Who Did We Build It For?

The problem with most summer camps is that they are built by a bunch of middle-aged men (I’m allowed to say that because I am one of them), and our customers, for the most part, are 4’1” and under (I am assuming that the average 9-year-old is about that height).

How do I know that this is a problem?

Two ways:

One, in my 15+ years in the summer camp industry, I have sat in on many strategic planning sessions, looked at the layout and design of camp properties, and walked around camp with many donors and high-level leaders.

In all this time, I have never had a 9-year-old with me for any of the planning sessions, any of the stressful days looking at blueprints or during the walk-around with the donors.

Why is that?

I’m sure this doesn’t apply to you, but maybe this article is more of a kick in the pants for me to say, “Why would I ever design something for a particular group of people (9-year-olds) and not consult them on what they wanted?”

The second way that I know we have a problem is that I have walked around camps (my camp included). Have you ever looked at your camp from the vantage point of a 9-year-old? It is different. They are much shorter.

I think of basketball courts that I have seen at almost every camp. Most camps I have visited have a basketball court, which is not a bad thing, but the problem is that the goals are 10 feet tall and they are not adjustable.

Do you know what percentage of 9-year-olds can consistently make a basket on a 10-foot goal? 3 percent (I did the research).

This means that 97 percent of our 9-year-olds who are playing basketball at camp are not making a basket.

In case there was confusion, the point of basketball is to make a basket.

Here is the equation I used to make a change to the basketball court at my camp:

Problem: 9-year-old + 10-foot basketball goal = no fun for 9-year-old

Solution: 9-year-old + adjustable basketball goal = super fun time for 9-year-old

I have heard research that says the retention rate for first-time campers 8 and younger is around 30 percent, but for first-time campers 10 and older the retention rate goes up to 60 percent.

We can make some arguments about the social aspect of camp being more suited to older kids, but maybe part of the problem is that even though we think our camp is built for kids, it might not be.

What is in place at your camp that might not be that kid-friendly (or parent-friendly)?

It could be the size of the equipment, the scariness of the woods, bathrooms that aren’t in the cabins, or rules we have in place for using different activity areas of camp.

I am not saying that we need to change everything at our camps, but it would be a good idea to hear the perspective of our camp from the eyes of a 9-year-old.

Yes, I will be doing my next board recruitment trip at a third-grade classroom.

Dave Bell has directed day and resident camp programs for more than 15 years. Currently, he is the Executive Director of Camping Services for the YMCA of Greater Seattle. He is a former American Camp Association Southeast Section board member, a certified Y-USA Day Camp Director Trainer and a Y-USA partner YMCA camp consultant. Reach him via e-mail at dbell@seattleymca.org.