Physical Therapy at a Therapeutic Summer Camp

Guest Author Shaun Tu, PT, DPT

The air is slowly warming and the leaves are turning green, signaling that the last days of winter are winding down and summer is just around the corner. It’s almost time for a return of the warm afternoons our kids spend freely running, jumping, and playing outside. Here’s an early look at the glorious days of summer vacation spent with friends at camp, the unlikely role of gross motor development in the overall social development of a child, and the team approach that therapists use at Eyas Landing.

Every summer, Eyas Landing holds a therapeutic summer camp run by our behavioral, occupational, speech, and lastly, physical therapists. Each week of camp has a central theme (sensory, handwriting, bike riding, social skills, zones, and sports) and therapists of each discipline work hard to shape their interventions to best fit the needs of each individual camper. As the primary camp physical therapist, my goal is to structure my sessions to not only address each individual campers’ gross motor areas of need, but also to facilitate successful social interactions between them and their peers, and to help them achieve these goals in other therapy disciplines at Eyas Landing.

The link between gross motor function and social skills is supported by current research in the area. A 2018 study by Holloway et al. found a moderately high correlation between gross motor skills and social function in young boys on the autism spectrum. Every Eyas landing therapist will echo this sentiment that a team approach helps generalize the skills our kids learn from each therapeutic discipline to the outside world.

For example, as our campers work on balancing, pedaling, and navigating obstacles during Bike Riding Camp, they also work on peer social skills like taking turns and saying ‘excuse me’ as kids of different skill levels zoomed past more novice riders. On the other hand, physical therapy group took a supporting role during handwriting camp. I turned to the team of occupational therapists — the experts in fine motor skills, such as handwriting and eating utensils — as my handwriting ability is below average at best, and my knowledge on the subject is minimal. They advised me to include activities that worked on weight bearing through the arms and gripping to stimulate the muscles in the hands and shoulders that our kids may be having difficulty activating during activities such as handwriting. Our kids climb across tree branches like chameleons, paddle kayaks, and swing from trapezes during physical therapy. During Sensory Camp, our campers work on sensory modulation, including zooming and crashing into pads from swings, and “skating” on shaving cream to challenge their balance and introduce new textures to their feet.

I find that the best interventions for my kids are the ones that incorporate the goals of other disciplines, and that these often fit seamlessly together. Child development is not black and white, and it is a disservice to our kids to compartmentalize their growth into strict immobile disciplines. While summer is not yet here, and our future campers are still at school, my colleagues and I will begin collaborating with each other now on how to best help our kids and their families reach their goals once camp starts.