Fun, Always! Top Tips From JIA Camp Counselors

by Megan McMorris Health Writer

When Stephanie Block was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) at age 8, she remembers being told all the things she couldn’t do. “It was common advice back then to keep movement limited,” recalls Block, now 35, program director of the Arthritis Foundation’s Camp MASH (Make Arthritis Stop Hurting) in Wisconsin. But after attending Camp MASH herself at age 12, she had a lightbulb moment that would change the way she felt about her condition—and about how others with JIA should be treated, too.

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“I remember standing on a rope swing and being afraid to jump, because I’d been so used to being told that I shouldn’t do this or I shouldn’t do that,” she says. “But instead, everyone was encouraging me! I still remember how empowered I felt.” These days, the script has been flipped: Experts now say not only is activity OK, it’s recommended for kiddos with arthritis. So how do you help your child play hard, but stay safe? Crib our counselors’ notes on how to support children with JIA as they build strength and confidence in their bodies through easy, engaging activities.

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Make Activity Jars

Certain factors like weather can induce flares (episodes when arthritis symptoms get worse), and some days your child may feel achy. That’s why you want options. “Having choices gives your child a sense of control over what he can do, rather than what he can’t do that day,” says Block. To help plan ahead, write activities on strips of paper and stuff them into one of three jars labeled by energy level: low, medium, and high. Let your child select a project based on how he feels.

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Tap Their Creative Side

An emotional outlet is important for children with juvenile arthritis. “Things like coloring can be soothing for kids with anxiety, and writing about your feelings can be helpful, too,” says Block. Add a little functional purpose to creative projects by helping your child make a bullet journal: a self-designed notebook divided into sections that help kids keep their lives organized. Your child can create tabs for medication reminders, weekly goals, tracking symptoms, and more.

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Keep Your Doc Involved

The type and severity of your child’s arthritis will determine which activities are OK, so check with your child’s healthcare team before launching into anything new. “Kids should always get clearance to participate in physical activities,” says April Tani, director of camp programs and initiatives at Painted Turtle Camp in California. “Everything we do at camp is under medical supervision, so if you’re trying these things at home, it’s important that your physician gives you the OK first.”

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Make a Splash

Water is ideal for kids with arthritis because it’s forgiving on their joints while strengthening their muscles at the same time. (Most importantly for your child, it’s fun!) “We’ve done aqua zumba for about seven years at the camp and the kids love it,” says Block. Don’t have access to a pool? No sweat, try a land-lubber version instead: The Zumba.Dance website lets you choose from live aqua and land-based classes tailored just for kids.

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Hunt for Clues

Walking is great for JIA, but it can be…boring. Turn a family amble into an adventure. “At camp, we turn our nature walks into a game,” says Block. Here’s how: Before strolling, each person gets a list of five items to find and share at a show-and-tell after the walk. Or try a city-street scavenger hunt, where each person tries to find five agreed-upon items. “It’s bonding to play a game while exercising, and it’s popular with children,” says Block.

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Go Limit-Free

It’s natural to want to protect your child, but it’s important for kids to discover their own boundaries. “You don’t need to inordinately protect your child from certain activities,” says Amir Orandi, M.D., a pediatric rheumatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. “Once kids have been diagnosed and have started treatment and are improving, we don’t really put activity restrictions on them. I think parents should encourage their kids to be as active as possible.”

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Try Charades

For an active game that engages the mind (and generates giggles), try this summer camp favorite: Designate one person as the List Keeper. Divide everyone else into two teams. One person from each team runs to the List Keeper for a word, then returns to the team to act out the clue. Once there is a correct guess, someone from the team returns to the List Keeper for a new word. The team with the most correct guesses after 20 minutes wins.

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Show Some Support

Everyone needs help now and then—whether you have a chronic condition or not. Drive that point home with this camp favorite: Place large objects (chairs, etc) around your yard and divide into teams of two. Blindfold one team member while the other teammate guides them through the “minefield” without touching an object. Whoever reaches the finish line first while successfully avoiding the obstacles wins! “It’s so fun to watch kids help each other out,” says Block. “It builds teamwork and empowerment, and campers love the game.”

Meet Our Writer
Megan McMorris