The Chill Zone – A sensory space that makes sense at camp

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By Lori Zlotoff, LCSW
Camp Harlam Inclusion Coordinator

Due to the thoughtful work of our professional staff and a generous grant, Camp Harlam was able to provide a new space for campers to “take a break” – a concept that is hard to come by in the residential camp setting. At home, when life becomes overwhelming or a child needs some alone time to decompress, they may retreat to their room or a place in their house where there is a reasonable expectation that they can be alone to get back to center. At camp, we live in a 24/7 environment of togetherness, where we eat, play, rest and reside together without a personal space of our own where we can truly be apart from the hustle and bustle of the intense camp schedule and large community. Opportunities to be alone with one’s thoughts or to have a moment of down time are scarce; it can be challenging for some of our campers to find a spot to truly “chill.” For campers with disabilities or who experience challenges at camp that make this time and space especially important, the designation of such an area can be critical in ensuring their success at camp.

With a grant that has been matched by Harlam donors thus far and guidance from Sensational Spaces, an occupational therapist in Plymouth Meeting, PA, we created a sensory experience for the 2016 season designed to relax all parts of the mind and body. Our “Chill Zone” – located in the rear of our Health Center facility, with a private entrance – is dark except for light emanating from a special wall feature, fiber optic lights on the floor, and twinkling lights on the ceiling. A body pillow, a gym mat, a fuzzy carpet and a beanbag chair line the floor, allowing comfortable seating and reclining options. The walls are decorated with a bubble wall, a bubble tube with fish, a dry-erase board for coloring, and a Lego board. A set of drawers contain Magnatiles, Legos, stress balls, chill-zone-3fidget toys, puppets and more. Generous donors provided books of cool facts, similar to those some campers enjoy during the school year, and there is a Bluetooth speaker that can play music and guided meditations. During the summer, campers entered this space and were immediately struck by the remarkable difference from the sensory experience they had been having out in camp: the Chill Zone was a cooler temperature (thanks to central air conditioning), dark (due to black-out curtains and no bright overhead lights), small, and quiet. In addition, outside the Chill Zone are gliders, Adirondack chairs and benches, a hammock, bungee and bean bag chairs, and even kinetic sand and a small trampoline, so campers can relax without even going inside.

In order to ensure that the Chill Zone was used effectively, our Camper Care team devised a protocol and worked with our staff to identify campers who might benefit from such a space during the course of their normal day at camp. This was a discreet process, meant to ensure privacy for those who needed to use the Chill Zone. This means of thoughtful facilitation led to very positive implementation of the Chill Zone, providing campers who we imagined might benefit from it the opportunity to use it at their judgment and creating a culture in which being eligible to use the chill zone was not stigmatized in any way.

During the summer of 2016, we logged a total of over 160 visits. Some of those visits were brief – only 5-10 minutes – while others were nearly an hour. This depended entirely on the needs of the camper. All of the visits were self-directed and the campers self-identified when they were ready to return to their cabin. At all times, one of our trained Camper Care professionals was present to guide the process, allowing the counselors to return to their bunks in order to continue caring for the other campers. In this way, everyone gets their needs met, without taking away from anyone else.

As one camper shared, “Going to the Chill Zone helped me immensely during the summer. As much fun as camp is, it can get overwhelming at times, especially for kids who get overstimulated easily like me. When being in the hectic camp environment becomes too much, I can simply ask a staff member to head to the Chill Zone where I spend some time looking at calming lights and playing with sensory toys. Afterwards, I feel relaxed, much less stressed and ready for the rest of the day’s activities.”

Another example of how the Chill Zone could provide value was its use as an ideal place to watch our July 4th fireworks show. For some, the fireworks are too loud and overstimulating. This year, we proactively moved those children into this space to watch, and one camper brought a friend. We drew back the curtains and looked out the window, which framed the fireworks as they filled the night sky. The ambient noise of the bubble wall provided the perfect backdrop to mute the loud booms of the fireworks and the campers were truly mesmerized by the show. They were disappointed when it was over, as it was the first time they had been able to enjoy this special aspect of camp.

We are always proud of the work we do at Harlam, but especially when we are able to fill the needs of all of our campers, with or without disabilities, in a way that feels supportive to all, proactive and ultimately enhances their camp experience!