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Games and individual attention turn speech therapy into summertime fun

Friendship bracelets. Polar bear swims. S’mores. Just a few of the things you might expect to find at summer camp.

For the junior campers at the School of Communication’s Speech and Language Camp, however, something with a little more gravitas is being teased out during the games of tag and the water balloon tosses: the campers are finding their voices.

The camp, which just concluded its third successful year, is the brainchild of Tracy Killian, a faculty lecturer in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Each camper (there were twelve in all this season) is paired with a speech-language pathology graduate student clinician, who works with them one-on-one for the first thirty minutes of the day, then continues to facilitate communication and work on speech and language goals in a group setting. All camp activities are supervised by clinical faculty, who are licensed, certified speech-language pathologists.

The campers range in age from three to eight, and their speech and language needs vary. They are there to work on receptive, expressive, pragmatic/social and speech sound difficulties—as well as to have a kick-up-their-heels good time.

“They are kids,” said Killian, “who may have limited summer opportunities for camps. There are plenty of special needs programs during the school year,” she said, “but little to nothing during the summer. Larger, traditional summer camps can be overwhelming for our campers. We ensure a one-on-one ratio and personalized attention for everyone. Many special needs kids have tried traditional camps without this additional support and haven’t had success.”

Killian’s winning approach is a focus on personalized attention and lots of instructive games that have a high fun quotient: obstacle courses, airplane making, sink-or-float games, all paired with thematic units. Technology is also emphasized, thanks to a cadre of iPads that were recently donated by alumna Allison Murray (C86). “The applications on the iPads have been so valuable to our campers this summer,” Killian said.

“Everything we do is designed to teach the kids something,” she went on. “If they’re playing with sponge boats we’ll work on colors. ‘Is yours blue? Is it green?’ Even snack time gives them a chance to interact with one another, whether they’re passing out the snacks or choosing between them.”

There are also activities that include the whole family, including fire department visits and family nights, which “give the kids a chance to show off what they’ve learned,” Killian said.

“We had one camper this year who has a language delay and speech sound difficulties that make it hard to communicate,” she said. “He has a younger sibling who’s been talking circles around him, and his mother told us that, before camp, he’d started giving up. Recently, though, he found his voice. We incorporate the family into his sessions to facilitate generalization and carry-over of skills. For this camper, we introduced the ‘talking buddy’ rule for the family; if you’re holding the ‘talking buddy'”—a stuffed animal—”you can talk, if you’re not it’s time to give someone else a turn.”

Killian said the camp has been a very intensive learning experience for the campers. “These kids have been used to two, maybe three, hours of therapy a week, and they’re getting seven and a half hours a week at camp. We’ve seen huge growth.”

The best part, she said, is watching the campers’ confidence grow. “They’re starting to feel like leaders,” she said, “where they were followers before.”