Burn Camps Offer Unique Growth Opportunities

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By Brad Wiggins, RN, BSN
Christopher A. Thurber, PhD, ABPP

Only in the last 30 years have young burn survivors had the opportunity to meet other children and teens who have experienced a burn injury at what’s become known as “burn camp.” Since the establishment of a handful of camps in the 1980s, the number, according to the records of the International Association of Burn Camps, has grown to nearly 60. Fifty burn camps currently operate in North America, seven in Europe, and one each in Australia and Taiwan. Still more are in development. Most of these programs are free or nearly free for participants.


Burn camps can be categorized into two basic types:

  • Fun-based camps:Burn survivors attend fun-based camps to have fun and cultivate friendships with other burn survivors. The staff at this type of camp may not include professionals trained to deal with the psychosocial impact of burn injuries and programming does not include counseling or other activities designed to help survivors tackle the emotional and social effects of their injuries in a planned or formal way. Peer interaction related to burn injury may occur spontaneously throughout the camp environment, but campers may not have access to staff trained to deal with the social and psychological challenges of being a burn survivor.
  • Challenged-based camps with psychosocial care:Just as fun-based camps do, challenge-based camps provide burn survivors an opportunity to have fun and cultivate friendships with other burn survivors. In addition to fun activities, these camps include psychosocial care within the camp program and use.

Currently, many camps fall somewhere in between these two types, incorporating focused activities that foster natural interactions and discussions between campers about living with a burn injury. Some camps may have psychosocial professionals available at camp who assist in planning programs to build self-esteem.


Burn survivors differ in their abilities to manage the stress of a burn injury. Moreover, the size of a survivor’s injury does not necessarily correlate to the amount of stress they may feel as they re-integrate into their community after being discharged from the hospital. Burn camp is a great option for children who

  • Are reluctant to wear shorts or a swimsuit in public areas
  • Have trouble talking about their burn injury with others
  • Have been teased about their burn scars
  • Have never met other young burn survivors
  • Are reluctant to discuss their challenges with their parents

While not all burn survivors may need camp, many who could benefit are afraid to ask about the opportunity. Some youngsters with small burns may even feel unworthy of the experience. Whatever the circumstances, all burn camp programs strive to help the burn patient become a survivor and not a victim.

An ongoing relationship with a burn camp community can provide young survivors with easily accessible support as their circumstances change.


Two of the best indicators parents can use to gauge their child’s readiness for burn camp are medical stability and emotional enthusiasm. Participants must, at a minimum, be medically stable enough to participate in a rigorous, adventuresome, outdoor experience. Parents should consult their child’s physician and the camp director to determine that the services and programs available at that camp can support a child’s current physical needs and abilities.

Parents can assess enthusiasm by answering a few different questions:

  • Is my child suggesting a camp experience?
  • Has my child responded positively to suggestions about camp?
  • Is my child expressing interest in social activities?
  • Does my child talk about exploring the world beyond his or her school and neighborhood?

In addition, parents should have their son or daughter spend some practice time away from home, without them, in order to gauge their child’s self-reliance. A long weekend at a friend’s or relative’s house or an overnight school trip may give parents clues about their child’s maturity and independence.


The core benefits for burn camp participants are the natural growth of friendships and of one’s authentic self. As many young burn survivors say, “At camp, I make friends and I get to be myself.” Key to this growth is the immersion in a supportive community of other burn survivors and persons who understand burns. The opportunity to try new activities and face challenges is also important for campers’ growth.

A burn patient’s psychosocial needs cannot be predicted from the size of burn, location of burn, or time since injury, so any burn camp that nurtures friendships, includes fun activities, and develops young people’s authentic selves is likely to be beneficial. Camps with adaptive recreation and psychosocial professionals on staff may provide additional benefits because young burn survivors experience support and opportunities tailored to their specific needs. Some burn camps even extend their professional psychosocial services by offering parent support groups prior to camp and sibling support groups before, during, or after camp.


Just as burn survivors are not identical, neither are camps. Parents should evaluate the camps they are considering to carefully match their child’s needs with an appropriate program. (Visit the IABC website, http://www.iaburncamps.org, or contact the Phoenix Society at 800-888-2876 for an up-to-date list of burn camps or contact the burn center closest to you for information on a burn camp in your area.)


The most important indicators of a camp’s quality are tenure, accreditation, reputation, and a parent’s gut instinct. Tenure encompasses the number of years the camp’s director has been in his or her position, the return rate of the staff, and the return rate of age-eligible campers. Parents should inquire and discuss these figures with the camp’s director. The more good people stay with a camp from season to season, the more likely that camp possesses positive attributes.

All camp facilities should be licensed by the state or provincial Board of Health. Accreditation, by contrast, is voluntary, and holds camps to multiple, sometimes higher, standards. Accreditation is not a quality guarantee, but it confirms that the camp periodically meets reasonable industry practices.

A camp’s reputation can speak volumes about its quality, so parents should talk to hospital personnel, other parents, and veteran campers to hear first-hand narratives of participants’ experiences. In the end, parents and prospective campers should trust their gut instinct. Attending to the “feel” or “vibe” or “impressions” of a camp can be unusually informative.

Questions to Ask

In addition to questions about tenure and accreditation, parents should ask camp directors the following:

  • How is your staff trained? Burn camp staff may have professional credentials in nursing, medicine, firefighting, or some form of therapy, but they also need camp-specific training in child development, behavior management, and leadership.
  • What is the camp’s philosophy and how is its mission put into action? Look for camps that clearly state what opportunities they provide and how they specifically support young people’s growth.
  • How do campers receive additional medical, social, or emotional support? All child burn survivors need a chance to play and to “just be themselves.” For the times when additional support is needed, the camp’s facility and staff should be professionally prepared.


In addition to assessing the camp’s credentials, talking with the director, and arranging “practice” time away from home, parents should do the following before their child heads to camp for the first time:

  • Consider siblings. Ask whether the burn camp accepts siblings or look for a separate camp that matches the sibling’s interests, abilities, psychosocial needs, and developmental level.
  • Involve your child in camp planning and preparation. The more children feel part of the decision to attend camp, the more ownership they feel and the more positive their adjustment is likely to be. Involve children in shopping and packing for camp as well.
  • Consider purchasing the American Camp Association’s camp prep program. This DVD-CD set for new campers and their families has been shown to prevent severe homesickness and soothe parents’ separation anxiety. Visit http://ACAcamps.org/bookstore for The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success.


Although more research is needed to understand the precise methods and beneficial outcomes of burn camps, the past 30 years have created community, built camaraderie, and taught coping in ways  previously undiscovered. Bringing young burn survivors together in beautiful outdoor settings, away from home, with terrific recreation is an unmatched developmental highlight for most children. Camp, along with such programs and resources as school reentry, the UBelong program at the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress, and sibling or family programs, aids not only the child but the entire family as they heal from the impact of a burn injury.


Brad Wiggins, RN, BSN, is a clinical nurse coordinator and director of burn camp programming at the University Health Care Burn Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, and past chair of the International Association of Burn Camps. Write to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, is a school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. He is the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com and the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook. Dr. Thurber conducts staff training workshops and executive coaching sessions with dozens of camps, schools, youth development professionals around the world. He is a frequent presenter and keynote speaker at regional, national, and international conferences. Write to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Issue 2, 2013. Burn Support News is a tri-annual publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
The Phoenix Society, Inc.® • 1835 R W Berends Dr. SW • Grand Rapids, MI 49519-4955 • 800.888.BURN • http://www.phoenix-society.org