By Jeff Merhige
Each summer we try and create new and better programs to excite the ideas and imaginations of our campers. High adventure seems to take on three types in the camping industry: out-trips, high challenge construction, or straight-forward adventure programming.
Adventure, however each camp defines and uses it, is at the heart of what campers are looking for! To our parents and kids this is why they come to summer camp... to try new things, grow as a person, gain confidence and self esteem.
We have our traditional camp programming, which consists of elements of fulfilling this overall adventure need (camp outs, camp fires, hikes, and so on), but it is the programs that claim to be adventure-based that work to directly inspire our campers to choose them for their summer experience.
In this article, adventure will focus on out-trips, adventure structures and programming.
Out & About
The experience of packing up, heading out and braving a new place or destination while doing one or some of the following activities -- hiking, biking, canoeing, horseback riding, white water rafting or rock climbing -- is a big draw.
Some camps even have international trips that they sponsor. It is also possible to add a theme to an out-trip to make it more specialized.
This summer we are running themed out-trips, which has resulted in better enrollment for the summer. We are running Wilderness Adventure, Aquatic Adventure and a Choose Your Own Adventure week.
Each of these weeks follow a basic mainframe and activities but differ in the activity options within the week. There is a lot more water activities in the Aquatic Adventure week (kayaking, canoeing, whitewater rafting, and so on).
Campers are placed with a small group and share the experience of the trip together. Most of the out-trips I remember from being young were made memorable by the van travel time! Six to ten of us crammed into a 15-passenger van and drove four to six hours to a base camp.
Today, 15-passenger vans are slowly being eliminated by camping and child care. This aside, no matter how the travel is arranged, the key to a successful out-trip is the talented staff member you send along.
Can they make fun out of nothing but just travel? Can they keep the kids working together for a common goal? Can they be utterly exhausted but still manage a smile?
No matter the cost or the break-even number for the budget, a good out-trip is a great experience and confidence-builder for kids.
Our favorite pastime as directors is to build! Towers, low courses, high courses, leadership reaction courses... Whatever... We love it.
It is extremely important to make sure what you build works with the flow and planning of your camp. Too many times camps build what seems cool but does not fit into their programming or camp operation.
When done right, some of the construction adventure obstacles are very cool for campers and guests. This year we will be introducing our new eight-sided climbing tower for the campers and year-round guests.
What is important is not so much that the structure is ready (but ready it must be), but that four months of programming meetings have been held, re-writing our camp programs to incorporate the tower and its features.
Based on our restructuring we have chosen to shut down a ropes course and an indoor wall. There is nothing worse than to raise money, excite donors and guests, build the project and then have people who helped to bring it to fruition not be able to use it!
Kids don't want to walk by a cool new zip line that they will never get to use because of the time and staff needed to operate it for them.
Low courses are great, but have you trained enough staff who are capable of using all the elements on the course? Again, don't let campers and guests walk by a new low course that no one is trained to take them on.
In all, I encourage directors to build new and exciting adventure structures for campers and guests, but as much as this is encouraged, be warned that lack of planning and incorporation into your program can create hard feelings with staff, donors and guests.
This is where our teams become the most creative! Adventure programming is the ability to create a week of activities and fun that sends the kids home to talk about their summer all year long in anticipation of the next summer.
This summer, in tune with the television show, we launched our new Ultimate Survivor Week. A week full of team challenges (some created relays, team initiatives and puzzles), individual awards, and a tribal voting system.
We used an all-inclusive voting system, which rewards team work, values, and character development, and frowns on bad sportsmanship. The winner of the week's worth of voting is awarded the Ultimate Survivor and is credited with a free week of camp in 2005. This new program has already sold out and forced the creation of another session of it.
In addition, adventure programming can be used to enhance the existing programs and re-invigorate old programs. This summer we re-worked a ten-year-old program, renamed it, added new challenges and activities and added themes to certain weeks. The response has been a higher enrollment.
Adventure programming allows a creative team to think outside the normal course of thinking to take existing programs and make them better.
Every summer new staff bring with them ideas to make new games and new themes. Be sure to create opportunities for staff to share.
No matter your programming or camp resources, the adventurous spirit of your staff and creativity of your team with bring 99 percent of the adventure effort to your camp. To help you along try and focus on these three camp areas to help bring the imagination to reality.
All in all keep in mind the most important aspect. No matter what resources you have, what money you have, or what buildings you have, in the end you need to have a staff that can run the world's best programming even if all the buildings burned down, and all the money ran out. They are the heart of an adventure program. Good luck and have a safe and fun summer.
Ideas to Try
1. Take an existing program and place it up on a story board. See what is new at your camp that can be added to the program. Look at adding a theme of specialization to the week, and maybe rename it.
2. Build a new high adventure structure, but plan how it will be incorporated into the summer program.
3. Create from scratch! Look at what is popular and create a program focused around it: Disc golf, amazing race relays, all camp games, leadership reaction courses, or survival, among many other activities. Use a story board to lay out the week visually and plug in the activities.
4. List all adventure ideas in your camp by category, structure, program and trips. These lists will help you create new programming.
5. Look at possible out-trips in a 300 mile radius from your camp. Can you attach a theme to the trip?
Jeff Merhige is the Executive Director of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville Tenn. Reach him at email@example.com.