Special Needs and Adaptive Camps, Playgrounds, & Programs in Northern Virginia

Summer camps, recreational activities, special events… For most parents seeking fun programs for their children, opportunities abound in Northern Virginia. Hundreds of camps, enrichment programs, indoor playgrounds, sports teams, leadership organizations, and more are available to them. Some other parents are not so lucky, especially when it comes to summer camps. For these families, finding a program that properly serves their children is a rarity.

Such was the case for Jen Reese of Sterling when she sought a summer camp for her young daughter—until she discovered Loudoun County’s adaptive camps. “There are no other camps around that will accept my daughter due to a complex medical diagnosis,” Reese says. But thanks to the county’s Adaptive Recreation camps, her daughter Cailyn, now age 10, has enjoyed fun summer days as much as other children do, participating in drama, water play, games, and more. “Adaptive Rec Camp has always been accessible to her and other kids in the area,” Reese says. Her daughter, who has attended these camps for six years, “gets to participate in ‘regular’ camp activities: field trips, pool days, and even a talent show. Her summers would be very boring if we didn’t send her to camp. Her dad and I both work full time and she’d be sitting at home with a nurse all day.”

Providing everyday fun experiences for kids—without overwhelming them—can be an issue for other parents such as Anjali Gulati. “When my son (now 14) was younger, we never had a place to take him that wasn’t overstimulating or athletic-based. So, it soon became my mission to open a place for ALL kids of ALL abilities,” she said.

Anjali is the owner of We Rock the Spectrum, a sensory-friendly gym in Loudoun County that provides a place for all children of all abilities to play and grow together. “As the only sensory kid’s gym that offers an all-inclusive philosophy, we have found that children can benefit greatly from this inviting multi-sensory environment offering a zip line, a variety of swings, wall and rope climbing, a pretend-play area, and opportunities for fine motor play, crafts, and much more.” Gulati says. 

“We opened We Rock the Spectrum because we knew the need for a safe and inclusive place for all kids to have fun,” she says. And indeed, the facility serves all: children with physical limitations, those who are emotionally or developmentally challenged, and fully abled kids.

The indoor playground is open year-round and offers summer camps as well. It’s one of several facilities and programs in the area—some private, some run by local governments—whose goal is to give children and young adults the fun and joy of youth. Below we present local summer camps, playgrounds, recreational facilities, and special events that serve children of all abilities. Because sometimes parents need a break, too, we also include respite programs that provide kids with a fun night and caregivers some much-needed down time.

CAMPS

Camps that cater to or purposefully include children with special needs give them a chance to have as much summer fun as other kids get. Whether their special needs stem from a physical limitation or are based on social and developmental skills, kids at these camps will be not just accommodated but enthusiastically welcomed and included.

We Rock the Spectrum

www.werockthespectrumloudoun.com

Sterling, VA
571-313-0335

We Rock the Spectrum is the local franchise of a national company serving kids of all abilities, with a focus on those on the autism spectrum. This summer, the children’s gym in Sterling will offer camps on certain weeks with different themes. Camps are open to all kids, and parents or aides are welcome to attend the camp for free along with their child. Children must be at least five years old and potty-trained (or have an aide attend with them). Camps are usually half days from 9 am-noon and consist of games, arts and crafts, sensory play, snack time, and open play in the gym with zip lines, trampolines, tunnels, and more.

Fairfax County Therapeutic Recreation Services

www.fairfaxcounty.gov/neighborhood-community-services/therapeutic-recreation

Multiple locations in Fairfax County
703-324-5532
NCS-TRACERS@fairfaxcounty.gov

Fairfax County’s Therapeutic Recreation Services (TRS) provides opportunities for children and adults with disabilities to develop the skills that enable them to participate in recreation and leisure programs. TRS offers summer camps for kids ages 5-12 and for young adults ages 13-22. For kids ages 5-12 (five-year-olds must have completed kindergarten), camps are full of special events, art activities, sensory play, games, sports, field trips, and music activities geared to their abilities. All camp sites are open to participants who are on the autism spectrum, who have attention deficit disorders, or who have developmental, intellectual, emotional, physical, or learning disabilities.

Loudoun County Adaptive Recreation

www.loudoun.gov/adaptiverec

Multiple locations in Loudoun County
adaptiverecreationcamp@loudoun.gov

Each summer Loudoun County offers a six-week adaptive camp. Camps are full-time and offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and the price is the same for county and non-county residents. Camps provide all individuals the opportunity to participate in recreational programs to enhance their quality of life while fostering a community of respect, acceptance, and inclusion. Summer day camps have weekly themes and activities including games, sports, crafts, swimming, field trips, and special events. Campers enjoy activities that foster independence, self-awareness, community leisure education, and positive interpersonal relationships. The camps are open to children and young adults ages 5-21 of various disabilities or diagnoses, including attention deficit disorders, autism disorders, and intellectual disabilities across all levels, from mild to severe or medically fragile.

Camp Aristotle at The Auburn School

www.theauburnschool.org

Chantilly, VA
703-793-9353

The Auburn School’s Camp Aristotle serves children with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorders, and receptive, expressive, or pragmatic language challenges. Not all campers have a formal diagnosis, however, and the camp welcomes students who simply may have trouble with peer relationships and/or impulse control. Camp staff understand that regular camps often won’t work for these children, since those programs often lack sensory breaks or the right tools. Camp Aristotle instead tries to provide a stress-free, fun environment where participants still can be highly engaged, rotating through activities designed to improve social skills and foster discovery. The fun includes creative arts, drama, cooking, music, movement and dance, team-building games, science experiments, construction and design, water play, and computer activities. Camp Aristotle accepts rising kindergarten through rising ninth-grade campers for both half-day and full-day options.

Camp Splish-SPLOSH

buildingblockstherapy.com/splishsplosh-summer-camp

Falls Church, VA
703-533-8819

Camp Splish-SPLOSH is a speech, language, and occupational therapy camp for kids ages 4-10. The therapeutic summer camp run by speech language pathologists and occupational therapists is a joint project of Building Blocks Therapy and Fairfax FUNdamentals. While serving mostly as a therapeutic camp, fun plays a big role, with participants spending half the day outdoors enjoying varied activities. There are daily themes, with scheduled activities and ample time for free play and socialization. Children participate in sensory play, crafts, or games targeting fine motor, language, or gross motor skills.

A Place to Be

www.aplacetobeva.org

Middleburg, VA
540-687-6740

A Place to Be helps people face, navigate, and overcome life’s challenges using the clinically-based practices of music therapy and expressive arts therapy. The organization serves people of all ages with any challenges related to physical, medical, behavioral, learning, intellectual, developmental, social, and life issues. Through summer camps, participants may create music, produce a full-scale musical or dance routine, work on improvisational skills, or explore nature to nurture creativity.

 

PLAYGROUNDS

The quintessential gathering spot for children, the playground is one place that should be available to all kids. Even in our gadget-obsessed age, playgrounds remain popular places where children can explore, have fun, and enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Unfortunately, many parks are not equipped to serve children with disabilities. But luckily for Northern Virginia families, there are some parks whose playgrounds cater to children of all abilities.

Clemyjontri Park

www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/clemyjontri

McLean, VA
703-388-2807

This beautiful, brightly colored, and cheerfully designed Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) property may be the best-known of the local fully accessible parks. A unique playground where children of all abilities can play side by side, the park was founded as a place “where children who use wheelchairs, walkers or braces, or who have sensory or developmental disabilities, can have a parallel playground experience of fun and exploration.” The park also has Virginia’s first Liberty Swing, which lets wheelchair users the experience of swinging without having to transfer from their wheelchairs. Other features include a carousel, trackless train, and picnic pavilion.

Chessie’s Big Backyard, Lee District Park

www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/recenter/lee-district/family-recreation-area

Franconia, VA
703-922-9841 TTY 711

Chessie’s Big Backyard at Lee District Park (another FCPA property) also serves children of all abilities. This playground with a Chesapeake Bay theme for kids 5-12 incorporates slides, swings, and other equipment designed for use by all children, including those with special needs. It has padded rubber floors and many features to crawl through or climb over, and ramps wide enough for wheelchair access. Children can enjoy slides, swings, and other specially designed equipment. The park also has the “Our Special Harbor,” a fully accessible sprayground.

Claude Moore Fun for All Playground

www.warrentonva.gov/government/departments/parks_and_recreation/warf/about.php

Warrenton, VA
540-347-1101

Adjacent to the Warrenton Aquatic and Recreation Facility, the Claude Moore Fun for All Playground was designed for all children, with a focus on accessibility for kids with disabilities. The park serves to help children with their physical, social, and psychological development and provides a place where kids of differing abilities and their families can have fun together. The park has a soft rubber surface, ramps and low platforms, and special equipment including a harness swing. Sensory components include Braille panels and interesting textures.

Hadley’s Main Street USA Playground

shopdullestowncenter.com

Dulles, VA

Located right across from the Dulles Town Center, this playground has a shopping theme of “Main Street USA,” with structures such as a local bank, car wash, fire station, and post office. The modern, brightly colored park provides accessibility so everyone, with or without disabilities, can play together. The park has rubberized, wheelchair-friendly surfaces, Braille signs, and accessible play equipment.  

INDOOR RECREATION

No matter the season or the weather, kids of all abilities still can get exercise and play time at an indoor recreation facility. Whether it’s for a weekly class or just a drop-in session, visiting one of these children’s gyms gives kids a chance to work on their motor skills, learn and play games, socialize with others, and challenge themselves to try new skills.

We Rock the Spectrum

www.werockthespectrumloudoun.com

Sterling, VA571-313-0335

Open year-round for indoor fun, We Rock the Spectrum is an indoor gym open to kids of all abilities, with special attention on those on the autism spectrum. The facility is designed as a place for children of all ability levels to play and grow together for a truly inclusive experience. Its specially designed sensory equipment helps children with sensory processing disorders but enables children of all ability levels to play together. Kids get exercise, have fun, and play games on equipment that includes climbing structures, a crash pit, a bolster swing, tunnels, slides, a trampoline, and a zip line. Classes include programs on social skills, yoga, and creative dance. We Rock the Spectrum also hosts birthday parties and special events. Sterling, VA  571-313-0335

Wings to Fly Therapy and Play Center

www.wingstoflytherapy.com

Chantilly, VA
703-466-5533

Wings to Fly is an integrated therapy and recreational center that “empowers families to become their own experts of their children’s potential.” Along with therapy programs (occupational, speech and language, music, and art) and other services, it offers clients, their siblings, and the public a chance to enjoy the occupational therapy equipment and other spaces for a fun and sensory exploration during open play times.

Monkey Joe’s Dulles Exceptional Kids Night

www.monkeyjoes.com/locations/dulles

Sterling, VA
703-966-8300

This huge inflatable play and party center features wall-to-wall slides, jumps, and obstacle courses, plus a separate toddler play area, arcade, café, and lounge with free Wi-Fi. It’s open daily for walk-in play, and on the fourth Wednesday of each month it hosts Exceptional Kids Night for families. On these nights, 5-7 pm, all kids with special needs are invited to enjoy the bounce structures for free, and admission for siblings is just $5 each.

My Gym Chantilly

www.mygym.com/chantilly

Chantilly, VA
703-378-3100

My Gym, a renowned chain of children’s fitness centers with more than 600 locations worldwide, teaches children in a fun and physically engaging environment. At these cheerful and safe gyms, young children learn about fitness, group play, and self-confidence. To give this opportunity to all children, My Gym Chantilly hosts a once-weekly class for kids ages 2-8 with special needs. The program concentrates on gross motor skills and socialization with students progressing at their own pace. Parents or an aide are required to be present at these sessions.

 

SPECIAL PROGRAMS AND EVENTS

Children and young adults who need or want just an occasional day out have options in Fairfax and Loudoun. Both counties offer therapeutic programs to people with special needs throughout the year for socializing and learning new skills.

Fairfax County Therapeutic Recreation Services

www.fairfaxcounty.gov/neighborhood-community-services/therapeutic-recreation

Multiple locations in Fairfax County
703-324-5532
NCS-TRACERS@fairfaxcounty.gov

Fairfax County’s Therapeutic Recreation Services gives children and adults with disabilities the chance to enjoy recreation and leisure programs of their choice. Its multiple yearlong programs (in addition to summer camps; see section above) cater to various interests. There are water safety sessions, wheelchair sports, and multi-purpose programs for exploring art, sport, sensory, dance, and music opportunities, all adapted to meet their individual needs in a structured environment. For preschoolers there is also the Saturday Morning Integrated Leisure Experience, offering arts and crafts, sports, games, and more for children with and without disabilities.

F.A.N.tastic Times

www.fairfaxcounty.gov/neighborhood-community-services/therapeutic-recreation/fantastic-times

Multiple locations in Fairfax County
703-324-5532

Fairfax County TRS also offers Family Autism Night (F.A.N.), a free drop-in program for individuals on the autism spectrum ages 2 to 22 years old and their families to have fun playing, socializing, and interacting with other families. F.A.N. events throughout the year enable participants to play, socialize, and interact with other families. Each evening includes a spotlight activity such as arts and crafts or swimming.

Loudoun County Adaptive Recreation

www.loudoun.gov/adaptiverec

Multiple locations in Loudoun County
adaptiverecreationcamp@loudoun.gov

In addition to summer camps (see section above) Loudoun County offers special one-time events throughout the year for teens and adults with physical, developmental, and other disabilities. The Adaptive Recreation Program of Loudoun County Parks, Recreation and Community Services serves individuals of all abilities and skill levels. These programs provide opportunities for fun and learning in a safe and nurturing environment, and can include movie nights, crafts, cooking classes, and workout sessions with a personal trainer. There are also sessions for kids such as bowling and laser tag during student holidays.

RESPITE PROGRAMS

Caring for a special-needs child can take its toll, often resulting in physical and mental fatigue for caregivers. Respite programs give parents and other caregivers much-needed recuperative rest or extra time, while their kids have fun and are cared for by compassionate professionals.

Jill’s House

www.jillshouse.org

Vienna, VA
info@jillshouse.org

Jill’s House provides care and support to children with special needs and their families through overnight respite care and therapy programs all throughout the year. The Christ-centered non-profit organization, established in 2003 in Vienna, serves children ages 7-18 with special challenges, be they physical/medical or emotional/intellectual. Lon and Brenda Solomon created the 42,000 square-foot respite lodge in Vienna in honor of their daughter Jill and in gratitude for their own experiences with respite for her care. Jill’s House now gives children an unforgettable overnight experience under the loving and skilled supervision of highly trained staff and nurses. Parents can sign up for school-night or weekend programs. For the overnight program, Jill’s House picks up kids from a participating school, provides them with dinner and fun activities, and returns them to school the next morning to give caregivers a full night off. With the weekend program, caregivers drop off kids at Jill’s House on Friday and pick them up on Sunday. While at Jill’s House, children can enjoy crafts, music, activity rooms, a swimming pool, pet therapy, a library, and outdoor fun including rowing, a zipline, and campfires. Vienna, VA  info@jillshouse.org

Fairfax County Therapeutic Recreation Services

www.fairfaxcounty.gov/ncs/tracers/UP/ProgramListing.aspx

Fairfax, VA
703-324-5532

On select dates throughout the year, the Fairfax County TRS offers a Caregiver Night Out. The program enables participants ages 6-22 to enjoy leisure activities so parents or caregivers can have an evening out. Activities include art, cooking, or fitness in a fun and structured environment, or may involve a fun outing such as a visit to a nature center.

Other respite programs

thearcofnova.org

Falls Church, VA
703-208-1119

The Arc of Northern Virginia s a local chapter of the largest non-profit organization supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. As part of its work to connect families with useful resources, The Arc of maintains a list of other nearby facilities where parents can experience respite retreats.

SUPPORT ORGANIZATIONS

Many non-profit organizations exist to support families with children with disabilities, most of which are well-known. One local one that is new, however, is Fairfax County Special Education PTA, or SEPTA (see https://fairfaxcountysepta.org). Officially launched in April 2017 by parents of special needs students, SEPTA provides education, advocacy, and support groups for both students and parents. No diagnosis is required to participate in the groups, which include peer support sessions and opportunities for educational sessions and social outings.


Patricia Lee Hall is a freelance writer and communications consultant who began her journalism career at The Miami Herald. She is the founder of FairfaxFamilyFun.com and lives in Fairfax County. She can be reached at editorialpro@gmail.com.

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