Oh So Fine…

During the summer of 2005, the Boone County Parks Department office in Burlington, Kentucky received a strange call.

”I was fishing up there at Camp Ernst Lake and I don’t know if there’s something wrong with my eyes, but I think their trees are turning blue!”

There was nothing wrong with the fisherman’s vision. The trees were electric blue, but their transformation had nothing to do with nature.

The two (dead) 30-foot trees were group art pieces painted by campers and staff during week six of YMCA Camp Ernst’s dynamic Fine Arts program.

This new program is a different approach to the idea of “fine arts” and how it fits in resident summer camping.

The Big Idea

YMCA Camp Ernst’s Fine Arts program had its beginnings during the summer of 2004. Near the summer’s end, three of my college-aged friends and I approached our camp director Jon Perry about our new idea: we wanted to create a program which combined the unique aspects of summer camping, such as scale, nature, and fellowship and combine them with “fine arts.”

We told him the program would be different than other fine arts programs because it would be “extreme” and based on four founding principles:

1. Make it different than school

2. Set each camper up to succeed

3. Give each camper a “rock star” experience

4. Use art to teach teamwork and leadership

Roadmap To Success

After a while we convinced Perry, but he had a few requirements of his own:

1. The program must have tangible results. IE: Each child should feel that he or she accomplished something.

2. The program could not just be another specialty program. Each camper would have a chance to participate, so it had to be fun AND have universal appeal.

3. There must be a final presentation summing up the week and giving every kid that “rock star” experience.

After our meeting with Jon, we evaluated our strengths and pooled our individual talents. We decided to focus on re-inventing three genres: music, art and drama.

Each genre was “taught” by college student-aged counselors already working at YMCA Camp Ernst who had a special interest in the field. The counselors applied the “founding principles” to their genre and the result was fun, funny and exciting.

The Program

For the inaugural year (2005), each camper unit was assigned certain times during the week to visit the Fine Arts Area. For example, our 10-year-old girls had fine arts on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. On day one, they chose which club they wanted to attend and then spent the rest of the week working on their project.

Likewise, the counselors who were watching over the girl’s cabin could simply assist a member of the Fine Arts team OR lead their own Fine Arts club: such as creative writing, camp newspaper, or dance.

This allowed us to give the campers more diversity in their club choices and involve the counselors so they would buy into the new program.

Drama Problems (and Solutions)

Invariably, when drama is taught at summer camp the focus is on skits, drama games, or plays. Our drama teachers Caroline Creaghead and Phil LaVelle only met with their group three times for 45 minutes so the kids could not perform a play.

“Even if the skits had a lot of audience participation, no one could hear the skits, the kids would get nervous and they always had problems actually being funny, entertaining and audible,” LaVelle said.

Phil and Caroline realized they weren’t setting the kids up to succeed.

Their solution was to film the campers and make movies. If the campers were nervous, it didn’t matter. They could do as many takes as they needed. Using a Macintosh computer with the free program iMovie, Phil and Caroline edited the footage using slow motion and funny music. The camper movies quickly became the hit of camp. Instead of being nervous and mumbling through a skit, the campers felt like movie stars when their images were projected onto a giant screen as the entire camp watched.

Each week, four approximately two-minute-long movies were produced. Phil and Caroline would start with a basic theme such as a “Western.” The first day, the campers worked as a team to create a general outline/script for their movie. The next day, they filmed the movie and edited. On the final day, they filmed any extra shots and played drama games.

At the Thursday evening talent show the movies were premiered and the results were astounding. The music club performed songs in-between each movie premier and the reaction was great from the crowd. The campers loved watching these Camp Ernst original movies and the kids felt very special starring in them.

Visual Art

Nate Perry, the visual arts leader, wanted to expand the campers’ view of visual arts past the normal painting on canvas and arts and crafts typically done at camp.

He divided the summer into 10 group art pieces involving themes such as: inflatables, negative space, and scale.

Instead of painting canvases, they painted entire (dead) trees, which were still standing near our entrance road. “I was amazed at their creativity. I told the kids they could paint the tree any color -- they chose electric blue,” Perry said.

”They also learned teamwork by painting together. Because of the nature of the project, campers of all skill levels were able to participate and experience success. It’s pretty hard to mess up painting an entire tree electric blue.”

Another project Perry led was building a gigantic inflatable cube. Each day campers helped duct tape garbage bags together. On the night of the talent show, the campers beheld the beautiful sight of their art project inflated to the size of a cabin -- they even had a chance to play inside their giant inflated cube.

“It was fun to show the kids that art isn’t necessarily stuffy and boring. It can be fun and exciting also,” Perry said.


I taught the music section of the program.

As a child, I remember being frustrated in music classes because I could not play well and that I wasn’t allowed to touch the instruments very much.

Because of this, we made music club as hands-on as possible. The first day the campers were allowed to come into the music room and touch whatever they wanted -- electric guitars, drums, or keyboards. Then I played a song on a boom box and LaVelle filmed each camper “rocking out” with the musical instruments together or as a band.

This let kids get out all their curiosity out and gave them chance to have a rock star moment. Their music videos were premiered with their edited footage synced with the professional song giving the impression that the campers were really playing. These “music videos” were premiered in front of the entire camp.

The next day, the campers were taught simple strumming patterns on guitar, already tuned to a chord, or simple drum beats. Then the campers would play together. They gained confidence by learning very basic skills that sound impressive, but in reality were very easy.

On the final day the campers were put in a line and given Boom Whackers -- fun plastic tubes that sound a whole note when hit.

The line of campers hit the Boom Whackers in a pattern of a popular Top 40 song. A counselor band backed up the campers with a drummer and electric guitarist. This band played with the campers in front of the entire camp during the talent show, which padded their performance while also giving them the impression that they were in a “real band.”

Out of our 90 LITS (13 and 14 year-olds), three to nine campers were already skilled enough to form mini-“bands.”

We would meet, divvy up instruments and then practice three times during the week. On Thursday, the “band” (they would pick a name) performed a simple popular song to a cheering crowd during the talent show.


At summer camp, you have a unique opportunity to praise children and give them an affirming experience they will never forget. No matter what skill they perform, the kids at camp are met with thunderous applause from hundreds of admirers.

We can’t wait to inspire more creative projects and performances in 2006!

SIDEBAR: What You Can Do…

All this takes is a little thinking outside of the box. Set the campers up to succeed. Make the activities easy but look hard. Does your camp want to create videos? It cost Camp Ernst $300 for a camera from Sam’s Club. Create dynamic group art projects -- paint trees, build forts-- let your counselors’ imaginations run wild.

NOTE: You can check out some of the YMCA Camp Ernst Fine Arts videos going to www.myYcamp.org and clicking on the fine arts page.

Stuart MacKenzie is a Program Coordinator at YMCA Camp Ernst. He has been on Camp Ernst’s summer staff since 1999.

Bryan BuchkoComment