There's a summer camp in Montreal that offers its young charges a lot more than just a slew of fun activities.

The children who attend a two-week session coordinated by Centre de réadaptation Marie Enfant, a part of Sainte-Justine Hospital (SJH) also return home at the end of each day with gradually improving motor skills, coordination and balance, and a newfound sense of pride.

The camp, located at the rehabilitation centre on Belanger Street, is designed to support a small group of children who have a condition called hemiplegia.

"Basically, the part of the brain that controls movement, sensation in one half of the body has been damaged usually at or near birth by a lack of oxygen to the developing brain," explained Danielle Levac, associate professor of physiotherapy at Université de Montréal and a researcher at SJH.

As a result, the children have a problem with motor control and coordination.

"It's very difficult for them to use that side of the body accurately and precisely and they tend to not want to use it for that reason," Levac explained.

Olivia Belanger

The less used side of the body gets weaker. Hands can stiffen and be hard to open and close.

Everyday life is affected.

"When you think about it, most activities of daily life require the use of two hands: buttoning up your sweaters, zipping up a zipper, reaching for an object. And it's not just the hands, it's the full body," she said.

The condition affects the trunk of the body, balance and walking, and gross motor activities like jumping and skipping rope with their friends in the playground.


To improve their mobility, the children are asked to come to camp with five functional goals in mind, such as wanting to be able to ride a bicycle, make their ponytail or use a knife and fork better.

Olivia Belanger

Then the team of physiotherapists, occupational therapists and educators work to create an individualized plan for each child.

"We analyze these goals and we see the skills that are necessary to attain those goals," said physiotherapist Odette Bau.

"They do a lot of activities, they have fun, but at the same time, they work. It's a lot of effort," Bau said.

Levac said the program's intensity is the key ingredient -- the intensity of effort makes a difference.

"They're getting a lot of repetitions of these functional movements that they wouldn't normally otherwise."

"When they're here with us all day for two weeks, we're able to really get that dosage and that's what's going to cause those practice-based changes in the brain, the neuroplastic changes that are going to help them improve," Levac said.

Camp HABIT-IL staff

One of the campers, 10-year-old Olivia Bélanger, has been playing a lot of video and virtual reality games to coax the right side of her body to become more agile and strong.

Part of Levac's research, now in its second year at the camp, is testing whether new technologies like virtual reality are beneficial tools to add to the therapeutic mix.

One of Bélanger's personal goals is to be able to clasp her long, light brown hair beyond her head by herself and wrap it up with a tight elastic to create a ponytail, like so many other children do every day.

She succeeded. "Yes, it's a little bit difficult, but I'm proud," she said, giving the admiring crowd of therapists around her a big thumbs-up and an ear-to-ear smile.

"It's very impressive how some of the kids have reached new goals," said Marie-Claude Cardinal, an occupational therapist at the camp.

Cardinal points out that the camp is invaluable because the children are in the regular school system and don't have access to or the time for intensive physical therapy during the school year.

At camp, they receive 50 to 60 hours of therapy in two weeks. There's also a social benefit.

"The camp provides them with the opportunity to be with other kids with the same diagnosis," said Cardinal.


The official name of the camp, when broken down, explains its overall concept. It's called HABIT-ILE.

That stands for hand and arm bimanual intensive therapy, including lower extremities.

"It's an approach to therapy that was developed in Belgium and is now implemented all over the world, and it's delivered in a summer camp model," said Levac.

It's been operated in Montreal for about 15 years.

And the children do take home what they learn. The daily practical movement techniques the children repeat in the camp can be replicated and practiced with their families.

"When you see the parent watch their child do something that previously was difficult or that the child needed a lot of help with, you know that you've really made a difference in the life of that child," said Levac.