Ensuring Camp is a Safe Experience for Kids With Diabetes
Yes, children with diabetes can go to summer camp. Here’s how to make sure it’s a safe and fun experience
Update: Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all American Diabetes Association Diabetes Camps have shifted to virtual camps for summer 2020. If your child is enrolled in another summer camp, contact the campt to learn whether there are alternate options available or if you can get a refund. If your child's camp isn't cancelled or made virtual, discuss the safety of attending with your child's doctor.
Summer camp is a rite of passage. It’s a place to forge friendships, learn new skills, and create lifelong memories. For many kids, it’s a first real taste of independence away from home.
But navigating the experience isn’t always fun for parents, especially those whose kids have diabetes. Will they remember to check their blood glucose? What happens if they run out of supplies? Is there a medic on staff with diabetes knowledge?
Careful planning can go a long way to ensure that your child has a safe summer—and that you can relax while camp is in session.
Know Your Kid
To parents, diabetes camp may seem like a no-brainer. After all, it’s specifically for kids with diabetes and has medical staff trained to help kids manage the disease. (See “Diabetes Camps,” see below.) But kids with diabetes can enjoy other types of summer camp, too, whether they’re geared toward sports, drama, art, or other interests.
Once you and your child have settled on a type of camp, decide whether a sleepaway or day camp is a better fit. Young or newly diagnosed campers might want to stick close to home (so a parent is nearby to lend a hand) or pick a camp that offers extra medical supervision. Children capable of managing their diabetes on their own might do fine at a weekslong sleepaway camp or a camp that’s farther away from home.
Still on the fence? Conduct a trial run—say, a supervised sleepover at a close friend’s house or a school camping trip with a registered nurse tagging along—to gauge your kid’s ability to self-manage sans parents.
Discuss scenarios your son or daughter might encounter at camp. “Talk about situations that your child might find worrisome or stressful, like asking an adult for help or meeting new kids, and how your child might handle them,” suggests Cynthia Muñoz, PhD, MPH, a pediatric psychologist with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. You can even ask the camp for a menu, then role-play carb counting.
If you need extra reassurance, ask your child’s diabetes educator to weigh in on your kid’s ability to independently manage his or her diabetes. An educator can also suggest skills for your child to practice before the first day of camp.
Make a List
You’ve decided between sleepaway and day camps. Now what?
Make a list of potential camps. For recommendations, look to your child’s diabetes care team, diabetes support group, and other parents whose kids have diabetes, suggests Bree Bowen, a political organizer in St. Louis whose 15-year-old son, Brett, is a camper with type 1 diabetes.
Bowen suggests checking out a camp fair to size up a situation before enrollment. Fairs are often advertised in local magazines or newspapers; each camp has its own booth, allowing kids and their parents to meet staffers, learn about programming, and even participate in low-key recreational activities, such as games and crafts.
Do Your Homework
Once you’ve ensured the camp is a good match, research how it’s run. What’s the child-to-counselor ratio, and are you personally comfortable with the level of supervision? Where can your kid store insulin vials or pens so they stay cool? What’s a typical day like, activity-wise? And will your child be able to fully participate?
Inquiring about medical staff is crucial. Most camps have a nurse on staff, but ask whether he or she has experience with diabetes management tasks. Those include checking blood glucose, counting carbs, dosing insulin, delivering glucagon, and inserting a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) sensor.
If the nurse isn’t familiar with diabetes management, is he or she willing to learn before camp starts, either from you or through education resources provided by groups such as the American Diabetes Association (ADA)? Ask yourself whether you feel comfortable sending your kid to a camp where the nurse is still on a learning curve. Muñoz says your answer will depend on your child’s needs. “If your child is independently managing their diabetes, they can go to any camp,” she says. “If they need supervision or direct assistance and an individual can’t be identified to assist them, we have to think safety first” and opt for a different camp.
Perhaps most important, Bowen stresses, is whether the nurse is easy for parents to reach. Ask about the nurse’s daily schedule and if she’ll share her cell phone number.
And trust your gut. “I can usually get a feel for whether or not the camp is a place I want my kid to be,” says Bowen. Her red flags: “if camp administrators are difficult to get in touch with before camp starts or if they’re not receptive to learning what they need to learn to manage diabetes.”
Kids can be self-conscious about having diabetes, so it’s important to clear a path so they can have a positive experience. That begins with informing staff about your child’s condition, Muñoz says. From there, the camp can make necessary accommodations and assist with diabetes management.
Most camps require a detailed medical history. Beyond that, consider providing staff with a diabetes medical management plan (DMMP); in it, a doctor will detail your child’s health history, blood glucose monitoring instructions, treatments for highs and lows, and other key info. (Find a sample DMMP here.) Consider reaching out to administrators as soon as possible—certainly before Day One—to discuss your child’s medical essentials. You can also ask about early arrival.
Bowen simplifies the process by providing staffers with a binder filled with key details: sick-day guidelines, signs of low and high blood glucose, the basal rate for her son’s insulin pump, emergency protocol, health care team contacts, and a chart detailing how various physical activities affect his blood glucose. Hands-on instruction by parents (or online ADA trainings, such as those found at diabetes.org/summercamp) can provide less-experienced staffers, such as counselors, with key info, including how to administer glucagon in an emergency.
Make (And Break) Some Rules
Rules are valuable, until they jeopardize someone’s safety. Read the camp handbook and flag policies to negotiate with staff. The camp may restrict cell phone use, but it will need to relax the rule if your child uses a smartphone or tablet to check and share blood glucose levels—or if he needs to call home on a daily basis. Talk to camp counselors, too, about bathroom trips, activity breaks, snacks, and sick days; these should always be allowed, even if policies discourage their frequency.
Scope Out the Food Situation
If meals are provided on-site, “find out what the food looks like and what kind of accommodations they have for extra snacks when the blood sugar drops low,” says Gayle Lorenzi, RN, CDCES, a registered nurse and certified diabetes care and education specialist at the University of California–San Diego. “Are there gluten-free options for kids with celiac disease? Are there carb-free options if your kid’s blood sugar is on the higher side?”
Don’t be afraid to request menu substitutions. For recently diagnosed campers or younger children, ask if the nurse can help make food choices that fit their needs.
Wilderness camps may have rules against stocking cabins with snacks, which can tempt critters. Work with the camp to find a solution so your child can keep glucose sources nearby in case of lows. You might stash juice and glucose tablets in a mouse-proof container or keep bottled Gatorade on hand instead.
While packing diabetes supplies for camp, bring at least double what you think you’re going to need. “You need a backup for everything,” says Carla Cox, PhD, RD, CDCES, a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. “If your child is using strips, they need to take a bunch of strips. If they’re on a [CGM] sensor, they need an extra sensor.”
To avoid forgetting anything, make a list. It’ll include items such as a blood glucose meter; test strips; lancing device and lancets; insulin vials and syringes, pens, or a pump; infusion sets; CGM sensors; fast-acting glucose; and batteries for any devices, as well as cold packs and portable coolers to store insulin during outdoor activities. Children who use an insulin pump or CGM may want to pack skin prep or adhesives (such as Skin Tac, Mastisol, or IV3000) so their infusion sets or sensors don’t slip.
Learn From Experience
No camp is perfect, and even the best-orchestrated experience can go awry. Learning from setbacks—a lake-drenched cellphone, not packing enough trail snacks—is just as important as planning for them, whether it’s resolving to purchase a waterproof case next summer or recalculating how many energy bars are really required for
a three-hour hike.
“Make sure that any emergency situation is planned out ahead of time as much as possible,” says Muñoz. “If this is a camp that your kid really enjoys, then it can be the start of a relationship with its staffers. Talk with them after the camp experience: What worked? What didn’t work? What might
we do differently next time?”
Try To Relax
Hard as it may be, try to limit contact while your child is away. For both your kid’s freedom and your own peace of mind, trust that the camp will do its job. If that sounds impossible, consider using technology to your advantage. Some meters and most CGMs work with smartphone apps to share data with family.
“The hardest part is letting go. But that’s the whole point of camp—for them to go and be a kid and have fun,” says Bowen. “As a parent, you have to have a little bit of faith that they’re not going to break.”
Jaxon Ryan had been living with type 1 diabetes for three years when his endocrinologist suggested he attend ADA Camp Aspire in upstate New York. Camp Aspire isn’t just any camp; it’s an American Diabetes Association (ADA) camp for children with diabetes. ADA camps, found in most states, are staffed with doctors, nurses, and counselors trained to manage the condition. The campers all have diabetes; while canoeing, hiking, swimming, and crafting, they’re able to meet and learn from kids like them. And parents like Jaxon’s mom, Katie Ryan, have peace of mind knowing that their kids are being watched 24-7 by people trained to manage diabetes.
After camp ends, the benefits often linger. A 2019 program evaluation survey conducted by the ADA showed that at least 70 percent of campers learned or improved at least one diabetes-related skill, including drawing up insulin, giving their own injections, or changing their pump site.
Diabetes camp also helps kids build support networks. “When we picked Jaxon up, we saw all the friends he made,” Ryan says. “He had this huge community around him that really supported him and understood him, not only medically but emotionally.”
ADA Camps and the advancement of technology practices are funded by Novo Nordisk, Lilly Diabetes, The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, and the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation.