This summer, I had the opportunity to work at a summer theater and arts camp for students with autism.  My role at camp was consulting and collaborating with teaching artists at camp to ensure that students were accessing the curriculum to best of their individual abilities.  I went to four different arts classes with the campers each day and was fortunate enough to get a plethora of ideas to incorporate in my classroom during the school year. Here are some of the many activities and ideas I will be using in my classroom that I learned while working at camp…

1. Have a Mantra

There were four different classes each day at camp-Movement, Music, Drama and Art. Each class had a mantra that they repeated together at the beginning of each class that served as a gathering activity and explained a “what” or “why” about the class. In music, the mantra was “Music Brings Us Together”, which explains the community aspect of music and lets students know that music class is a shared activity with their peers. In art, the mantra was, “I Create Art. Art is Anything I Create Thoughtfully.” This mantra explained what art was to students and communicated that art can be many different things. This school year, I was thinking of having a mantra for each subject so that students would gain a deeper understanding of what we do at each station. For example, a mantra for my content station when the students are doing science at the content station could be, “I Learn Science. Science is the Study of the Natural World.” When students are doing writing, the mantra could be, “I am a Writer. Writing is Communicating my Ideas on Paper.”  

2. Warm-Up

Each class had a warm-up activity after the mantra each session. Since most of the classes were more physical, they had body warm-ups which consisted of stretches, but art class even had a warm-up activity before the art project each day. Having a warm-up seems like a great approach because it allows students to practice a skill or project before they actually complete the project. In art, students would complete a coloring page with the art material they were using that day as the warm-up. Having a warm-up for reading could be saying the alphabet, naming letter sounds or reading previously mastered sight words. A math warm-up could be number identification, counting, math facts or a word problem. 

3. Incorporate Music & Movement

Each morning, campers would be lead in the “Camp Code”, which were the rules for camp said to a rhythm. Each rule, had a movement to go along with that rule. I will be doing this in my classroom next year because I think it age-appropriate for my students and I could see them engaging in rules more with movement. Saying the rules in a rhythm or in a “singsong” manner is also engaging for my students with visual impairments. Having movement associated with rules helps the students to remember the rules and allows students who are nonverbal or limited speech to participate in expressing the rules each day. 

I am not very musically gifted, but I love music and many students seem to enjoy music. Each day, we would have opening and closing songs at camp. The campers enjoyed the songs and their consistency in the beginning and end of camp time. I would like to incorporate a song at the beginning of the day and since I cannot play an instrument to save my life, I will be using music for various sources online, to help provide the music for singing in my classroom. Another idea I will be trying this school year is having students choose an activity for their birthday instead of bringing in an edible treat. In music class, each camper picked a song (or their parents told us what song their child liked) their  to have “dance party” at the end of the session. This is a great way to learn about students’ musical favorites and to engage in an activity. 

4. Structured, Creative Activities

I will admit that before I worked at this camp, I was a little skeptical about teaching drama to students with autism because often students with autism work better with concrete ideas and directions. Drama and using your imagination seem like difficult to teach and often people don’t think of teaching creativity or coming up with novel responses as a skill, but we see imaginative play as a stage in development (Hello, ABLLS-R) and creativity can be a skill that is taught, like reading or math.

Art class at camp had amazing structure, but helped foster creativity. One struggle I had teaching students with autism art was students would copy any example I showed them. At camp, the art teacher did make structured parameters for the projects (“Choose 3 beads”, “choose 5-8 leaves”, “pick a color for your sensory jar”), but didn’t tell students the exact placement of items on their projects. 

Something else I will be incorporating next school year is Drama Time, which teaches students basic skills (eye contact, imitation, responding, attention, engagement) through creative, structured games. The schedule was very consistent within the drama time session and new games or rules were added as the students learned. The resource I’m using for Drama Time can be found on Teachers Pay Teachers here and features some of the games we play at camp, along with visuals and explanations.   

5. Create a Mail System

“Warm and Fuzzies” was the camp’s note system where campers wrote notes to each other and delivered them to other students via a mailbox system (kind of like Valentine’s Day in August). Campers would have time to write notes each day to fellow campers and staff members. They decorated their notes with stickers and delivered them to their paper bag. My colleague and I talked about having a mail system for students to write notes to each other all year long, as a life skills and community-building activity. It is also a great opportunity for students to learn and practice letter writing skills. Depending on a student’s individual skill level, it could also be a great opportunity to practice copying words and names.  

I hope you are got some new ideas to incorporate in your classroom in the fall.  Share other ideas you have gotten for your classroom during the summer and your plans for this school year!

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