterson added, "So I don't foresee myself actually getting into the field of child development or education, but regardless, the things I've gotten from working here keep me returning."

Sometimes a particular interaction will have a special meaning for Peterson, leaving him with a great sense of accomplishment. There are times when things "click" and the camper makes progress and the relationship between camper and camp aide seems especially strong and valuable.

A couple of those times were recalled by Peterson.

"Two of my favorite experiences have been while working with campers with whom I have had difficulty communicating," Peterson noted. "In one case due to linguistic difficulty and in another due to a language barrier. In both cases, I've been able to pick out the song stuck in their heads that they'd been humming ... once it was "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen and the other time it was "Single Ladies" by Beyoncé. In both cases, when I started singing the song they started grinning and a gleam appeared in their eye."