Top Programming Ideas 2004

Each camp year brings with it the usual struggle to not only maintain quality programming, but to tweak and revitalize it year after year.

Even the seemingly small stuff can make a big difference. It's those little dashes of creative changes that can provide greater camper retention.

So 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 were kind enough to offer their perspectives and ideas. We're running as much as space allows and hope you find something that helps. If you happen to meet up with one of these great camp professionals, please let them know you appreciate their input.

If you have any great ideas, or you're looking for more information, please let us know. E-mail us at, call (830) 257-1012 or fax (830) 257-1020.

Great Time Killers
Look Down, Look Up: Sometimes we need a little game just to kill five or ten minutes waiting in line so we'll play Look Down, Look Up.

Play with a minimum of three people. The more the merrier. Everyone stands in a tight circle. The leader says "Look down," and everyone looks at the ground. When the leader says, "Look up", everyone looks up, focusing their gaze on anyone else's eyes. If that other person happens to be looking back, both are out. If you are looking at someone who is looking at someone else, you keep playing. Goes quick, makes you laugh.

Pebbles: Surely this game has a distinguished origin, so let's just say Plato and his students used to sit around and kill time with this one while waiting in line for lunch. Best with no more than two or three players. Pick up a random number of pea-gravel pebbles, but at least 10. The first player may remove one, two or three rocks from the pile. The next player then removes one, two or three rocks. Play alternates between players. The person to remove the last pebble loses.

Pisatones: I'm a bit reluctant to recommend this one, because it can get rambunctious. It was taught to me by some Mexican friends at camp, and it's a lot of fun, but chaotic and informal. Everyone is "it" at once. You try to step on someone (anyone) else's toes without getting your toes stepped on. The result is everyone hopping around like mad.

Rainy night skits: Every now and then you're faced with an evening activity that's rained out. Here's a quick skit night solution… Give each group a paper sack with five or so random items, and give them 20 minutes to come up with a skit. The only rules are 1) you have to use every item in the sack as a prop, and 2) the items must be used to represent something they are not. In other words, a baseball bat can represent anything at all, except a baseball bat. The results are guaranteed to be hilarious.
--Jane Ragsdale is the director of Heart O' the Hills Camp for Girls in Hunt, Texas.

A Red Herring Rainy-Day Game
Here is a fun game that involves both campers and staff. It is ideal for a rainy day, or just for a change from the usual routine staff show (pun intended!).

In this game, campers guess which "strange but true" fact goes with which staffer. They also have to avoid guessing the one "false" statement that has been made up.

First, secretly poll each staff member privately and find out one unique true fact about him or her. This should be as unusual as possible. The more bizarre, the better! Some wonderful examples I've collected from staff members in the past include such gems as: "In third grade a girl I was teasing shoved me out of a second floor window," "I was once chased by a bear," and "I waited on Jack Nicholson's table when I was a waitress in Colorado."

Once you have completed this list, keep it secret. Next, arrange these statements into groups of four. Of course, this number can be flexible. The number of groups this makes will be the number of rounds in the game, so you may need to alter it to fit your staff size, camper group size, or time limits.

Try to make these groups interesting by possibly putting similar kinds of facts together by themes, or by trying to match statements with staff members who may seem likely to be the ones who match more than one of the four statements.

Once you have the four statements together, create a fifth fictitious (false) statement that may trick some into making an incorrect guess. This red herring should be believable, and plausible enough to be the right guess for any of the four staffers in that particular group.

To play the game, call up one of the staff groups to the front of the camper group. In no particular order, read each of the five statements aloud (four are true as provided by the staffers themselves and one is the false one that was made up).

After they have been read a couple of times, the camper groups vote on which statement they believe goes with each staff member, and on which statement they believe to be the red herring, or whatever name you decide to call it.

The voting can be done orally or on paper, whichever works best for the situation. Once the voting is done, the statements are read aloud, again, with the staffer who provided it stepping forward and fessin' up to it.

I have had the opportunity to play this at a few different camps, and it never fails to entertain!
--John "Slim" Gillin is a teacher from Hooper Bay, Alaska, who works summers at YMCA Camp Merrill M. Benson, Mount Carroll, Ill.


Mission Impossible
After a few days of rain, everything was still damp. We didn't want the kids running and slipping on the field so we developed Mission Impossible, a game that's played outside and uses the entire camp property.

Start by dividing the camp into two teams. Each team receives a letter that says:

Dear Campers:

Your precious camp mascot has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom at a secret location. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out where the mascot is being held.

You will meet "secret agents" (i.e. counselors) in the field who will give you clues if you successfully accomplish the task at their location.

To get the clue, you must stay together as a team and your entire team must complete the task. The clue will only be given to you once, so listen and watch carefully.

Good luck! This letter will self-destruct in 10 seconds. Go!

Each team starts at a different location where a "secret agent" is waiting. At that location, the team must perform a "task" in order to get the clue for the kidnapped mascot, and to find out the location of the next secret agent.

The task involves any kind of team activity. Some of the team building games we used included making a campfire from scratch, tossing a beach ball while singing the ABCs and not dropping it, making a square with a rope with their eyes closed or tossing three free throws in a row.

If the team accomplishes the task, the team gets the clue from the secret agent, and the agent tells the team where the next secret agent is waiting.

Use places throughout the camp for each team activity so the kids will have a good walk between locations. Use your CITs as team leaders, and to help ensure the team stays together, and doesn't run.

There should be at 10 or more agents so each team can receive at least 10 clues. The clues can be written or can be physical objects. One of our clues was water dripping from a hose. Another one was a bottle of Windex. You can be as creative as you want.

At the beginning of the game, the camp director must decide where the mascot is being held. It can be on the camp property or somewhere in the state at a well-known park, museum or sports field. The team that arrives at "base" first with the right answer wins the game.

The counselors love the game because they get to dress up as “agents” and play the part. They can be extremely creative with their costumes and stay "in character" throughout the night. The kids love it because it allows them to use both their mental and physical abilities. It's a game that levels the playing field for all ages and physical abilities.

We were also fortunate enough to have a camper who could play Mission Impossible on the bass guitar, which made fun sound effects to kick off the game.

The only downside to the game is the planning required by the director. The director must assign locations and activities for each counselor to be responsible for, and the director must provide all clues to the counselors (keeping the final answer a secret).

You must also make sure the two teams never arrive at the same location at the same time. A good way to avoid that is to take the locations and reverse the order for the two teams, but the counselors must not mix up the teams and give the wrong location to the wrong team.

The game takes a little patience to develop and explain, but it's well worth the effort in terms of a new fun and challenging game for the campers.
--Alyson Gondek has more than 20 years experience in camping. She is a co-director at Camp Woodmont, located in Cloudland, Ga., on Lookout Mountain. She also owns a public relations/marketing firm. Alyson lives in Snellville, Ga., with her husband, Mike, and two children, Chelsea, 12 and Savannah, 7. Look for a profile on Camp Woodmont in the March/April issue of Camp Business magazine.

PVC Challenge
We had a great team challenge that we added to our program this past summer. The idea started from a brainstorm about a "marshmallow gun" I was trying to design… but that's another story.

This challenge was created out of a collection of PVC pipes, joints, elbows, Ts, reducers and adapters. There are two collections of PVC that are exactly alike and are separated into two boxes.

Each team receives their parts and a 50' water hose that reaches back to a double faucet outlet. The object of the game is to build a device that will transport the water about 75' to a bucket.

The challenge begins with fitting together the joints and pipes. There is no glue. Actually, there is Vaseline on the joints to make it more fun.

In addition, there are holes drilled into all of the pipes that have to be covered with fingers, arms, noses, ears, tongues, etc. -- with enough pressure -- so that the water doesn't leak out everywhere.

Last but not least, there is not enough pipe to extend the entire 75'. The teams finally figure out that each of the adapters and joints have a place in this giant water jet.

The hose is adapted into a 4" diameter pipe and then through several joints and adapters the pipe is reduced to a 1/2" diameter pipe within about 10 feet. The 1/2" diameter pipe has a cap with a 3/16" hole drilled into the center.

Every PVC piece has to be used, and no person can cross the 60' point. When all of the holes are covered up (except for the end cap) and the joints are held tightly together, the collection of pipes becomes a jet that shoots the water across the remaining 15 feet to the bucket. In the bucket, the water must reach a point to where the ball floats just over the top edge.

It's a ton of fun, and everyone gets soaked. This is by far one of the most challenging team challenges yet. In all of the team challenges that I have seen in the past, some smart, quiet guy in the back always figures out some strange wording and then makes everyone look bad.

There really is no trick in the wording with this challenge. It just takes someone to figure out how this thing works, and then everyone has to be involved -- at the same time. It becomes very frustrating for the teams, but it adds to the feeling when the teams are successful.

This challenge is extremely portable, and the total cost for all of the parts (except the hoses) is around $60, but it takes a while to drill the holes and figure what adapters and joints you will need. I enjoyed making it so much that for $1,000 I'd be more than happy to put together another set for someone!
--Jay Poindexter is the program director at Camp La Junta, Hunt, Texas.


Capture the Memories
Photography has always had universal appeal, especially with young people. Photographs have the power to capture the moment and to help bring back fond memories of the camp experience: the company of good friends, the exhilaration of camp adventures, and the mixed emotions of being away from home and making your own way through the day-to-day challenges of camp.

Given the accessibility of digital photography, here are some ideas to weave digital photography into your programming. There are also a number of companies that provide Web-related services who can help facilitate a lot of these ideas (go to the Camp Business On-Line Buyer's Guide at or look for the March/April Buyer's Guide issue of Camp Business magazine for companies who provide these services).

Photographing the theme of the day: Every morning -- or it could be just every few days -- the camp staff can post a theme that campers can try to communicate in a photograph.

The ten best photos can be selected and posted in a photo gallery that could be electronically posted or even printed for display in the dining hall.

Having the staff or even the campers select the theme can be a great way to generate interest in this camp activity. Some of the themes that have been popular in this are actually quite abstract and it is really interesting to see how campers use their creativity and imagination when they image these themes through photography. Themes like friendship, fun, excellence, happiness, cooperation, loyalty, and nature really get students thinking, experimenting, and loving the creative process of photography.

Photographing a day in the life of a camper: Set a 12 image limit and have them photograph the highlights of their day at camp. Select a few campers to present their day for after-dinner entertainment.

Photographing an excellent adventure: Tell the story of what was accomplished on a kayaking trip or a visit to a waterpark with photos.

Create a camp slide show: This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. If you have already started a photo gallery, have some volunteers from the staff and from the campers put together some photos, graphics and music to capture the camp week or even the whole camp season.

Simple tips to take better photos: To enhance the quality of the campers' photographs the following simple tips can be given and even be a stated criterion for capturing photos for a full-fledged program or any photography activity…

Go high or low -- Taking photographs at eye level is the most common way beginners take a photo, but it is a lot easier to make a photograph catch someone's interest if you take the photograph at an angle that is a lot lower or higher than normal eye level.

Simplify the background -- Try to make the background less distracting so that attention goes right to the subject. If you have a cluttered background with a lot of wires, parked cars, or campers who are doing other things, it usually takes away from the importance of your main subject.

Fill the frame -- Most people don't realize how much of the outside edges of the frame they don't see when they are focusing on the subject. Even though digital photos are a lot easier to edit, the quality of the photo will be so much better if you bring the viewer closer to your main subject by filling the frame (or the viewfinder) with the subject.

Capture an emotion -- After you have positioned yourself higher or lower than eye level, simplified the background, and filled the frame, give your subjects the chance to react to the camera or their surroundings. Take many photographs in a series, talk to the subject, have the subject look and comment on what is around both of you. Capturing an emotion in a photograph is powerful and it can make the image much more interesting and enjoyable for everyone to see.

I cannot think of a better way to bring campers and staff together to share their camp experience that giving them the gift of photography.
-- Dr. Sue Langlois has more than 20 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College.

Staff Softball
It may sound crazy, but through the years staff softball has proven to be very positive for staff morale and is a camper favorite.

As an optional activity during what is usually a daily rest time, give cabins the option of going to the ball field to watch a staff softball game. Make it fun, fast and energetic.

We play a time-limited (40-minute) game of California Softball, which only allows one pitch per person and five outs per at bat.

We also spice it up with uniforms, staff cheerleaders, play by play announcing, staff trading cards, league commissioners/umpires and statistics.

The staff enjoys it greatly and the summer is ended with a round of playoffs.
--Monte Torkelsen is the director of Big Lake Youth Camp, Sisters, Ore.

Family Camp Sessions
Family Camp has been a tradition at YMCA Storer Camps since 1961. Each summer we have two week-long family camp sessions and a weekend program over Labor Day.

Our summer family camp programs have been full with waiting lists the last two years. There are families that have been coming to family camp for over 30 years as well as new families joining us each year.

We enjoy having families of all ages and sizes -- from a dad and his daughter to two generations of one family. Ages range from one month to over 75!

Every year our summer family camp weeks have a different theme. Themes in the past have included Broadway Comes to Camp, Through the Decades and Cruise Ship. We incorporate the theme into everything -- daytime activities, evening programs, costumes, food, trivia, program brochures, and so on. The families each receive a packet of information prior to their arrival where we announce the theme so they can come prepared.

Our family camp price is all-inclusive -- meals, snacks, lodging, horseback riding, waterfront, crafts, all activities, photos, and more.

Each week, we offer one free night for the families to go to town or just relax around camp. In the past this has fallen on the Fourth of July so that families can enjoy fireworks displays in town. We gather brochures and information about the surrounding area and fun things for families to do.

The evening program that is a hit with families year after year is our opening campfire on the first night. We sing all sorts of songs and play games with the families so that they can get to know each other.

Pie baking is another popular activity. On the first day families sign up to make a pie of their choice. The camp gets the ingredients together and we make them as an afternoon activity, reaping the benefits that evening as our snack.

The crafts at family camp are always great too. Family campers leave camp with everything from stepping-stones to mosaic tiles to stained glass and more.

Each day at family camp is filled with activities -- some are sign-up and others come-as-you-please. The families enjoy the freedom of doing what they want, relaxing, and being on vacation.

A key to our success with family camp has been working closely with a family who has been coming to family camp for years and now plans out the themes and activities for the upcoming summer. During family camp we partner with them to implement the program. This partnership has proved to be very beneficial for everyone involved.

We have the next year's registration ready at checkout so families can sign up for next summer before they leave. Most of our families take advantage of this opportunity… and help us fill the sessions quickly! Family camp has proven to be one of our most successful and loved traditions at YMCA Storer Camps. --Amanda Doubet is the Summer Conference Coordinator at YMCA Storer Camps in Jackson, Mich.

Organizing Skill Drills
For our soccer camps, we organize the campers in teams of 10-12 players with a coach for each group. The camp is divided by gender and by age level (divisions like Elementary, Junior and Senior).

The coaches are typically college players. Technical training demonstrations are provided utilizing the coaches as demonstrators. I prefer using college players for the demonstrations because they are near enough to the campers' ages that the campers can identify with them and it helps campers to realize that the skill proficiency required is attainable.

The entire division is gathered together to observe the demonstrations (two or three skill drills relating to the same technique). The demonstrations are succinct and verbal instruction/explanation is provided by the divisional coordinator who is a college-level head coach. The demonstration provides both visual and verbal aides to enhance understanding of what is expected of the campers.

The division is then dispersed to their teams where they work on the drills just demonstrated and under the supervision/tutelage of their coach.

We utilize active skill development drills, which maximizes individual participation within a group setting. I don't like long lines that result in greater time spent in line than actually performing the skill development task. I want the campers to be actively engaged in performing the skill.

They see (visualize), hear, and then perform the skill. After adequate time -- enough time to successfully perform the skill and not too long where interest level begins to fade and sloppy habits begin to be manifest -- the teams come together again as a division for the next series of two to three skill demonstrations.

A session may focus on a particular theme, like trapping skill development, combination play, and so on. A variety of skill tasks fitting to the session's theme will be utilized.

Occasionally, an active "fun" game will be interspersed within the session in order to provide variety. For instance, a game of English handball would fit the session on combination play -- it's related to the teaching session, but also provides a fun change of pace.

Each day, we briefly review several of the drills done previously so that a link is made from one task to another, allowing campers to see how they all combine to fit together.
--David Lewis has been women's soccer coach at Houghton College in western New York for 13 years. With a career record of 197-49-11, he was Region Coach of the Year five times and named to the Top 25 Women's Soccer College Coaches (all divisions) in career winning percentage (.788). Dr. Lewis also directs the college's Office of Christian Life and Church Relations.


Pantomime Pageant
When you first hear about someone going to military camp you think of marching and doing a lot of push-ups. At Howe Military Summer Camp there is some of that.

The majority of time, however (around 90 percent, actually) is spent having what you would expect at camp… Fun! Low and high ropes, sailing, boating, canoeing, lots of swimming and sports…

Howe Summer Camp also gives its campers a chance to participate in a play that offers a great message. All campers in camp perform in the Indian Pageant of Hiawatha. This pageant is arranged from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's heroic poem. The pageant pantomimes the legend and life of Hiawatha, a 16th century Indian brave who was responsible for uniting northern Indian tribes and bringing Christianity to the Woodland Indians.

All campers, aged nine through 15, participate in this seven-scene, two-hour play. The campers act out the narrative read by the camp director.

The campers, many of whom have never done anything like this in front of anyone, have a chance to act without the pressure of remembering lines and having to speak. It really gives them a lot of confidence and the opportunity to do some acting.

The campers are dressed in 16th century Indian costumes and the set is created in four distinct sections. The pageant is performed at dusk.

The lighting system lights up each set, which also has campfires. It really gives the whole wooded beach front a mystic glow.

The lights are shut off at the end of each scene, which gives the campers time to change positions on the set and start another segment of Hiawatha's journey. It really seems like you are around a 16th century Indian campground!

The counselors and staff also do a lot behind the scenes. They have activity classes during the weeks preceding the pageant, assist in getting the set ready, tee-pees made, and costumes completed. The staff also assists in getting war paint on the little Indians the night of the pageant.

The kids really enjoy the pageant and the message that comes across to them and the audience is remarkable. The pageant combines the history and religion of the area, and fosters teamwork between the kids and the staff. Most of all, everyone has fun.

Usually we have several hundred people attending and all leave with a great feeling about how well the kids have performed. The kids love it and many tell us years later that it was one of the real highlights of camping during the summer.
--Duane VanOrden is the director of Howe Military School Summer Camp in Howe, Ind.

Fishin' for Fun
In 2000, I spent a summer at YMCA Camp Jorn in beautiful Manitowish Waters, Wis. We were very lucky to have the absolutely ideal location and facilities to run a funtastic (a word I first heard coined by archery director David Olsen, Phantom Lake YMCA Camp, in the 1970s) fishing program.

We had the same campers signed up for fishing as a specialty choice, so the group stayed the same for the five-day session.

The first day we had them assemble and string the fishing poles so they would quickly become familiar with their equipment. Bait, lures, fishing regulations and different methods of fishing were discussed, as well as what areas of the lake would be best for finding different kinds of fish. Then the real hands-on experience would begin.

We took the group out on a pontoon boat for daily trips throughout the Manitowish Waters chain of lakes. We made sure to bring along a disposable camera, and took photos of each successful catch (and release!).

At least once each week we had an expedition to look for crayfish, turtles, snakes and other wildlife that was abundant in this area.

On the last full day of the session, we would take the group in the camp van to a local trout farm. There, they would have the opportunity to fish for a large game trout.

Back at camp we would clean and fillet these keepers, and the kitchen staff prepared them for the fishing group to enjoy as a special Friday night fish fry.
--Slim Gillin

Staff Fun Night
One night each week general staff rotate through the villages for supervision while the rest of the staff enjoy some social time together. This hour and a half (9:30-10) is always popular with staff.

It always includes good food and occasionally other events. Some we have tried are: Bonfire on the beach lakefront, auction of old store items (the older the better), bring someone to teach staff to juggle or make balloon animals, premiere the staff memories video, have selected staff share their favorite songs and why, have a staff-wide game of "bump." Your creativity is the limit.
--Monte Torkelsen

Quick Hitters
Here are a few things that have been great additions to our camp and its programming…

• We added cooking/baking which has become a top ten in activities, and is holding for two seasons now.

• We are members of the Wayne County Camps Association and the tournament program is most impressive.

• We run our daily activity schedule with two bunk electives in the morning and three individual electives in the afternoon. The children choose these activities on a daily basis and this summer we introduced tournament Tuesdays between bunks in sports and Wacky Wednesday just to break up the week. The children's favorite was our "Hug a Bug" where a member of our head staff gives hugs to those who ask, counselor or camper. As this usually takes place during lineups the whole camp participates and creates a lot of laughter.
--Shellie Santay Visinski is the director at Pocono Ridge, South Sterling, Pa.

Beat the Heat
With people living their whole lives in AC, many have forgotten the art of keeping cool on a hot Texas day. There are many basics, such as staying out of direct sun (you can always tell a "country boy" because he's the one who moves to a small piece of shade before striking up a conversation).

We instruct our counselors on simple techniques: Wear loose clothing. No belts or tight waistbands. Wear a hat to give you shade. Do what you can to stay wet. Wear a damp bandanna around your neck, or wet your cap, head or shirt. The results are remarkable.

Eat something cold or cool, munching ice, ice cream, cool water or watermelon.

Drink plenty of water. Sodas don't work. If water goes through you too quickly, add a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of sugar, a squeeze of lemon to help with absorption.

Air movement is key. Try to find a place where the wind isn't blocked.

Water evaporation works with a cooling effect. Set up a sprinkler nearby, and the wind will kick up where it wasn't before.
--Jane Ragsdale


Define Success
After 20 years in the camp business, I have learned that one of the most important principles for campers is to have fun while learning. Balancing these objectives is often the key for a good camp experience.