Child Study and Treatment Center staff keep kids engaged despite challenges of COVID-19

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Every summer, staff at the Child Study and Treatment Center take patients on a camping trip to Penrose Point State Park in Lakebay.

As has been the case in 2020, COVID-19 altered those plans. But the CSTC team found a way to make it work. Instead of heading out to the park, the camping trip happened at a playground area on the facility’s campus. They pitched tents, cooked camp meals, tie-dyed shirts and had other outdoor fun.

The purpose of the excursion is to teach the kids interpersonal skills, teamwork, problem-solving and frustration tolerance. That last aspect was put to the test because some of the tent poles had gotten mixed up.

“You can imagine how frustrating that was to set up the tents, so the kids really had to work together,” said Erin Carpenter, CSTC’s director of Recreation Therapy Services.

After the tents were set up and dinner was eaten — with a barbecue grill taking the place of a campfire — they went on a night hike to a fish hatchery. That trip was used to practice mindfulness exercises.

“Can we be quiet as a group; can you hear what’s around you; can you notice and see what’s going on around you?” Carpenter said. “They are stepping out of their comfort zone and showing a willingness to try something new. That is a direct practice of mindfulness.”

Because recreational therapy is meant to improve social skills and improve quality of life, the CSTC staff has been earnest in finding ways to maintain continuity for the patients.

“We have been pretty lucky at CSTC in a lot of ways because we have a beautiful campus and a lot of space, so it’s allowed us to continue to our programming and make some adjustments,” Carpenter said. “This is showing how creative we can be and utilizing the space we have.”

Many of the activities involve collaboration and teamwork, and while most such activities can be done anywhere, outings are an important element of therapy because they help get the patients integrated into the community and teach them how to respond in uncontrolled settings.

“They have to practice all of the skills they learn in therapy, whether it’s family skills or interacting with peers,” Carpenter said. “We’re giving them a way to practice skills that they are building. Collaborative activities really help with that.”

Carpenter’s team has sought to create personal activities that will resonate with the patients. In addition to the camping trip and night hike, the staff created a drive-in movie in which the kids made their own vehicles out of cardboard and a carnival at the cottages rather than off campus.

COVID-19 restrictions have stunted elements of therapy, however. Some kids at CSTC haven’t seen their families since February, and events like the annual rocket launch — which families attend — weren’t quite the same as in years past.

“There were no families, no mingling of cottages, but we still had the kids build their rockets, we still had barbecue lunches for each of the cottages and we did the blastoffs,” Carpenter said.

To make up for the loss of visitation, CSTC has coordinated video chats so the kids can see their families, and Carpenter has made sure to take plenty of photos for the kids to send home.

“Not having visitation has been really hard for our kids and hard for our families,” Carpenter said. “I don’t think doing some of those extra things makes it less hard, but it makes it more manageable because they’re really leaning into those coping skills.

“Recreational therapy is so important because it can provide a happy moment in a really difficult time.”

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