Volume V Number 3, September 1998

Internet at Summer Camp? An Opportunity for Children and Youth with Disabilities

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
University of Washington

Some things never seem to change. There's something timeless about kids and summer camp. There's the hot sun and cool water, the green trees and blue skies, the outdoor games and public showers, and the rustic cabins and raucous dining halls. But, most of all, there are the grinning faces of friends gathered around the table, the pool, and the campfire.

However, summer camps these days are changing. Added to the chirps of crickets, splashes of water, clangs of dinner bells, and peals of laughter are the clicks of computer keys and the hum of hard drives. Summer camps are going electronic to give kids experience with new tools for learning and fun, including challenging campers to learn to use the Internet.


Computers and network technologies are indispensable tools in virtually all aspects of contemporary life. The Internet network provides a rich environment for electronic communication and information access. People can communicate with others world-wide without the constraints of time or distance. Networking services create new options for convenient access to a wide range of entertainment and educational resources. Although everyone recognizes the widespread interest in the Internet, some might still wonder why a typical camp for children and youth would want to add Internet activities to its program offerings?

In short, with growing concern over low academic achievements of American youth, summer camping programs can be part of the solution while providing new, exciting experiences for campers.


Each year project DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) coordinates Internet activities at selected summer camps operated by different organizations. They include camps operated by the Easter Seal Society of Washington, the Pierce County Department of Parks and Recreation in Washington State, the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, the Northwest Burn Foundation, and Camp Courage in Minnesota. Primary funding for the DO-IT project is provided by the National Science Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by the U.S. Department of Education, The NEC Foundation of America, The Telecommunications Funding Partnership, US West Communications, and the University of Washington.

DO-IT staff and program participants teach campers how to send messages to their friends and family with electronic mail, use the World Wide Web for fun activities, and create World Wide Web pages for their camps. Internet activities at the camps vary depending on the campers served and the program needs of sponsoring organizations. Some are day camps where local children and youth drop by for basic Internet training and other camp activities each day. Some are residential camps where campers stay for a week or more. In other settings campers are scheduled into the computer lab for short sessions to learn to use the Internet just as they choose to swim, hike, boat and do crafts; others offer an intense camp session for those who especially wish to learn about the Internet, employment, and college. Some are for young learners; some are for teens; and others serve a mix of ages.


Although putting together any activity at a summer camp can be daunting, following the six steps described below can guide you through the process of successfully including Internet activities as part of your camp program.

1. Put together an instructional and technical team.
Building a team with both technical and instructional expertise is an important first step. Planning and implementing Internet activities works best when people with a variety of knowledge and skills work together, including an activity coordinator, one or more instructors, and a computer support person. These roles may be filled by members of the camp sponsor organization, paid contractors, or volunteers, either as primary responsibilities or as additions to other duties. The exact division of tasks vary from camp-to-camp. In general, however, the activity coordinator oversees program development, resource acquisition, and staff supervision. Specific duties may include planning, budgeting, hiring, task assignment, monitoring, and evaluation. The instructor develops curriculum and delivers instruction. Specific tasks include consulting with the coordinator and camp personnel on program content and goals, planning instructional activities, developing and reproducing instructional materials, and delivering instruction on-site. The computer support person handles hardware, software, and telecommunications: He/she chooses equipment and suppliers; configures, sets up, and breaks down the computer lab, computers, adaptive technology, and telecommunications connections; arranges access through an Internet service provider (ISP); and develops electronic program materials such as camp World Wide Web home pages.

2. Determine instructional goals and activities and select materials.
Before planning curriculum or developing materials, determine the instructional goals. Learning something about your campers will help you plan an entertaining and educational curriculum at just the right level for your campers. A simple survey or a few questions on your camp application form can provide the information you need. Find out about their levels of computer and Internet experience. You are likely to find that you need to create flexible, alternative activities for a diverse group.

Determine your goal. Think about what knowledge, skills, and experiences you would like the campers to take with them when they leave. Whatever topics you choose to teach, it is best to limit the amount of time you lecture and develop activities that allow plenty of time for camper practice and exploration. Allowing participants time to explore also promotes self-directed learning, and people of all ages learn better if they discover the answer rather than just hear it. Provide the opportunity for creativity and discovery, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the talents of your enterprising campers.

Developing materials for any curriculum takes thought and planning. You can create a complete notebook with a detailed syllabus, you can use daily handouts or, once your students are up and running on the Internet, you can e-mail instructions for daily activities. When developing materials keep the interests, ages, and experiences of your campers in mind and remember your program goals. If "audience" and "purpose" are two words that stay in your mind as you work on this part of the project, you will most likely stay on target and create materials that serve everyone well.

Make the Internet activities fun. For example, an Internet scavenger hunt is a great way for participants to practice searching the Internet for specific information, and the hunt can easily be tailored to suit your camp theme. In teams of two, campers begin with a list of objects; a team locates the object on the Web, a staff member initials the item on the sheet; the team with the most "hits" at the end of the session wins a prize. Another fun activity that you can adapt to suit your camp is e-mail story building. The instructor begins the story by writing a paragraph; he or she e-mails the first paragraph to a camper, who adds a paragraph and forwards the whole thing on to another person, and so on. In the end everyone will have contributed to an unpredictable piece of prose. This activity is the Internet version of the story building we used to do around the campfire.

3. Find a facility with computers, or make plans to rent or buy them.
Life will be easier for you if you can use a facility that already has computers set up, for example, a local school or library. Sometimes computer companies will let you borrow computers, free of charge, for the duration of your camp. It will probably take a few phone calls to find a company willing to lend machines, but the effort is worthwhile. You can also consider renting machines from a local business. The computers can come configured just the way you need them and the company will usually deliver and pick-up at the site. This option can be convenient, but expensive. If you have the funding and plan to incorporate computer activities into future camps, buying the machines may be your best option. If you decide to buy, it is important to purchase computers that can serve your needs for many seasons.

4. Arrange for Internet service.
If the facility you are using does not already have an established Internet connection, you will need to arrange for accounts on a computer system that is connected to the Internet and determine a connectivity method. Sometimes you can obtain accounts through a school or university. This option is especially attractive if guest accounts are provided free to the campers. You may also be able to purchase accounts through a commercial Internet service provider. Whoever the provider, there are several issues of which you need to be aware.

5. Integrate the Internet into other camp activities.
Maximize the impact of Internet education to your camp program by integrating Internet activities with other camp activities. Schedule the Internet activities to blend well with other offerings. Make sure your Internet explorers have opportunities to participate in a wide variety of other camp offerings.

Integrate Internet activity topics as well. For example, let your campers conduct research on a camp activity by using the Internet. For example, if your participants make beadwork bracelets, they can search the Internet to learn how native Americans use beadwork to decorate clothing and artifacts. If you offer horseback riding at your camp, campers could learn more about breeds, training, or the evolution of horses in North America by visiting Internet sites. If some of your participants have more advanced skill levels, let the advanced group create their own Web design "company" and "contract" their services to the less advanced group. These beginners can do Internet searches to find sites they would like to link to, and their contractors can create a Web pages for the camp, including pictures of campers and camp activities. Both groups can meet daily and the contractors can deliver progress reports to their "employers." Campers can use information from their own Web site to create and update a camp newsletter.

6. Publicize the program.
It is easy to become so involved in the logistical duties of planning camp activities that you overlook recruiting and public relations. Don't let this happen with your program. There are a number of places you can advertise your program. Contact local newspapers, radio stations and television stations. Consider newsletters from organizations that might be interested in publicizing your camp. You may be able to get a promotional spot free or at a reduced rate. Post messages on discussion lists and on the World Wide Web. When you contact a potential promotional medium, let them know who comes to your camp and make sure that you show your enthusiasm during the conversation. The people you talk to may want to send their kids, or they may want to volunteer their time or services.

Find a team member who likes to speak to groups and book him or her to present at school and community events and meetings of the Rotary Club, Jaycees and other organizations. Talk about your camp and explain how you plan to add Internet activities to the curriculum. Speaking engagements can be formal or informal. Preparation, enthusiasm, and practice are all it takes to sell your camp through public speaking. And, who knows, someone may be impressed enough to donate money to your cause!

Finally, when the plans are made and the program starts, be flexible. Your campers might come up with some creative ideas that better than yours! Try to find a creative way to incorporate them.


DO-IT offers assistance to camping programs that want to add a technology component to their offerings. A brochure, a videotape, training materials, and World Wide Web resources are available from DO-IT free or at low cost. The NEC Foundation of America and the National Science Foundation provided major funding for the development and distribution of these materials. Camp activities have also been supported by the DO-IT partners Children's Hospital and Medical Center, Compaq Computer Corporation, Digital Vision, Inc., the Western division of Kraus-Anderson, and PTI Communications.

Burgstahler, S. (1998). Internet at summer camp? An opportunity for children and youth with disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 5(3).