By Stuart Mackenzie
On August 16, 2006, YMCA Camp Ernst campers and counselors woke to the lovely sound of taps, put their clothes on inside-out, lowered the flag, listened to announcements, ate dessert, ate dinner and finished the meal by singing grace. At 10 a.m., they reported to the flagpole for their evening program.
You might be thinking we just plain lost it or warped into some weird camp-version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, but in reality it was all planned, a skewed schedule of events designed to breathe life back into a schedule that had become a little too familiar over 10 weeks of camp. We call it Backward Day, and the kids love it.
Our goal is to always give our campers a big, fun, silly, organized experience that they can only have at summer camp. The idea for this particular experience came from that time-worn expression we’ve all heard campers use to refute something we just said, the old “That’s not true, it’s Backward Day!”
One day it finally hit us, well, why not? Why not offer our campers a true Backward Day?
And, as things often do in the crazy, creative world of camp programming, ideas started bouncing and, once we caught, sorted, organized and prioritized all of them, we realized the logical starting point was to simply take our standard daily schedule and reverse it.
Here at Camp Ernst, we end our day with an evening program, usually a group game that runs for an hour and fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, that time slot didn’t match up with our morning slot, which was two hours long. We knew from experience that our group games, while popular, tend to run out of gas after an hour or an hour and a half, so we stayed away from “Capture the Flag” or “Chaos” (typical evening programs) and instead went with “Carnival” – a program where each cabin runs a “booth,” such as “Pie in the Face” or “Diving for Pennies.”
During these games, half the kids work the booths and half the kids explore the “Carnival.” This keeps them entertained for a solid two and a half hours. Other activities, which would also work for this length of time, are “Gold Rush,” “Lost Battalion” or “Quest,” all of which feature spread-out stations and exciting activities.
Once we solved the morning time-block problem, we realized the rest of the activity periods matched up nicely, so we just reversed the rotation order between the lake, ropes course, valley and various clubs.
The Fun Is In The Details
We also encouraged our staff to get involved, and charged them with doing things like making singing announcement songs as soon as they entered the dining hall. We even got our cooks (Mike and Jeff) involved. They prepared dinner for breakfast and breakfast for dinner.
Of course, we ate breakfast (which was really dinner) in reverse order. We started with dessert (cookies) and ate pizza as dinner. Lunch was the same whether you are going forwards or backwards, and for dinner we served a Backward Day Feast of eggs, sausage, pancakes and French toast.
We quickly realized that most of the fun in this program was going to be in all the details. More than just running through the day in reverse order, we needed to convince our campers and counselors to really embrace the concept and get creative—things like talking backward, wearing clothes backward and eating meals backward were a good start, but of course, our campers were even more creative.
For instance, counselors had their kids take turns on activities in reverse alphabetical order. Some cabins sang camp songs backward (or tried their best). One camper tried to speak backward the whole day. Others called their counselors by their backward names.
There Really Is No Right Way
In the end, we learned there really is no right way to run camp programming, and there are lots of opportunities to have fun doing things backward. Encourage your staff and campers do go wild by giving a Backward Award to the cabin that is the most backward during the day.
Basically, Backward Day is a fun way to spice up a regular day into a really cool “event.” Campers like Backward Day because it represents the kind of organized, crazy fun that summer camps deliver to children. So, go ahead, be backward.
Try this at your camp and tell us what you think. Fun of lot a it’s. Luck good!
Stuart MacKenzie is Program Coordinator at YMCA Camp Ernst in Burlington, Ky. He has been on Camp Ernst’s summer staff since 1999 and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.