Top Programming Ideas 2005

From the sublime to the subtle, it's all here this year in our annual Programming Ideas feature. We had more than we could print this year, so we'll keep publishing ideas throughout the year.


Our hope is that you'll glean something practical to use that will help round out your programming or add that something extra to help with retention and recruitment.

Our contributors, representing a broad spectrum of experience, were kind enough to offer their perspectives and ideas. If you happen to meet up with one of these great camp professionals, please let them know you appreciate their input. They took time out of their busy schedules to share their ideas with you, and are deserving of extra recognition.

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.

Ice Breakers

Give each camper a sheet of paper and a crayon or felt tip pen. Ask the camper to write their name and three of the following things on the paper:

• Three words that describe you
• Your favorite hobby
• A picture of yourself
• Your favorite camp activity
• Your pet's name

Campers pin the paper on themselves where it can be easily seen. They walk around and read other's papers. Encourage the campers to ask about the things on the other campers' papers. After milling is over, collect the papers and see how much the campers remember.

Opening Discussions
Start discussions centered on some of the following questions:

• Why did you come to camp?
• What do you like best about camp?
• What would you like to accomplish at camp?
• What can you offer to the camp experience?


Open-ended Sentences
Have the campers select a partner. Give each pair an open-ended sentence and ask them to complete the sentence with the thought that comes to mind. When they are finished change partners until they have been with everyone. Here are some suggested sentences:

• My hobbies are…
• My favorite song, movie, food…
• When at camp, I…
• A good camp counselor is…
• I feel good when…
• My friends are…
• I cry when…
• My parents are…

Ostrich Tag
To prevent being tagged, the player must raise one knee, slip an arm under and grab his/her nose.

Human Bowling
Players sit in a circle and toss a ball at the players standing in the middle of the circle. The players in the middle try to dodge the ball. If they are hit they are replaced by the person who rolled the ball and hit them. This game can be played with several balls and several people in the circle.

The players stand in a circle in a very specific position -- hands down at their sides. There are a few people in the center with bean bags (one bag per person). Those in the center are tossing the bean bags at those in the circle with easy underhand throws or attempting to fake them out with false throws. The object is to eliminate everyone in the circle.

People can be eliminated by:

• Not catching the bean-bag when thrown in a "catchable" way.
• Moving their hands to catch the bag (or flinching) when the bag is falsely thrown.
• Throwing the bag back to those in the center overhand

It is possible to eliminate several people at once by all of them flinching at a throw. As those in the circle are eliminated, they must sit down. Once there are only a few people who remain standing, those people replace those in the center and the game begins again.

Sock Name Game
The players sit in a circle and introduce themselves. One player is chosen to sit in the middle of the circle. He holds a sock with another rolled-up sock in it.

One person is designated to start the game by loudly announcing their own name and the name of someone else in the circle. The person who was named has to quickly (before getting hit by the sock) say their own name and the name of another person sitting in the circle. (It can't be the name of the person sitting in the middle with the sock.)

This goes on until someone gets flustered or can't think of a name quickly enough and the person sitting in the middle hits them with the sock before they can complete saying their own name and the name of another person in the circle.

Fox and Rabbit
An even number of players sit in a circle and pass two objects around the circle. One object is the Rabbit. It gets passed to every other person in the circle. The other object is the Fox. It gets passed to every other person in the circle who is not passing the Rabbit.

The Fox and the Rabbit start on opposites sides of the circle. The object of the game is for the Fox to catch and overtake the Rabbit. This happens when they end up at the same place in the circle at the same time. When this happens one point is scored for the Fox team.

Once the Fox has caught the Rabbit the people who were passing the Rabbit begin the next round by passing the Fox. The Fox and Rabbit can travel in either direction in the circle. The objects being passed must not skip anyone on the team and the objects are never thrown from person to person.

Take two sheets or more of newspaper, wad it up, and wrap masking tape around the paper forming a ball. The rules are:

• Players spread out and can not move from their positions.
• No talking.
• Ball is thrown underhand.
• If a player drops the ball he/she is out of the game. If the player over throws the ball they are out of the game.
• Pass the ball quickly. Players may not hold the ball for more than three seconds.
• Last person(s) are winners.

People sit in a circle. One person whispers a statement to the person next to them and so on until the last person hears the message. This person tells it out loud.

The first person tells what the original statement was. This game is always good for a laugh.

Be careful as to the type of message being sent.

What If

• You could live anywhere in the world where would it be?
• You had a million dollars?
• You were on a desert island? Who would you want to be with?
• What three things would you take with you?
• What books would you take with you?
• How would you like to live life?

Ask the kids different questions. This is a good get-to-know-you game too!

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

Lands for Learning
Recently, YMCA Storer Camps has undertaken a rather large long- term project to enhance the diversity of our lands by improving and promoting valuable native ecosystems found on camp.

The Lands for Learning project, as it is called, seeks to further the mission of camp by involving staff and campers in projects that enable them to be better stewards of our land. We actively involve our campers in one of our most important and largest projects concerned with Lands for Learning, which is the removal of exotic and invasive plant species such as European and Glossy Buckthorn.

The activity, which is becoming one of the most popular on camp, gives campers the opportunity to learn about these invasive species, how to identify them and the detrimental effects they have on native ecosystems.

After learning how to properly identify Buckthorn campers are given the opportunity to take part in the removal of these invasive plants from camp lands.

The ability to not only learn about invasive species, but also use that knowledge in a hands-on application is an extremely valuable and rewarding experience for the campers and staff involved.

The activity gives students ownership in camp programs and the ability to take part in an immediately visible and lasting change that has a positive affect on the landscape and the participants as well.

--John Marlatt is the adventure program coordinator for YMCA Storer Camps in Jackson, Mich.

They Shoot, They Score!
• Russian Football is played with two teams; teams line up facing each other, and each member has a number. Between the teams are two old brooms and an old towel. When your number is called, you (and the corresponding person from the other team) run out and pick up a broom and try to sweep or otherwise move the towel across your starting line. The player who gets the towel safely home first scores a point for her/his team. The towel and brooms are returned to the middle, and another number is called.

• All-sports baseball is played like baseball, except that when the "batter" steps up, he/she can select the sport of their choice. If the sport is soccer, the "batter" kicks the soccer ball as far as possible, then runs the bases (as in baseball). If the sport is Frisbee, the "batter" throws the Frisbee.

• A variation of kickball that is very popular at Heart O' the Hills is Mat Ball. Instead of using regular bases, old gymnastics mats are used for first, second, and third bases, and there is no limit to how many runners can be on base at any given time. Runners must run the bases two times before going home (so the progression is: first, second, third, first, second, third, then home). Lead-offs are not allowed, and if a runner steps off the mat, he must attempt the next base. If you run out of batters, you can bring somebody back from first base to kick again.

• At Camp Stewart we like to add spice to the routine things to make them fun. For example, we have Hat Lunch or Pajama Breakfast. Pajama Breakfast has become a Stewart tradition because the kids love it so much. It is what it sounds like -- everyone shows up for breakfast in their pajamas -- boxers, sleep shirts, togas, or whatever. Over the years, some people's costumes have become more and more elaborate. The head counselors especially make an effort to get a chuckle out of the kids with their wild "pajamas".

• Flickerball is a fast-moving game played with a football on any size field or court. Everybody is the quarterback. You have two teams; play begins with a jump ball. Each team tries to advance the ball toward the goal, but running with the ball is forbidden. The only way to move the ball forward is by passing. Players can run backward or to the side with the ball, and can only move forward when they do not have the ball. If the ball is intercepted, the other team takes possession. After an attempt at the goal, the ball goes to the other team. The goal is a rectangle, 4' x 5' (horizontal), with a rectangular hole in the middle, 2' x 3'. It should be mounted about eight feet from the ground. If the ball goes through the goal, that team scores three points; if the ball bounces off and doesn't pass through the goal, one point is scored.

--Jane Ragsdale is the director of Heart O' the Hills Camp for Girls in Hunt, Texas

Earning Points
At Howe Military School Summer Camp there is nothing wrong with trying to earn points. That is, all points. Beginning with the first day of camp, all campers are graded in all phases of their camp life.

Counselors and instructors in charge discuss the qualifications for points and tell the campers what they have to accomplish to accumulate points. Points are awarded by participation, knowledge and completion of the activity and behavior during the activity.

If the activity involves an academic class or activity class, each instructor completes a syllabus. Each specific activity has an assigned amount of points based on the difficulty of the activity and length of time the camper is in the activity.

For example, the activity classes meet for one hour a day, three days per week. Then, the campers switch activities. These activities include canoeing, boating, sailing, nature study, air rifles and campcraft.

Campers could receive up to 10 points per day or 30 per class. This method would also be used in swimming, athletics, ropes course and drama classes.

The campers also have an opportunity to receive points in other areas. This includes cabin behavior, conduct, academics and special or extra events such as preparing for a special event, cleanup and assisting staff in projects.

All of the points are then collected at the end of the week, tabulated and put on the bulletin board and at the camp office on Saturday evening. The campers come running to the office to see where they are! They love it!

Also, each week, campers have the opportunity to earn award patches. If the campers get the maximum amount of points in each activity and demonstrate knowledge and competence in the activity they receive at the award ceremony, on Sunday, a patch with the activity on it. The campers collect the patches, which make for a great remembrance of camp. The campers are very proud of these accomplishments.

At the end of the six-week camp, each camper can receive a handsome trophy for being in the top of his age level. We usually divide the ages into three categories -- Juniors, ages 8 through 11; intermediates, ages 12 and 13; and seniors, ages 14-15. Trophies are awarded to the top three in each age group and medals for places four through six.

In each activity, campers can also earn medals for excellence, improvement and working the hardest. These medals and the all points trophies are presented at a special ceremony at the end of camp when parents, grandparents and guests can come and applaud the accomplishments of the campers. This works great for us and is very inexpensive. The campers love the competition.

Absolutely nothing is better than to see the smile on the face of a camper who has won an award or medal for the first time. It is also great for the camp because the campers want to do well. It is a built-in control measure. It is also a lot of fun for the campers, staff and parents. The smiles and hugs from the parents, given to the campers at the end of camp, and how happy they are, all make it worth it! Have a great summer and good luck!

--Duane D. VanOrden is superintendent at Howe Military School in Howe, Ind., and has worked in camping for 15 years, serving as camp director, sports camp director, instructor and counselor.

Activity Additions

• Chess -- simple, cheap and a big hit! We bought six chess sets and roll-up playing mats and it was very successful. We found that many of our staff could play and a couple had played at a decent level. The total cost for the chess program supplies was less than $100, including some teaching books and resources. It provides a quiet, stimulating activity for the kids who don't want to be physically active all the time.

• New for 2005 -- remote control off-road cars. We wanted to find something that felt like a video game but could be done outside and allowed for positive interaction with other kids. Remote control cars are exciting and the hand held remote units feel like video game controllers.

• We have responded to increasing requests for more depth to our activities by re-instituting specialty options. Campers can choose an activity to focus on for three hours of each activity day instead of the one hour we use for regular activities. This also gave us the chance to add brand new activities that didn't previously fit into our schedule. For 2005, the specialties are lacrosse and circus arts (both new to Kennolyn,) soccer (making a comeback at Kennolyn after 10 years), surfing, adventure and equestrian. We hope that these will appeal to the kids who love the traditional camp experience but want the in-depth skill development offered by sports camps and specialty clinics.

• Babysitting Class -- We wanted to add something that would appeal to a kid's sense of responsibility. We have an excellent and always sold-out leadership program for high schoolers, and this program for 11-14 year olds will help us identify the campers who want to work toward leadership. We will offer a certification program so it will benefit the kids as they go back to their communities and work as babysitters. Great experience to get if you want to be a counselor some day.

--Andrew Townsend is camps director for Kennolyn Camps, Soquel, Calif.

Family Fun... and More
Aspen Grove Family Camp has developed several fun ways to unite families with activities. During their weeklong stay one night is devoted to a central theme. Our objective is for children to enjoy activities along with their parents. We have found that these theme night activities will do that because there are activities for both children and adults. Our two favorite themes have been a Frontier Night and a King Arthur's Medieval Night.

Frontier Night Activities
Many Native American tribes played a type of lacrosse game called stickball. Instead of playing a full game, campers can play catch using lacrosse equipment. Field hockey relay, or shinny as it was called, can be played by using a course made up of orange cones; campers can race hitting the ball with their field hockey stick trying to beat the time of another camper.

Another fun game that can be played in a tipi is called the firewood game. With this game campers sit around a pile of firewood. This pile is in front of one camper that is blindfolded. The other campers try to take pieces of firewood without being touched by the blindfolded camper guarding the firewood.

Pioneer-type games would include stick pull. Using a broom stick that is held between two campers sitting down on the ground facing each other with their feet touching, they then try to pull the other person up by pulling harder on the stick.

Another fun pioneer game is a metal hoop rolling game. A large hoop can be rolled on the ground using a stick while the camper is racing behind it trying to keep it from falling down.

Another popular game is called hoops and graces. By using smaller wooden hoops and wooden dowels, campers can pass the hoop back and forth to each other by flicking the dowels out, launching the hoop toward the other person.

Everyone loves the casting activity with a fishing pole. Here campers cast with a rod and reel using a plastic fish or weight. The target is a small wading pool or bucket. Those who cast the weight hitting the pool receive an award of a gummy worm.

For a dynamic group activity, marshmallow tag with PVC pipes can be played by a large group of people. Using a foot long-half inch PVC pipe and a bag full of marshmallows, campers can play capture the flag using these PVC pipes. Instead of tagging the other team those guarding the flag can blow the marshmallows through the pipe, aiming at those trying to steal the flag.

By the way, both children and adults love a good watermelon eating contest!

King Arthur's Festival
A large blow-up castle is used to set this theme. Children climb in and bounce around. Around this huge castle use flags and banners to give this activity a real medieval festival feeling.

A simple plywood castle can be painted and decorated. Inside this little castle, children can play with small toy castles, knights, dragons, wizards and princesses. Also out of plywood, a small puppet show theater can be made. Inexpensive hand puppets provide children and adults hours of enjoyment. Along with puppet shows, camp staff can dress up in period clothing and read from fairy tale books.

Have a king and a queen of the festival in period clothing host a ginger ale dinking contest with mental tankards and hand out foil crowns to children. Sword fighting is a thrilling activity using foam swords and shields. To top off the festival, have an archery tournament.

Paper Rockets
Along with themes nights, another fun and effective way to allow parents and children to work together (or campers and staff and campers and other campers) is building paper rockets.

Using a foot-long piece of half-inch PVC pipe campers can wrap paper around the pipe to mold their rocket using glue to connect both sides of the paper.

Once the two sides of the paper have been connected, the PVC pipe should be removed. The result is a half-inch round paper roll. The paper can have designs already printed on them or campers can make their own designs.

A piece of foam "noodle" can be cut and shaped into a nose cone and can be placed at the tip of the rocket. Using a hot glue gun can speed the process when working with a lot of campers at the same time. Once the rocket is made an adapted air compressor can shoot the rocket 50 or more feet in the air.

--Mark Longhurst is the manager of marketing and Jared Knight is the program manager for Aspen Grove Family Camp and Conference Center, Provo, Utah

Camp Careers
Sharing with campers all about the career possibilities in the camp business is a great service for the campers to help them in choosing a career path after they finish high school and start looking at colleges. It also increases their awareness of how much it takes to operate a camp business. And who knows? They just might decide that to start their camp business career by working for you!

Helping your campers learn about the careers in the camp business that they might be interested in can be done several ways:

• Campers could sign up to shadow a staff member for a morning.
• Have a panel of staff people briefly describe their jobs and how and why and how they got the job.
• Have a camp job fair where campers can search for a camp position that they would like and they can even fill out a mock job application at a booth of their choice.

--Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 25 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.


Mountain Scooters
It is unusual to find truly original new program ideas but this year we discovered one that really improved our Mountain Biking program -- the Mountain Scooter.

Imagine combining a Razor style scooter and a heavy duty mountain bike and you get the Mountain Scooter (you can check them out at They are a fun, safe, and an easy-to-learn activity that our campers really enjoyed.

Mountain Scooters have many of the features of a mountain bike, such as shocks, hand breaks, and knobby tires, but they are easier to maneuver and learn to ride. The campers and staff thought they were really cool and it was a nice addition to our Mountain Biking program. One negative is that you do have to push them up hill, but the downhills were so much fun they didn't seem to mind.

We were first introduced to the Mountain Scooter at the ACA National Conference in San Francisco where they had a booth and we started the program by purchasing 12 scooters in two different sizes.

Campers definitely wear helmets and gloves, just as they would for mountain bikes. We had the occasional spill but they are generally safer than mountain bikes. We found it was a great way for campers to explore our surrounding National Forest on the same fire roads and single track trails our mountain bikes use. I think they would be equally fun and safe on less rugged terrain and paved roads.

--Don Whipple is camp director at Mountain Camp in northern California.

Closing & Opening Activities
The last full night of camp we have a lovely evening ceremony. After the sun has gone down we set out a luminary path down to our swimming pool. This is done with paper bags, sand and votive candles.

We turn down the camp lights and ask the children to only whisper as they follow this glowing path to the pool. The children are then led into the pool area where each is handed a small cup and a votive candle.

We talk about friendship, sing some quiet songs together and each child is asked for a favorite camp memory. The children are then assisted to light their candle, make a wish for the coming year and set them off to float in the pool. We sing a final song and the children go back for a last evening snack together. We try to be very careful that everything is picked up and gone before morning.

I am also fond of our greeting ceremony. We lead the children through the "five" handshakes. The handshakes consist of the high five, the wiggle, the two handed crossover, or any other fun ways to shake. With each shake they ask each other a question. For example, "Do you have pets?" or, "What movies do you like?" The children get to know something about new friends and are distracted by the funny ways to greet strangers.

--Jan Bruml is assistant camp director at Camp Ho Mita Koda in Cleveland

Community Living/Staff Appreciation
Our staff is the key ingredient to our organization. Too often we get focused on making sure that parents, campers and donors are happy, but we don't want staff to feel unappreciated.

At YMCA Storer Camps we have come up with many ways to bring the staff together and let them know how much we appreciate them.

Community Living Committee: Because we are such a large camp, we have many committees here that allow staff to be involved with all areas of camp. One committee we have is the Community Living Committee.

The purpose of this committee is to provide opportunities for the staff to be more involved with the community at camp whether that be in a social or educational setting. Each year we do a survey to find out what staff is interested in doing.

We usually sponsor field trips to local attractions, classes on camp or nearby that focus on staff interests, staff exchanges with other camps, and much more. This committee is also responsible for putting on the Good Monday Morning Breakfasts, the staff Christmas party, the end of year banquet, and secret buddies.

Good Monday Morning Breakfast: Once a month all staff (including office staff and maintenance) get together on a Monday morning for breakfast at camp.

This is a great time for us to get to know people in other departments. We also use this time to inform the staff about what's happening at camp, recognize the Employee of the Month, and play some fun games. The food served is always something extra special like made-to-order omelets or smoothies and each month usually has a different theme.

Staff Gifts: In tough economic times we have all had to make some adjustments. Letting the staff know we appreciate them is still important. We have come up with some inexpensive, but nice ideas for end-of-season staff gifts:

• Mod Podge on candle holders a quote or a note of thanks with camp name and date.
• Wood burning on tree cookies with camp motto and date.
• Find photos of each staff member with campers and put in an inexpensive frame (this one was a real hit).
• Gift certificate to the camp store.
• Coffee mug.

Employee of the Month/I'm Third Award: Each month staff is given the opportunity to nominate a co-worker for Employee of the Month. They are asked to provide a brief explanation of why they think he/she should be nominated.

A small plaque and a gift certificate are handed out to the winner at the Good Monday Morning Breakfast each month. The I'm Third Award is based on our camp motto -- "God first, others second, and I'm third."

Staff is also asked to nominate a co-worker who they think has exhibited this motto in their work here at camp. Again, each month one person is selected and recognized at the monthly breakfast.

These are just a few of the ways that we have come up with to show our appreciation for our staff.

--Amanda Doubet is the summer conference coordinator at YMCA Storer Camps in Jackson, Mich.

Capture the Flag... Multiplied

Night Commando
Kids love playing in the dark and getting camouflaged up for this action game. Choose a large dark wooded area with lots of hiding spots. Depending on your terrain, dangerous elements may need to be removed, or marked with glow sticks, as well as the boundaries.

At one end of the playing field place a Commando Tower (ladder, tree stand, or other tall element) with an adult perched atop holding a big spotlight to shine around the field and look for players.

Counselors/adults are guards who should be scattered throughout the woods and around the commando tower at a reasonable distance. The object is for campers to start at the opposite end of the woods and make it to the commando tower without getting caught.

Helpful Hints: At the starting point the campers are given a Cheerio to carry as their life ring. Adults are the Rambo Force who capture the intruders and smash their life ring, sending them back to the beginning.

When time is running down, the Rambo Force may want to be more lenient and let the kids go after they perform a task such as singing a song.

When the intruders/campers are successful in getting through the Rambo Force and to the Commando Tower, they receive a Life Stick in exchange for their Life Ring. This could be a piece of a straw or a mark on their hand.

Set a time limit and kids will be challenged to get as many Life Sticks as possible. Because of the darkness, kids should be instructed not to run and the Rambo Force should have a way to identify themselves. Flashlights could be used, but usually give away the hiding positions.

Water-Gun Gotcha
This is a fun get-to-know-you game that only gets a person very slightly wet. At the beginning of the session everyone is given a mini-water gun -- the type you could find at Wal-Mart in the party-favor section.

Beforehand, the leadership needs to use a permanent marker to write the names everyone on the water guns, with a different name on each gun. When the session begins, each camper is given a gun at random. They should keep the name on their gun a secret because their assignment is to spray the person whose name appears on their gun. The person with the most guns has eliminated all other players and is the winner.

Helpful Hints: Try to encourage this game to be played out over the course of several days. Establish some "non-play" boundaries, such as no shooting indoors, during meals, or during a serious time where attention is required.

Remind them that the person they are trying to shoot will not necessarily be the same one trying to shoot them, and they only need to take one shot. The object it to use the water like "tag" not to drench the other person. The best players take their time, scout out the situations, and make friends.

--David Willingham, a.k.a. Willy Dee, is a freelance writer who lives in Kerrville, Texas. He has extensive experience as a youth camp director, ministry consultant, and area network coordinator.