LARP: Social Emotional Benefits for Children with Special Needs

Live action role play (LARP) has had a home at Camp Starfish for many years; the imagination playground (also known as ‘Fort Starfish’) has been the setting for countless LARPs. Over the years, we’ve witnessed campers build impressive fortresses out of milk crates, create thrones fit for royalty, and work together to craft awe-inspiring stories and adventures. We felt it was important to expand upon this beloved camp pastime not only because it is an immersive imaginative activity that campers love, but also because of its natural potential to be a tool for fostering social and emotional development in children. What specific skills can children with special needs practice while LARPing?  

Perspective-Taking and Empathizing

We know that many children with Autism and related needs can have challenges with taking the perspective of others; understanding how others feel and responding appropriately is a natural element of LARP. LARP calls upon children to put themselves into the shoes of different characters, each with their own backstories, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. While becoming their own character and interacting with the characters of others, campers come to learn about challenges that others may face and can begin to appreciate different points of view. As stories unfold, the interconnectedness of each camper’s character becomes paramount in fostering empathetic relations both within the imaginative world of LARP and in the familiar setting of camp. 

Communication Skills

Being able to communicate effectively is a skill that all young people need to succeed; we know that individuals with special needs need a safe and supportive place to practice these skills while receiving in-the-moment feedback from trusted adults. While LARPing, campers are posed with new situations and challenges that they must navigate by communicating with fellow LARPers. As the story unfolds, campers must negotiate, strategize, and collaborate to achieve a desired outcome. Practicing these skills in a story-based, imaginative environment allows campers to hone in on their verbal and nonverbal communication skills while expressing their thoughts, ideas, and emotions. During the development of their characters and progression of the storyline, they are able to express themselves, actively listen to others, and adapt their communication to fit various social contexts. 

Confidence, Self-Esteem, and Self-Image

We know that children with special needs experience greater levels of anxiety than their neurotypical peers; our campers often feel as though they are the “odd one out” at school and cover up parts of their identities or personalities as a result. In LARP, By choosing the character they wish to portray, campers are able to embrace their personal strengths while exploring aspects of themselves they might not have otherwise discovered or appreciated. The feedback they receive from their peers and counselors can significantly boost self-esteem and confidence in themselves; this is done in a safe environment where everything campers bring to the table is incorporated into the story. They are encouraged to share about their characters (the good and the bad), and as a result are celebrated for who they choose to be. 

Conflict Resolution

In LARP, as in life, conflict is inevitable; plot twists are around every corner, and villains lurk in many of the best storylines ready to create new barriers that campers must overcome. By allowing campers to work through fictional problems in a story-based, creative environment, they are able to practice navigating conflicts collaboratively and managing their reactions to adversity in a safe and supportive environment. Experiencing roadblocks on a journey can be frustrating; the point of LARPing in a group is to show that campers can always rely on the skills of others to help them when their own skills alone are not enough to get them through a tough situation. Through LARP, it is the goal that campers are able to develop the skills necessary to resolve conflict positively and collaboratively and can then translate those skills to their real lives. 

Creativity and Thinking “Outside the Box”

In LARP, the potential for adventure lies within the imagination of the adventurer. We know that many children on the spectrum have challenges with rigid, black-and-white thinking. Through LARP, campers are enthusiastically encouraged to unleash their inner creativity and create an imaginative story with peers; just because something is unconventional doesn’t mean it can’t fit within the script. In LARP, innovation is encouraged and new ideas are celebrated. Being naturally open-ended, LARP helps campers tap into their creative potential and form their own destinies. 

At Camp Starfish, LARP is not simply an activity; it’s a tool through which campers are able to further develop their social emotional skills and leave camp feeling confident about who they are and what they can accomplish – that’s why we felt the need to expand it from a freeplay/elective option at camp to an activity that has its own program. Campers do not need prior LARP experience to participate in LARP week. What they do need is a willingness to try something new and expand beyond their usual comfort zone; we can assure you (and them) that they will be celebrated for whatever they bring to the table, and that their voice will be heard. 

Share This

Camper smiling at Camp Starfish
“New in 2024, Camp Starfish is offering “LARP Week” as a Specialty program. Learn more about the myriad social and emotional benefits of LARP for special needs children and why we felt this program was so important to add to our summer!”

Subscribe to Our Mailing List

Photo of Danielle Lubbers

Danielle Lubbers

Danielle joined Camp Starfish in the spring of 2023 as Camp Director. Originally working with the Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay, Danielle has ten years of experience providing programming to children, outdoor skills training for adults, and directing overnight summer camp experiences.

In her spare time, Danielle enjoys spending time with her two-year old Dalmatian, Mia. Danielle’s favorite activity at camp is raft building, as she enjoys seeing campers and staff work together to complete a team goal. Her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is “We are here to learn, grow, and have fun!”

Staff photo of David

David Mahnken

David Mahnken is Camp Starfish’s Mental Health Consultant. He provides staff training each summer on topics such as self-care, trauma-informed care practices, and health & wellness. David also provides support and consultation to the organization throughout the year. David holds a BA from St. Olaf College and an MSW from Simmons University. David is a LICSW who works in emergency services in addition to his own private practice in Massachusetts.

Prior to becoming a social worker, David’s first experience at camp was as a counselor in the early 2000s before becoming an administrator and member of the year-round team. His favorite camp activity is swim-I (swim instruction), and his favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “We make camp a safe place.”

Staff photo of Joe

Joe Clark

As the Assistant Director at Camp Starfish, Joe is a seasoned professional who is well-versed in all aspects of camp life. With five years of summer work at Starfish, he brings extensive experience and expertise to the camp year-round. Joe is from the UK, and holds a degree from Keele University. Joe works as a support worker in the UK, providing care to individuals with disabilities, since 2019. Joe also engages in volunteer work, including spending three months in Abrobiano, Ghana.

Joe is known at camp for his charming English accent, which campers often try to replicate! His favorite camp activity is playing soccer (football) on the field, and his favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “I take responsibility for my actions.”

Staff photo of Rachel

Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts is the Director of Staff Experience at Camp Starfish, responsible for all things staffing and groups. With a degree in Anthropology, and a Certificate in Global Citizenship from Franklin Pierce University, Rachel brings a unique perspective to her role. She oversees hiring, onboarding, retention, and staff appreciation for the 100+ seasonal staff at Camp Starfish each summer. Rachel has been a part of the Starfish team since 2016, working in various seasonal roles. She joined the Year-Round Team full-time in 2022.

As a lifelong New Hampshire resident, Rachel enjoys hiking in the woods with her dog, Clover. Her favorite camp activity is Free Play, and her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “We respect each other’s differences.”

Staff photo of Kristie

Kristie Martin

Kristie Martin is Camp Starfish’s Program Director, responsible for ensuring that each camper receives a structured, supportive, and fun program during both summer and year-round weekends. With her degree in Applied Psychology & Human Development from the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, Kristie has a deep understanding of child development and uses this knowledge to create a nurturing environment for all campers.

Kristie grew up in the Monadnock region and takes pride in being a local. Kristie’s favorite camp activity is the Camper Talent Show, which she believes is the perfect opportunity for campers to showcase their skills and feel comfortable sharing with the community. Her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is, “I try my best, I do not have to be the best.”

Staff photo of Sarah

Sarah York

Sarah York is the Director of Operations at Camp Starfish, joining the team in the Spring of 2022. She brings with her a wealth of professional experience working in both mental health and human resources. Sarah’s role at Camp Starfish is crucial in ensuring that camp runs smoothly, and she is available to assist families every step of the way through the registration process. If you call the Starfish office, Sarah will likely be who you speak with first!

With her dedication to helping others and her commitment to creating a positive camp experience for every child, it’s no wonder that her favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “We are members of a team.”

Staff photo of Jamie

Jamie Mahnken

Jamie Mahnken is Camp Starfish’s Executive Director, and has been an integral part of the Camp Starfish community since 2010, serving in a variety of roles. With a degree in Business Administration and Organizational Leadership from Southern New Hampshire University, Jamie is committed to creating a safe and positive environment for every camper, staff member, and volunteer.

As a North Carolina native, Jamie enjoys spending time outdoors with her family. Her favorite camp activity is kayaking to Blueberry Island, which is a meaningful and memorable experience for many campers, as well. Jamie’s favorite Camp Starfish Tool is: “I am flexible and open to change.”