Evaluating Summer Camps

By Jill Dray Korsok

Now that summer is over, most agencies will breathe a collective sigh, and begin to evaluate which camp programs were successful and which were not. Most agencies examine enrollment numbers and revenue, staffing issues, the effectiveness of cost-control measures, and other issues.

But how does an agency know if it has hit the mark with campers? How does it identify effective customer service or ways to be successful in future summers?

It is fairly simple to measure revenue against previous years, or compare whether enrollment increased or decreased. However, ongoing and thorough evaluation takes many forms, and is critical for understanding the full scope of the program’s strengths and weaknesses.

Most people in the field of recreation have found themselves in this position: you put together a stellar summer camp, you have great, well-trained staff in place, you thoroughly plan the activities and adventures the campers will experience, you do your advertising and get the word out about the program, and when it’s all over, the program fails to meet your expectations, or worse, the expectations of your participants.

On the flip side, many departments construct fantastic summer camps following the exact same formula. They put a well-trained staff in place, plan appropriate activities to meet the needs of campers, create proper advertising and promotion campaigns, and the camp takes off with great success.

So what’s the difference? Why are we sometimes left scratching our heads trying to figure out why one camp does so well and another flounders?

As legendary football coach Lou Holtz quipped, “I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”

The answers to these questions can be found by asking participants, parents, staff members, and anyone else involved in the setup and delivery of camps. Simple, direct questions can yield answers that provide critical information on what the agency is doing well. They can also let the agency know in which areas programming might be expanded, and in which areas improvement is needed.

In its simplest form, evaluation is really just a great chance to have a conversation with customers. It’s a way to listen to what they would like the department to know, and there are many ways to listen and learn.

Most agencies gather written evaluations in survey form following each camp. They can be conducted face-to-face, by phone, or by email. Surveys can be designed to provide direct questions that attempt to elicit specific answers.

Casual Conversations
Take a few minutes to stop by a camp when parents are dropping their children off or picking them up. Listen to the conversations among parents. Are they asking questions about the field trip scheduled for the end of the week? Are they commenting on the check-in and check-out procedure? A careful listener might find that the agency needs to provide better weekly communication to parents or a more streamlined process for check-in and check-out.

Personal Phone Calls
Set aside 15 minutes weekly to call the parents of a few of the agency’s most frequent participants. A warm and friendly “I just wanted to call and thank you for participating” is a great way to start the conversation. Find out whether the camp is meeting their expectations. Wrap up the discussion with a simple question such as, “Is there anything we could do to improve?” And be sure to let those parents know that you are available for future conversations if they have more to add.

Camper Input
Although parents may make most of the decisions in selecting a day-camp or sport-camp experience, kids do influence those decisions based on their experiences in a program. Participants, if asked even basic questions, can provide a wealth of information to camp directors:

  • Are you having fun?
  • What is your favorite part of camp?
  • If you were planning camp, what would you add or change?

Staff Evaluations
An effective camp director seeks input from all staff members, and provides them with a safe, open, and accepting environment to contribute their ideas. Directors and administrators are often removed from the day-to-day operations of a camp, but a wise director will rely on counselors, bus drivers, and maintenance staff to supply input on everything from the challenges counselors face managing campers on the hottest summer days, to the types of equipment the staff could benefit from having available, to the questions staff members receive most from parents.

Modify On The Fly
Don’t wait until the summer is over to ask for feedback. To obtain quality information on a 10-week day camp, start asking questions after the second week. You might discover, for example, that campers appreciate having extended swim time when it’s hot; armed with this information in June, staff members will have plenty of time to incorporate more swimming into additional camp weeks, even if plans must be adjusted. Additionally, evaluating camps throughout the summer gives people an opportunity to provide information while it is fresh in their memory.

How To Use The Information
After listening to the most frequent participants, campers, staff members, and even the occasional individual who calls to complain, compile a journal, record book, or database of all the comments. Keep an itemized list of information:

  • The comment
  • The date received
  • The specific camp or facility referred to
  • Staff members mentioned by name
  • Any other pertinent information.

This list allows those reviewing the comments to identify patterns or similarities.

Reflect honestly on the comments, and look at each one as an opportunity for improvement. Although staff members cannot control the temperature affecting an outdoor basketball camp in July, they can work to incorporate fun ways for kids to cool down, such as off-court squirt-gun games or extended rest breaks. After all, we are all human and, on occasion, we miss elements that others can see clearly.

The feedback received through evaluation is also an opportunity to educate and mentor staff in understanding how best to do the job. A camper once reported to his parent that no one called him by his name. It was difficult to pronounce, so instead of learning to say the name correctly, staff avoided using it. The information the parent provided during a brief conversation with the camp director was a great tool to illustrate to staff members the importance of knowing and using a child’s name to help him or her feel welcome and engaged in camp.

Finally, share the information with everyone involved in delivering the service, from camp counselors to front-desk staff, to programmers and administrators. It’s useless if you keep the information to yourself, so pass it around, and ask staff to contribute ideas to remedy identified issues.

The camp evaluation process can yield a tremendous amount of information when agencies take the time to ask questions, reflect on the answers, and then create a plan for improvement.

Jill Dray Korsok , CPRP, is the Recreation Program Manager for the city of Mentor Parks, Recreation & Public Facilities Department. She manages more than 125 discovery, sport, and traditional summer camps, serving more than 2,500 children each summer. She can be reached at korsok@cityofmentor.com.