Designing A Camp Program

This past summer I sent out a new curriculum for camps to consider. It included activities for counselors to help campers learn and practice the skills required to make friends. The concepts were well received. I learned which activities were judged the easiest to implement, and which were viewed as too complicated. I was shocked, however, by the most common remark of the camp directors I interviewed: “We can’t tell our counselors to do specific activities.”

My first thought was, “Who’s the boss at your camp? What do you mean you can’t tell counselors what to do?” Fortunately, I didn’t say it out loud. From their viewpoint, they were powerless. Apparently their schedules are either too rigid (no time for counselors to do anything with their cabins), or too loose (kids do whatever they want every day). But the result is the same--counselors don’t have any time to just “do stuff” with their campers, and the directors don’t think they have the ability to change that.

Mixing Up The Mindset

Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, so?” Your camp schedule is perhaps the only one it’s ever been, and what’s popular today is either a really strict schedule (where everything is done by cabin groups rotating between scheduled activities--one hour at archery, one hour at canoeing), or “free-range campers,” (where the kids pick their own activities each day).

The schedules seem vastly different, but they’re actually built on the same idea: Create one schedule that requires little or no daily preparation by the counselors, and stick to it all summer. You would be surprised how many camps use one or the other, and staunchly defend their choice (even though their reasons--like their programs--are polar opposites.)

Lifelong Skills Or Mediocre Memories

Take a look at your own program schedule and see not only its strengths, but its weaknesses. Can kids do an activity often enough during a week that they actually learn a lifetime recreational skill, like canoeing or archery? Or do they get just a taste and the same taste next year, and the same the next year?

Years ago, kids learned skills at camp that lasted their whole lives. Some campers didn’t want to just “shoot bows and arrows,” but wanted to hit the target, then hit the bulls-eye, and then use the “good” bows. And they didn’t want to just splash around in a canoe; they wanted to learn to make it go straight like that good-looking instructor could. They practiced the bow stroke, the j-stroke, the draw; they prepared for the big race. They were the leaders when their cabins went on a canoe overnight. But they could do that because there was a canoeing class, with an instructor who taught a curriculum of skill development and mastery.

A few years later, those campers taught canoeing to others. Then maybe some took a date for a canoe ride at college. And eventually they may have taken their own children on family canoe trips and built lifelong memories, strong bonds, a love for the outdoors and good health. The same was the case for crafts, nature observation, dancing, fishing, volleyball and outdoor cooking. Each year, millions of kids learned enough about a new hobby not only to want to do it again, but to be able to do it again.

But that’s fairly rare these days. We don’t so much as teach at camp as we “schedule.” We move kids safely from one area to another, one activity to another. We do the planning and set the rules (including strict time limits), and do the same thing every day, every week, every year. Kids aren’t expected to want to learn; we’re happy if they just show up. No wonder it becomes more difficult each year to find camp staff who can teach skills. They never learned them at camp themselves.

Consider The Campers

When a camp does the same thing with every camper, regardless of age, gender, or past camp experience, then somebody’s not getting what they need. It’s usually the youngest and the oldest, the first-time campers and the teens, that don’t get a schedule or activities that match.

Do you think I’m being critical? Consider this: the median return rate for summer resident camps is 55 percent (day camps are slightly better at 60 percent), not very impressive. The return rate for first-year campers at the “median” camp is downright depressing--less than 40 percent return for a second year. (If a soft drink tasted that bad, the company would be out of business very quickly. There is just so much you can do with glitzy marketing before word-of-mouth catches up with you.)

But those rates are the medians. Amazingly, that means half of all camps have even worse results. However, there is some good news in all of this. Some camps do have high return rates--as high as 85 percent (essentially perfect, when you account for the kids who age-out). What are they doing that many of us are not?

Why Kids Come Back

If you read my articles on a regular basis, you know there are two important reasons kids come back for additional summers at camp:

1. The camp leadership and staff treat parents like the decision-making customers they are. These caring people are the whole reason we’re able to operate at all. If they didn’t hire us to provide their children with the experiences that they can’t provide on their own, we would all be out of a job, and no number of good intentions or kid-focused marketing would matter. Parents have told us they want their camp to:

· Be safe

· Have high-quality, well-trained staff

· Teach skills

· Create new friendships

· Be fun.

And that’s their priority order.

1. Kids have many choices for “fun”; it’s a commodity to them. Camps can’t buy larger toys than theme parks, or better entertainment than Xbox. Friends, however, are rare, and camp friends are unique. But too often, camps run kids through activities mostly to keep them entertained and busy (and out of trouble), instead of providing for face-to-face interaction where friends are actually made.

Answer Your Own Questions

Where does your camp’s return rate fit--below or above the median? Do you struggle to find new campers every year, or do your satisfied parents find them for you? Do you wonder where kids go when they reach 12 years old, or are your campers returning in such numbers that your age groups are skewing heavily toward teens?

In looking for cause-and-effect trends, B.J. Murray, the camp director of the Des Moines Y Camp in Iowa, called all of the YMCA camps reporting return rates of 65 percent or higher (with some as high as 85 percent). In addition to his finding what he expected in regards to treating parents like partners, every camp had two other things in common.

First, each has an emphasis on the cabin group--spending part of the campers’ time each day planning and completing activities together. The way that time is spent varies--from skit night to sports challenges against other cabins, overnight campouts, building or art projects and picnics, to four-square--but all include time to get to know each other and reflect on their shared experiences.

There’s a second--and even more unique finding--from B.J.’s study. Every one of these top-performing camps includes “daily skill clinics” in the schedule. (I use that generic term here, though each camp has its own name for that activity block.) Kids choose an activity (dance, crafts, tennis, sailing, etc.), and attend several days in a row. Each subject has a progressive curriculum so that by the end of the session, campers develop real skills. In most cases, the campers select their top choices and are given a schedule of two or three activities a day for four to five days. For multi-week sessions, they choose new skills each week. A few camps have a formalized skill progression that campers record in a pocket-size handbook, which allows more personalized attention for each camper and lets a camper work at his or her own pace, allowing the youngster to progress for several years in a skill.

Never A Stock Solution

These decisions don’t come without their own set of issues. Common objections are “New counselors often complain they don’t know what to do with their campers during cabin time,” and “We have to put so much more time into finding staff that can teach the skills at the level we require, and we can always do better in supervising the quality of our skill classes.” But an amazing thing happens at many of these camps--going hand-in-hand with an increasing return rate is more homegrown staff that considers it an honor to teach the skills learned at camp.

I’ve seen so many great camps that I no longer believe there is a “best” camp program or schedule design. How it’s implemented and the quality of the counselors makes the biggest difference. If you struggle with first-year campers returning or have a significant drop-off when kids reach 13, you can probably benefit from a few changes. Give the youngest kids more structure to try many activities with their own counselor. Add skill-development as an option for middle to older kids so they feel challenged and develop competency. Maybe let the older campers have more responsibilities that set them apart from “the kids,” and give them chances to make decisions and strengthen friendships. Find ways for your campers to develop character just by being around their own counselors. In that way they’ll have time to try something new if you ask them!

Gary Forster is the Camping Specialist for the YMCA. You can reach him via e-mail at

Bryan BuchkoComment