By Dr. Randall Grayson

As most people are already aware, there are numerous ways to pepper campers with elements of wonder and surprise. Since children are often observers or mildly engaged in activities that have a pre-determined path, it is important to provide experiences that have numerous outcomes and avenues.

One avenue to incorporate elements of wish, wonder, and surprise is via a staff-led auction. Essentially, campers obtain tokens individually or by cabin/group during a game, and then use those tokens to buy a dynamic experience offered by staff members.

Although carnival games are a common way to earn the tokens, there are other possibilities, such as quests and problem-solving activities.

After the game, the campers gather and bid on the selections; the experience that they win does not have to occur on the same day, rather only sometime during their stay.

The following information and logistics will hopefully guide and inspire you to create an auction for your campers.  Please note that camp programs are diverse enough that what works well at one camp might not fly at another. So while the framework for the program is provided, feel free to modify it to meet your camp’s needs.

What works well:

  • Have double the number of auction prizes available than there are bidders for the initial interest test the day before or morning of the auction, and one-third more prizes at the time of the auction (see preambles for ideas). This allows everyone to get something they want.
  • Have the auction at the beginning of the campers’ time in the program so there is an opportunity to spread out the experiences.
  • Don’t offer prizes that revolve around food. Food is extremely popular and will sell if offered (sometimes solely based on the food being offered and not the experience); food is an experience the campers can have outside of camp easily enough. Also, food as a reward can verge on rat psychology that is already omnipresent in children’s lives. Indeed, the majority of commercials for children are food-based, and child obesity is a real problem.
  • Adjust the tokens won at each station by age, so older campers don’t have an advantage. It also works well to have different criteria in the game, depending on camper age.
  • Offer experiences in which campers don’t know quite what to expect. They love the … well, surprise!
  • Auction prizes with perceived risk. Most children lead incredibly safe lives, which is wonderful, but the desire for experiences with risk is also innately human. Campers often have an opportunity to experience “safe” risk by doing activities such as high ropes or horseback riding. Auctions are another opportunity to offer some unusual risk. Such prizes are always among the most sought-after at auctions.
  • Use a clear, concise name that gives campers an idea of what to expect in the experience. This also helps an auction item sell; generally, more than seven to 10 words in the name of the prize turns campers off.
  • The higher the level of adventure--the better! Campers love experiences that promise a journey or a dynamic, engaging experience. Rest assured that the quiet ones also sell, but generally, the higher adventure experiences are more popular.

The following represents a pattern of selections that work:

Scary (15 percent) -- Something that gets the blood moving.

Chill Out (8 percent) -- Relax and enjoy.

Clinic With A Twist (11 percent) A normal camp activity that isn't normal anymore.

Random (10 percent) Everything-else bucket category.

Adventure (22 percent) Together we shall peresvere and succeed.

Pamper (16 percent) Ah, what an absolutely lovely experience!

Unique (18 percent) Are you kidding? Really?

What doesn’t work:

  • Special wakeups ... a creative experience instead of an alarm clock, music, or a verbal reminder that cues campers that it’s time to get up. While these are greatly enjoyed by campers, they have not been popular as auction items. We believe the three primary reasons are:
  1. Counselors already provide that service daily.
  2. The special nature of the wakeup offered isn’t enticing enough, especially versus other options.
  3. The experience is one that generally happens to campers, rather than with them.
  • Similar to special wakeups, nighttime discussions with campers before going to bed are already offered, and are not enticing enough compared with other options.
  • Taking an existing meal and spicing it up in some manner. With other exciting options, these items almost always end up on the sidelines.
  • Auction items that ONLY sell because a given staff member is offering it. We find this can create a cult around an individual, and it is our preference that the items are bought for what they are, not who is offering them.
  • Any activity campers can do at home (especially readily) or at another camp often don’t sell.

Example Auction Offerings

Below are some examples of experiences to reward campers:

Make your dreams come true! Really! Campers write down their dreams, and a staff member works to make them a reality.

Provide an off-camping abduction overnight (an overnight experience to remember).

Magic 8-ball of joy and doom. Ask the Magic 8-ball whether the experience will occur, with joyous and doomful events to follow.

Create nighttime games of intrigue.

Conduct the most dangerous game (hunting a staff member with appropriate weapon(s)).

Get beaten by random objects periodically (playful, the campers fight back; oddly loved).

Orchestrate a prison break.

Create the world’s largest hot-tub bubble bath.

Have fun with microwaves.

Build a pyre to burn at night.

Lunch in a tree, koala-style.

Be exposed to dangerous levels of glitter.

It's not what you think. For five minutes, campers say what cannot happen, and the remainder is fair game.

Present Groundhog Day.

Develop and deliver a super-surprise for camp that will make all who see it overflow with joyful awesomeness.

The Auction
Once the auction list is distributed, campers write down their top-five picks and rate them in order of preference. These are collected from every cabin, and the results are tallied. The sum from all cabins is calculated by adding up the total for each auction item (e.g., 1 + 4 + 3 + 5 + 0 + 5 + 0, etc.)

The results are posted for campers to see, usually at lunch. Campers can write notes on this list, or talk to the special-programs staff member at this time. Some final edits might be made.

The resulting list is presented at auction time after the evening program, when the tokens are played for and won.

Auction Time
Bidders can buy only one item. The popularity rank determines what is auctioned first. So, the items with the highest totals will go first, allowing cabins with high token collections to grab what they want and not have to compete with other cabins for items.

The staff member offering the prize meets with the winning cabin to co-create the experience (and make modifications). This process is often completed at breakfast the following day.

The Aftermath
When cabins leave the auction area, or have bought something, a staff member approaches to gather some information:

  • Did you get your first choice? If not, what choice number was the item you received. 
  • What were your other four choices?
  • How many tokens did you have?
  • What was popular and by whom?
  • How many received their first choice?

This information helps the staff understand the offerings as well as the demographics of the demand (i.e., gender, age, etc.). Generally, shoot for 90 percent of cabins to get their first choice and none to take their third choice or lower. Hence, double the number of options in the beginning.

Assessing The Experience
When campers are given evaluations of their experience at camp, be sure to include the auction item and what they thought of it. It is also helpful to have the special-programs staff member interview 20 percent of the cabins to obtain more detailed feedback.

When gathering “knowledge management” on offerings from staff, note the following:

  • Auction prize name
  • The staff member who  officiated
  • The time of day  the event is best suited for
  • A full list of props needed
  • Directions on setting up the event
  • A description in detail of the event
  • The breakdown
  • Areas for improvement.

For more information, visit .

Dr. Randall Grayson has more than 20 years in camping, including directing three camps, currently Camp Augusta in Nevada City, Calif. In addition to founding and maintaining several websites and consulting, he has established , where camps and outdoor education centers can obtain information on unusual and powerful programs and activities. For more information, visit .