Top Programming Ideas 2003

Good ideas don't come easily. After all, inspiration is 99 percent perspiration. Ask any camp director and they'll tell you that a good portion of that perspiration comes from trial-and-error.


That's why we've assembled this list of programming ideas -- to help alleviate some of that perspiration so that it can be more fully utilized.


Some are new programs that our contributors have recently added, while others are improved versions, based on trial-and-error perspiration.


Other perspectives relate to general best practices that can help any program.


We asked camp and program directors and experts from all over, representing just about every camp experience, for their input on camp programming.


Our contributors graciously accepted the challenge and have provided what we hope is smorgasbord of great ideas that will help your programming, and ultimately your campers.


If you have any great ideas, or you're looking for more information and inspiration, please let us know. E-mail us at, call (330) 721-9126 or fax (330) 723-6598.

Camp-wide games are a very common part of many youth camp programs. However, we have some specific purposes that we desire to accomplish that govern how we set up the games as well as what we play.


The main purpose of our team game times is to make opportunities for the youth to develop relationships with adults other than their cabin counselor. We also want to put our campers in situations in which they meet and interact with young people with whom they would normally not spend any time.


In addition to these purposes, we desire to teach sportsmanship and cooperation, as well as model these behaviors for the youth.


In order to accomplish these tasks intentionally, we give our staff specific training in how to be a team leader, acceptable involvement in games (we expect our counselors to play in the games), and how to respond to referees in addition to simply providing general rules and such.


We also choose our games carefully and make sure that they are each unfamiliar (unique to camp), require teamwork (cannot rely on one person for scoring), and have the whole team playing at once (no relays).


As we have implemented these aspects into our game times, we have been able to actively accomplish our mission with this activity. Without these items in place, team games had become a time filler in which important lessons were learned only by accident.


-- Chris Radloff is the Director of Youth Ministries for Timber-lee Christian Center, East Troy, Wis.


A year ago here at YMCA Storer Camps we had one climbing tower on each of our centers. The South center tower was 35 feet with one eight-foot face that was finished for climbing.


The North tower was a 50-foot tower with two 10-foot faces outfitted for climbing. The climbing faces had wood block holds permanently mounted and the ability to set-up one climbing rope per face.


We operated with a staff belayer, who would check the student, belay them to the top, lower them, and then send up the next climber. This setup presented a few difficulties.


One of our normal travel groups in the outdoor education season is 20-24 students who go to the tower in a two-hour block. So, a climber would go trough the safety brief and harness instructions then wait for their turn to climb.

All in all it was about 20 minutes of activity for a two-hour block. Needless to say, group control was always an issue.


It was also difficult for the student to be as excited for the last climber as they were for the first. Most of the students enjoyed their climbing experience, but there was not a lot of desire to do it again.


Our summer program faced the same problems, with a cabin trying to get everyone climbing in an hour block, and returning campers saw little need to try again since they did it last year.


We billed the tower as a team building exercise, but really the climber had an individual challenge (which is positive for their individual growth). They also built a little trust with the staff member who was belaying them.


The only real team building aspects were the encouragement and the group sharing a common experience.

Last spring we set-up a volunteer work weekend. We stripped the tower of all of its holds, drilled a grid work of holes in the face (around 2,800 holes), placed t-nuts on the back, and set up removable climbing holds (in our core value colors).


At this time we also added the hardware to be able to set up a second climbing route on each face. For each route we added a belay post out front, that would Z the rope to add the friction needed to belay. After an inspection from our ACCT Inspector, we were ready to open the new towers.


This new tower set-up has allowed us to make several changes to our program. Two routes on each face instantly double the number of climbers that can be on the tower and the belay post can be operated with very little training for our campers.


We split the group in half and place everyone not climbing or preparing to climb on the rope (along with a staff member) to help belay. This keeps the campers busy and focused on the tower. It has also established a need for trust with their cabin mates.


An activity, which used to be very rushed, now finds the time to process the experience with a little better quality.


This event is first set up with asking each participant to think about what is, for them, a realistic goal. They then find someone in the group with a similar goal and are assigned to the opposite ropes. They move up the line together so they climb at the same time.


Before each climber approaches the tower they tell the next student in line what their goal is and what they think they will need for support (quiet or cheering). That person then helps the climber reach their goal.


After everyone has climbed the facilitator can debrief the experience and provide some transference to their home by letting them set goals for the rest of the week at camp, or by asking who helps them with their goals at home and how they communicate their needs to those people.


The removable holds will allow us to change routes when we would like to, so it will be a new climb each year for our returning campers.


We can also provide a range of route difficulties so our summer campers can now take a class working on improving their climbing skills throughout their stay at camp.

The campers keep excited about several climbs since each time they can challenge themselves with a different route.


All of these changes have lead to endless positive feedback from our guests. Once again people are excited about their opportunity to climb at camp.


--Tim Brooks is program director for YMCA Storer Camps,

Outdoor Environmental Education, Conferences and Retreats


As children get older at Spring Lake Day Camp, it takes some innovative programming to keep their interest. The older end of the day camp spectrum, ages 10 to 14, has matured to the point that they want to have some input on the structure of their camp day.


To this end, we asked our campers for their suggestions and then molded a program that fit their needs and did not interfere with our other camp programs.

First, we developed a co-ed league program that runs throughout the summer. This gives campers the opportunity to socialize as well as participate in athletic activities. Their program also includes weekly and daily option periods.


Finally, we schedule a number of day trips to destinations of their choice.


We have found that these program changes have kept our older camp population at a high level. By having the campers attend until they are 14, it increases the enrollment in our Leadership Training Program. Once they successfully complete the Leadership Program, they can become members of the Spring Lake staff.


The options work as follows...


Weekly: Each week the campers choose an activity from the options list and that is their activity for the option period the following week. For the first week of camp, they choose on the first day of camp.


For the daily option, the campers get a list of the options available each day during the option periods. The campers choose on a daily basis.


Prior to and after both the weekly and daily option periods, there is a line-up where the campers meet the counselors assigned to escort them to and from their option activity.


--Myron Simon is the director of Spring Lake Day Camp, Ringwood, N.J. For more information, visit


Here's a great game using the theme from the hit television show Survivor. At camp one of the most common phrases you hear from program directors is, "I wish I could do that but the schedule doesn't allow it." Normally, this is true. But Camp Survivor is not done within the normal scheduling thinking. It happens during, around and before.


This is an all-cabin optional elimination program that runs along side of normal programming for as long as you want it to last.


At my last camp we ran it for two full weeks of elimination. Currently, we have one-week sessions, so we shortened the days needed.


The flexibility and creativity is dependent on your program team. Allow for optional entrance. Send a letter to the cabin challenging them to compete.


Give them their first task and a time limit to complete it. Those cabins that do not complete it are eliminated. Now, take the number of cabins that completed the first task and design the rest of your week to eliminate the cabins down to two.


The final two are voted on by the entire camp to see who gets the great final prize. Keep in mind the tasks and make sure they balance between the older and younger ages. Do not try and make all the challenges physical -- mix it up.


We love following clues to get puzzle pieces, and then constructing the puzzle! Twice this summer a cabin of the youngest girls went to the finals against a cabin of older boys (the girls were voted the survivors!).


Here's a sample of what goes out to the camp on Day 1 of Survivor...


Dear Cabin ______,


Do you think you have what it takes to be the Kern survivor cabin? Is your counselor tough enough? Because your counselor doesn't know anything about this game, they must compete with you.


Over the course of the next few days your cabin will be given the opportunity to compete. Each time you successfully accomplish a challenge you will proceed to another. If you fail any challenge… you're out! But don't worry; you will get a chance to vote for the final cabin. Are you in? If yes, then proceed.


Challenge One: The Beginning

1. By Tuesday morning your cabin must construct a campsite on the property. Your campsite must include.

a. Fire pit

b. Your campsite needs to be large enough room for entire cabin to gather around the fire pit.

c. Stacked wood (enough wood for one night)

d. Place to hang your self-made cabin name!


2. You must choose a tribe name and create two items that display your tribe name. We suggest you make these out of wood.

a. Keep your tribe name a secret. If you succeed at this challenge you will need these "name plates" later. Be creative in your name.


3. When steps one and two are finished your counselor must turn in a signed piece of paper addressed to Survivor Officials.

a. Turn the paper in by Tuesday lunch to Shannon in a sealed envelope.

b. Include your secret tribe name. Only the officials will know the truth.


If you complete your campsite and construct your identity symbols on time then you will receive further instructions later.


Good luck survivors!


Survivor Officials


P.S. The prize, if you are interested, is a pizza party for your cabin and a trip to Dairy Queen!!

--Jeff Merhige is the executive director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio.


(Here's where the next one begins)


We live in an era when young athletes are specializing in one sport for the entire year or young athletes want personalized attention at camp to improve their skills.

As a sports camp director, or one who provides sports programming, it is essential to have planned and well thought out methods of creating skill specific groups or teams.


Dividing the campers by age may have adverse consequences. In some cases, campers who are younger may be more experienced and skilled than their older counterparts and the reverse is also true.

One way to handle diverse skill levels would be to organize technique stations for the first session of camp to determine the areas of strengths and weakness of the campers.


From the initial screening the camp director can then determine the most competitive and appropriate environment for learning for each young athlete.

-- Dr. Dina Gentile is associate professor of sports management and head soccer coach at Endicott College, Beverly, Mass.


In 2002 we moved into a new dining hall and incorporated a new "Honor Loft" into the program. As cabin cleanup is always an issue, we built use of the honor loft into the daily cabin cleanup competition -- have the highest score in your age group for the day, and get use of the honor loft for either lunch or dinner.


The honor loft is just that, a 500 square foot loft that overlooks the main dining hall. In addition to the regular meal, honor cabins enjoy sodas, ice cream sundaes, a shuffleboard table and pinball machines. All of the sudden cabin cleanup got pretty competitive.


--Blake Smith is the camp director at Camp La Junta, Hunt, Texas


At camp, we program about three hours in the morning and afternoon. For some campers, especially our younger ones, by the end of the second hour they may be programmed out and looking for some down time.


For many of these campers they may choose to "cabin squat", which is a big camp no-no as supervision is an issue. During that last hour in the morning and afternoon, we have a "free hour".


This is not a new idea to camping. However, it is important to think about a few special activities that you open only during these times.


Aside from general swim we offer several "one in and out" water activities, such as our zipline, waterslides or rope swing. These offer a great distraction and change from the routine. We also have a shark's tooth pile (unique to our area) where campers can dig and find fossilized teeth or build their most creative golf ball trail at Golf Ball Trail Beach (one of our more popular activities for the younger boys).


Our truly unique program is our ITT (International Topless Transportation). We have taken several of our older school buses, cut the tops off and added roll bars.


They don't run every day, but a surprise announcement will send campers sprinting to go for a ride. The bus will take the campers on a ride around camp, out on some of our wooded trails and eventually under "Zambezie Falls" where the campers are driven under a shower of water (especially inviting on our hotter days).


These activities serve as just the pick-me-up needed at the end of the day and help keep campers out of the cabin.


--Camp Sea Gull-Seafarer, Arapahoe, N.C. -- Leigh Longino, Seafarer Program Director; Mike Askew, Seafarer Facilities and Sea Director; Martha Goldfinch, Seafarer Assistant Program Director; Paul Frantz, Sea Gull Associate Director of Programming; Howard Longino, Extended Season and Specialty Camps Director


Over the last couple of summers, Mountain Camp has had a couple of programs that have come about due to counselor initiative and interest.


For example, a couple of our male counselors wrestled in high school, and they thought it would be a good activity for the cabin to do. It became so popular that it carried off into an optional activity during the day.


Photography has been a part of the program for a couple of summers now. Again, a counselor approached the director with the idea of photography as an activity with the campers.


Buying a disposable camera and developing the film were the only costs incurred. If a camper decides to do photography it's charged to their store account.


In the first couple of days, the counselor teaches them the importance of light and exposure by travelling through the camp and taking various pictures of organic materials.


After the middle of the week, the film is developed and given back to the campers. From there, the campers are able to create a collage and look at the immediate result of their efforts.


It has been a well-received program that we are still doing on a limited basis and offering only when the demand has been high.


--Katie Walker, Mountain Camp, Pollock Pines, Calif.


Many sports camps are recruiting collegiate and professional coaches to be affiliated with their program to increase exposure and gain instant recognition for the camp.


Over the last few decades soccer camps have been utilizing international or European coaches to organize camps held in the United States.


More and more camps are employing collegiate coaches due to the fact that more and more athletes are competing for scholarship dollars when they entire high school.


One tip for camp administrators would be to hire the most qualified coaches and to balance male and female coaches so campers can be exposed to diverse styles and perspectives.


--Dr. Dina Gentile


Gold Rush is an all-day Western theme game, leading to a fun all-camp evening activity. The outlaw Black Bart has returned to your town (Camp Name) to rob the citizens of their gold and to marry the beautiful Clementine, who is betrothed to the Sheriff!


You may re-arrange the characters to fit any politically correct environment that you desire! Keep it fun!

Stage skits at flag rising, lunch and dinner, leading to the big game to get the kids excited. The campers are going to be turned loose in a designated area of camp by cabin groups.


Have staff (earlier) spray paint things in the woods gold! (trash, twigs, leaves, and anything else that won't be harmed by gold paint).


The campers must collect gold and turn it in, avoid outlaws who may steal their gold, and try to find Clementine, who is hiding! Capture certain outlaws for extra points.


All the while some of the deputies are out there keeping the woods safe for law-abiding folks! It's also a lot of fun to have some staff mounted and patrolling (it adds to the atmosphere!).


--Jeff Merhige


Our philosophy at Camp Sea Gull-Seafarer is that a good seamanship program has to have three strong elements -- swimming, sailing and motorboating instruction.


Swimming is first; we want people safe on and around water. Second, any good sailor needs to have good motorboating skills as larger sailboats will have motors.


Our program teaches handling of boats from our 13-foot whalers with 9.9 hp engines to 25 hp to our 60-hp ski boats, 18-foot patrol boats to our 26-foot inboard diesels.

Not only do campers learn how to handle these boats safely but also learn the mechanics of gas and diesel power engines and how to do basic repairs.


Campers also learn hull repair (fiber-glassing) and learn and apply navigation. Motorboating is a unique but necessary complement to our sailing program, and a more extensive motorboating program should be considered by any camp that has a sailing program.


--Camp Sea Gull-Seafarer, Arapahoe, N.C. -- Leigh Longino, Mike Askew, Martha Goldfinch, Paul Frantz, Howard Longino


Probably the most important aspect to our summer staff training at Timber-Lee Christian Center has been a focus on creating decision makers of our seasonal staff.


While we are sure to have very competent leaders to assist our cabin counselors in the inevitable unknowns that come up, we also recognize that very often our counseling staff is going to be forced to decide on some tough issues when these people are physically unavailable, due to the size and scope of our camp and program.


In order to see this happen, we start our summer staff training with a focus on our five core values and evaluate each part of our program in light of them. We start with the understanding that everything we do needs to develop one or more of these values and not work against any of the others.


Another important foundation in this training is giving our staff an understanding of how to make and enforce rules. The basic idea is that rules should be definable, reasonable, and enforceable, and show a progressive model of correction. We do this before filling them in on our camp wide guidelines because this ultimately allows them to see the reasons behind our expectations. This is a huge asset in consistency throughout the programming season.


--Chris Radloff


For camps with equestrian programs, consider offering a Horse Whisperer Program. Horse Whisperer programs focus on learning about horses and the skills it takes to be successful with them.


Children learn and practice the skills it takes to be successful in relationship with horses through learning about the nature, language and psychology of horses.

Then, by connecting and bonding with horses, they become their great leaders. These skills encompass, amongst many other things, the student learning and demonstrating the qualities of kindness, compassion, being trustworthy, earning and showing respect for another, patience, sensitivity, self-awareness, right perception, knowledge, mindfulness, quality leadership, partnership and teamwork, self-esteem, courage, problem solving, physical dexterity and then developing riding skills by taking the skills learned "on the ground" and translating that into in the saddle skills.


The list of the qualities of successful, effective and gentle horse trainers reads like a resume of the great leader, partner, citizen, spouse, parent and/or friend.

Learning Horse Whispering and being a Horse Whisperer begins with attitude. The horse is looking for the "great leader" or "parent" all the time, so one should approach the horse with the attitude of a parent.


Kindness must come first. Second, there is a way of showing respect by not invading the horse's personal space. Connect with the horse before you get close, and look for his acknowledgement before you get within his range of motion. His acknowledgement is an invitation for you to come closer.


Talk with an assuring tone and always move slowly and thoughtfully. Look for response all the time. Stay connected no matter what your task is (grooming, saddling, etc.). Never be unconscious or too distracted in the presence of a horse or you break your connection with them, which will make them nervous.


Never just go up and try to get a horse to do something or do something to the horse without connection, acknowledgement and an invitation from the horse to come closer.


It is easy; not rocket science. It's about self-awareness, thoughtfulness, understanding the nature of the animal, being kind and always showing up as the great parent or leader.


Attitude is so very much of this, as it is in life. Change your mind and change your life. This helps youngsters change their minds and moves their thoughts away from themselves and on to others in a compassionate and kind way -- a way that prompts them to be helpful and look to give rather than to get. It prompts them to want to comfort and nurture the animal.


--Franklin Levinson is founder of the Maui Horse Whisperer Experience and the nationally-recognized Way of the Horse Programs and Seminars. He can be contacted through his Web site at or by calling him directly at his ranch on Maui, Hawaii at (808) 572-6211. Franklin is also based for six months a year in Aspen/Snowmass, Colo., at Starry Pines Ranch, (970) 927-4202.


Aliens have crash-landed on your property! Each cabin is contacted and supplied with a Polaroid of their fugitive alien!


Once campers capture their alien they must take them to the alien holding center (usually a basketball court or some area in the open).


In addition, the campers need to collect Crystals for money and to fuel the space ship (stations of challenges throughout the property)!


They need money to hire alien bounty hunters to assist in the chase of their alien, or to pay them off to get free from the evil bounty hunters who take them captive.

In addition, they must avoid the evil aliens that have taken this opportunity to capture earthlings and study them at the human testing facility.


Captured campers are subjected to disgusting experiments (usually left-over food dumped on their heads!) until their cabin mates come to their rescue!


Have campers play as cabin groups. The cabin that has their alien in the holding center, and has the most crystals in the end wins!


--Jeff Merhige


Camp Sea Gull and Seafarer offer open programming where all campers can participate in all activities (where age-appropriate).


Some parents worry that the seeming lack of structure will allow their child to wander around camp all summer without accomplishing anything or knowing where to begin, or worse, getting lost.


We push the first week in camp for campers to try every activity offered at camp. Special awards are given for campers who get their first rank and then their second rank in all activities.


The camps try to promote the entire camp getting 100 percent in these ranks. Land and Sea manuals help direct and guide campers in their choices.


Cabin counselors check in with each camper daily to check on progress, identify issues and help set goals for each day and for the four weeks. Head counselors and Camper Services also help as needed. Campers then have the ability to try everything at camp, learn how to make good choices, and gain independence.


--Camp Sea Gull-Seafarer, Arapahoe, N.C. -- Leigh Longino, Mike Askew, Martha Goldfinch, Paul Frantz, Howard Longino


The easiest way to handle health safety regulations would be to hire personnel who are experts in the field. Camps traditionally require staff to have a current CPR or First Aid training.


In some states camps are required to document emergency medical plans and may also be required to have a health professional or athletic trainer on site.


The role of a health supervisor for summer sports camp is critical and may in some cases be overlooked. The health supervisor would be responsible for the review of camper medical records, all medical protocol, updating camp staff on CPR and First Aid emergencies, and will also be on-site to take care of any minor or major health issues at the camp.


--Dr. Dina Gentile


Another exciting yet minor change to the program at Camp La Junta was the addition of a paint ball shootout as an evening competition. Although we'd have loved to let the guys shoot at each other, we settled for targets.


The competition was a combination of scores achieved with a paint ball gun at small targets, paint balls with a sling shot from closer range, and paint balls from long range with water balloon launchers and three-man teams.


It was a great, safe diversion from riflery, archery and water balloons.


-- Blake Smith


Think of four-way Capture the Flag and a live version of Risk within designated areas and you have Under Seige. The flags are real people.


Divide your camp and campers and staff into four teams (usually by cabin groups). Assign each team a starting color (Red, Blue, Green and Yellow) and a General.


There are prisons for captured campers and staff. When a General's flag is taken then the general and his or her entire army changes color and combines the area with the capturing color.


In the end there can be only one army standing. Have United Nations peacekeepers to solve disputes and witness treaties! Walkie-Talkies are a great additive, especially between generals and United Nations peacekeepers.


Here are the rules of engagement:


1. If your sock is pulled from your waist you must return with your capture to their prison.

2. Your identification color on your wrist must be visible at all times.

3. You cannot be taken prisoner in your own territory. Only a general may be taken anywhere.

4. Prison breaks only happen when the guarding counselor is struck with a water balloon. Then all captives are free.

5. A fallen general means that a bell rings and all armies return to their home base for further instruction.

6. If a general is defeated then their army changes colors and joins the conquering army. You will receive your new color when you report after the bell rings.

7. White flag carrying people are untouchable at all times (Couriers between armies, not to mention they may be on horseback!)

8. No one may take head shots with water balloons. Head shots require that the person who threw it is automatically a prisoner.

9. Boundaries are marked with lines and hunting tape around trees.

10. Squads (or cabin groups) must stay with the squad leader (counselor).

11. Non-vanquished generals must stay in original areas.

12. If your squad leader falls, return to general for re-assignment.

13. There will be one or two all-camp jail breaks in the game (signaled by a repeated horn).


--Jeff Merhige


There are many advances in technology that have helped summer sports camps to find niches in the market. Many camps will use a simple method of videotaping campers pe

Bryan BuchkoComment