Camp children laugh and scream as they run through an inflatable yellow and green obstacle course. Across the court, others play with hoops and bubbles while a game of duck-duck-goose is nearby.

These kids don’t just play garden games. The activities are part of therapies designed to develop their listening, speaking and language skills.

Each summer, the University of Texas at Dallas provides a week-long unconventional environment for children with cochlear implants — an electronic device that helps give someone who is deaf or severely hard of hearing a sense of sound.

Vanna Vert, 10, has been attending camp since she was 4 years old. She loves going from obstacle courses to crafting.

“My favorite thing about camp is that I can have new experiences and make new friends,” said Vanna, who had just finished painting a leather bookmark.

The camp is a “novel” setting for children to use what they’ve learned in speech therapy and develop their skills with others working toward the same goals, said Amber Stehlik, speech pathologist and verbal hearing therapist at the UT Dallas. Callier Center for Communication Disorders which oversees the graduate students who run the camp.

“It mimics playtime, it mimics the classroom setting, but it’s hopefully a little more fun and a little more engaging so they’re motivated to practice listening with that background noise,” Stehlik said.

This summer marks the 25th listening camp and the first time the kids have come together in three years due to the pandemic.

The day before the first day of camp, 7-year-old Bentley Butts woke up about six times. He couldn’t wait for the water slides and inflatable obstacle course.

Bentley Butts, 7, of Coleman, waits his turn on the obstacle course at Cochlear Camp held at Cross Creek Ranch in Parker on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. (Stewart F. House/Special Contributor)(Stewart F. House / Special Contributor)

His mother Dori Butts drove Bentley and his 5-year-old brother Brody three hours from Coleman to Camp Parker, a small town in Collin County. The family is staying at a nearby hotel all week.

The brothers both received cochlear implants before they were 2 years old.

At camp, “nobody wonders what’s on their mind or they don’t worry, ‘I’m going to be the only one who can’t hear anything when we’re playing in the water because I have to take my implants off’ “It’s just a place where they can be kids and have the camp experience.”

Even something as simple as relay races has a purpose. It forces campers to listen to instructions.

The loud and fun camp environment helps children learn to locate sound and recognize the voices of their friends. During water activities, when children remove their cochlear implants, they learn to communicate with each other through sign language or other non-verbal gestures.

Meanwhile, UTD graduate students also develop their own skills by deliberately planning each activity to help children at different levels, with different goals. The students, who are studying speech therapy, animate the activities of the camp under the direction of experts from the Center Callier.

The most important aspect is watching the children interact, said Jaycie Wooten, one of the graduate students.

“That’s how children learn. They learn from their peers,” Wooten said.

At the start of camp, graduating students identify different speaking, language and listening goals for each young person. They can vary from pronouncing a specific sound to using the correct tense of words in a sentence.

They spend the entire week partnering with the same campers to help them achieve their goal, providing feedback and exercise suggestions to parents.

“We just focus on where they are, and improve and take their speech, communication or hearing to the next level,” Wooten said.

The camp builds on the skills children learn in therapy by applying them in a “natural” environment around other people who are also learning, said Melissa Sweeney, camp director and director of speech therapy at the Callier Center. .

Watching children play also gives speech-language pathologists and audiologists another insight into children’s progress and whether they are able to apply their skills in a real-life setting.

“Typically in speech-language pathology, you’re working in sort of an artificial environment because you’re either in your office or in a classroom, so you set up situations to be as natural as possible, but they don’t. aren’t,” Sweeney said.

Wooten worked with some of the kids at the camp, but in traditional therapy at Center Callier.

This summer, she saw another side of her children and saw them “flourish”.

“Sometimes [in therapy] kids can be super quiet,” Wooten said. “They can’t act like themselves. They may not talk and communicate as much. But here, it is as if all the chains were removed.

Playing, listening to music, dancing and making art with other cochlear implant recipients helps campers bond and build self-confidence, organizers said.

Many children are the only ones in their schools who have hearing aids. But at camp, they all understand what the others are going through.

Vanna Green (second from right), 10, of Plano, throws a ball in an attempt to knock down a cone...
Vanna Vert (second from right), 10, of Plano, throws a ball in an effort to knock over a cone as volunteer (left to right) Emma Cook, 20, Adelin Gare, 10, and Emma Berns, 11, looks on during a game at Cochlear Camp held at Cross Creek Ranch in Parker on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. (Stewart F. House/Special Contributor)(Stewart F. House / Special Contributor)

Ava Varela, an 8-year-old camper, said she didn’t know anyone else at her school who had cochlear implants. She said coming to camp is “a great way to help you see how other people communicate with their implants.”

The camp also has high school and college volunteers who also attended camp as children. This extra level of support gives kids someone to look up to who has been through the same things.

Emma Cook, a volunteer who attends Austin College, started attending camp when she was 4 years old. Cook still keeps in touch with friends she has made over the years, and some of them are also volunteers.

“Growing up, I had a hard time making friends at my own school because I was deaf and felt like I was left out,” Cook said. “So I came to this camp, where everyone is the same, and I was able to connect with people on the same level.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation about pressing education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation, and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.