Reasons To Return

By Peter Rizzo

Traditions and heritage at a day camp not only provide stability, but also allow campers and staff to feel connected to something greater than themselves.

Occurring daily, weekly, and monthly, these customs give campers the structure they need to remain focused and well-behaved, but also the variety and excitement to detach themselves from the school-year mentality.

The varied recurrence of traditions gives every camper--whether first-timers that come for one week or veterans who attend all summer long--a chance to experience something they will not see anywhere else.

Probably the most overlooked by campers and staff members, daily rituals are most essential in creating an immediate welcoming and positive atmosphere, especially for new campers. Properly executed, daily rituals give new and hesitant campers the experiences necessary to entice them back for subsequent days and weeks.

Opening and closing ceremonies are the most important daily ritual. They give the camp director and staff members the opportunity to make announcements and prepare the entire group for upcoming changes and events.

This time of day also gives individuals and groups a chance to stand in front of fellow campers to showcase themselves and their achievements. For example, camp songs, skits, birthday announcements, and stories are common during opening ceremonies, while awards and performances are common during closing ceremonies.

Staff members are directed to open and close each activity, event, and project in a similar way. Following the theme of the experiential learning cycle, each staff-led block of time will adhere to the brief-experience-debrief-plan model. Staff members are trained before the summer in this philosophy, and then evaluated on their adherence to the model.

The hope is that kids and staff will eventually learn to apply this conscious and deliberate approach to challenges in social and academic arenas.

Although these ceremonies are necessary, those who enroll in the program must feel like campers and not like students. These spots in the daily schedule must be times that kids enjoy and look forward to.

Traditions that occur weekly or biweekly have a great impact on retention because they are novel and have variety, appealing to kids and staff with different interests and comfort levels.

Weekly traditions, such as theme weeks, frozen-treat Wednesdays, pizza Fridays, Friday afternoon performances, family nights, and other end-of-week events give specific groups something to look forward to. However, more attention can be given to a weekly tradition that involves all campers.

Some ideas are:

Weekly Camp Director Challenge: Each Monday, the camp director issues a challenge for the week, for example, each group or cabin must collect 100 character beads or more than two bags of trash, or invent a camp song, etc. If completed, the group is rewarded with a special activity or opportunity.

Coffee with the Camp Director: Give parents the opportunity one morning each week to connect with the director and witness the camp in action.

Initiation ceremonies: Counselors of each group call each session to order by presiding over a private ceremony on Mondays that includes an oath, introduction, handshake, song, etc.

Annual events contribute directly and indirectly to camper retention. Among the most popular of these events are:

Senior Village Survivor Week and Senior Village Olympics Week: These competitive weeks are reserved for Senior Villagers (grades 4 to 6 at our camp) in an effort to give Junior Villagers (grades 1 to 3) an incentive to return to camp past the age of 8. Additionally, the weeks are structured to promote the values of spirit, sportsmanship, unity, athleticism, and an appreciation of camp ideals.

Big-Deal Friday: The premise of this event is to choose a Friday in the latter half of the summer season to move away from the structured camp schedule and provide unique and fun activities all day long. This shows great promise as a tool to fight against burnout among staff members and summer-long campers. Rent inflatable games, establish a camp-wide scavenger hunt, or hold relay races. Add “Big-Deal Friday” superlatives and awards, special beads to commemorate the day, T-shirts, etc.

Annual events do not need to be confined to summer months, however. There are plenty of opportunities to connect with campers during the fall, winter, and spring.

Winter reunion: Invite campers and families back to camp to play their favorite games, sing their favorite songs, and hang out with their favorite counselors. Use this event as an opportunity for the camp director and other leadership staff to meet with parents and inform them about new and exciting details for the approaching camp season (new bathhouse, website, future off-season events). The event also can be used to recruit members to the Camp Parent Advisory Team, a group of parents interested in seeking answers to recurring issues. Finally, this event has the potential to be a lucrative fundraising opportunity for the annual support campaign.

Open house: Give parents and campers a glimpse of who will be returning from the previous summer staff. Survey results have shown that the quality of our staff is a prevailing factor in kids’ and parents’ decisions on whether to return. Showing campers and parents that staff retention is high paves a path toward increasing camper retention. Good staff turnout at open house in the spring is crucial to the success of the event.

Camp orientation: Hold this event twice between the winter reunion and the beginning of camp to educate parents about the registration process, financial policies, camp descriptions, the camp schedule, staff qualifications, and to answer any questions parents may still have before the camp sessions begin. This orientation could extend into the summer in the form of the weekly or biweekly “Coffee with the Camp Director” series.

The staff off-season camp experience needs to be addressed as well. During Thanksgiving break and/or sometime in January, schedule a staff getaway to reunite the gang and convince any undecided staff to stick with the camp for another summer.

Establishing and/or strengthening these elements will have a direct impact on the overall success of a program by retaining campers and the best staff members. Use these examples as a guide to create and enrich the traditions and heritage elements you already have.

What is the camp experience without these elements? Summer school.

Peter Rizzo is the senior youth director for the Triangle YMCA in North Carolina. He can be reached via email at