Build A Solid Foundation

By Matt Dorter

If you think for a moment about your favorite building at camp, you might picture a structure that is completed and functional—equipped with proper facilities and full of happy campers. You’re likely not thinking about the foundation of the building—the cement, pillars, and beams. But what would happen if that building had no foundation? There would be no facilities and no happy campers. It would be a structure crumbling and sinking into the ground.

When starting a new program at camp (or fixing a program that needs repair), there is no architect guiding the vision or anchoring ideas. To build the foundation for a successful new program, consider these four important rules:

Step 1: Create By Theme
A simple way to lay the foundation for a new program is to begin with a theme. Build programming that has a common thread and links to the overall camp mission.

Themes often help campers relate an instruction or activity to a concept with which they are more familiar. For a young camper, walking with pride may be a foreign idea. But if you establish a theme of “Knights and Princesses,” giving an instruction to walk like a knight or princess will achieve the same result.

Choosing a theme is about knowing what you want to achieve. If the objective is to create confidence at the ropes course, the theme might be “Flying High” or “Facing Challenges.” If exploring physicality in dance, the theme might be “Animals” to get campers moving in interesting ways.

Here are some potential themes to get started:

Just for fun:

·        Holidays
·        Royalty (kings and queens, etc.)
·        Animals
·        Circus
·        Sun, moon, and stars
·        Space and astronauts
·        Carnival or amusement park
·        Olympics.


·        Confidence
·        Creativity
·        Community
·        Self-discovery
·        Respect
·        Pursuit of knowledge
·        Social action.

Step 2: Establish Rituals
Structure, in the form of ritual, is integral to helping a program take root and grow. Provide the right context to help campers make sense of a program. Use a ritual introduction at the start of every period to eliminate confusion and inform campers of exactly what the program entails.

An introduction should include:

·        Your name and the name of the program
·        The rules and expectations of the program
·        The overall theme and purpose of that day’s activity.

Developing an opening and closing activity that becomes part of the routine will help you gather campers’ attention at the beginning of a program, develop a tradition of consistency, and help you properly assess the outcomes of a program. Here are some examples of opening and closing activities:

Opening rituals:

·        Greet campers as they enter with a different silly voice or personality.
·        Start each period with the same game or physical warm-up.
·        Have a dance party.
·        Play low music as campers enter, and turn it off when it is time for the period to start.
·        Have a “call and response” created by you and the campers.

Closing rituals:

·        Play the same game or activity at the end of each period.
·        Have campers share one take-away they enjoyed from the day.
·        Give campers high-fives as they leave the space.
·        Clean up the space as fast as possible, always trying to beat your best time.

Step 3: Manage Time
New programs require ongoing communication with camp administration and a commitment to logistics in order to be successfully worked into the overall camp calendar. Make sure you have an understanding of the number of periods in a day, the length of each period, and the number of kids attending. Consistent attendance, realistic goals, and knowledge of the essentials will help settle the foundation of a program.

Try this helpful exercise to identify how much time you will have in the camp calendar this summer:

Cross out all the days when the children aren’t having regularly scheduled programming (color war, big trips, theme days, etc.) 

To be safe, cross out another day every week, calling it a “flex day.” This is essentially a buffer for additional conflicts that will inevitably come up over the summer.

Communicate this calendar with your programming team to confirm details, make changes, and help set realistic goals for the program.

Once you have identified the specific number of days for the program, start managing weekly and day-to-day routines for time management.  

Use the following tips to save time:

·        Get a head start in seeing potential schedule issues by looking at how many campers are leaving for session changes.

·        Use a dry-erase board to write out information, and schedule outlines for campers to read when they enter.

·        Spend one evening each week planning the next week’s activities.

·        Routinely go over schedule changes with the programming team.

Are you running behind schedule?

Ask yourself what component(s) of the program have been least introduced. How can those components be communicated more simply and more effectively in fewer steps? Look at the schedule for the next few days to see if you can make up for lost time.

Step 4: Use Space Effectively
From outdoor areas to odd-sized and multi-use rooms, addressing challenges and adapting to what you are trying to accomplish is the key to effective space usage. Opportunities range from having campers work in teams to making the space smaller for a more intimate experience.

Consider the following when setting up programming space:

·        Know where the campers will be entering from and how they will enter.
·        Set focal points away from distractions, like doors, windows, and mirrors.
·        Contain open space with cones or place markers.
·        Plan out transitions (the movement from one part of the space to another) so they are quick and efficient.
·        Consider changing the lighting to be less harsh on the eyes, which helps establish a focal point.
·        Hang visuals where they can easily be viewed.
·        Decide early on if you will have campers in lines, a circle, or audience position.
·        Remove objects in the space that can create barriers or become distractions.

What to avoid:

·        Too much space during an activity can turn into a behavioral issue. Set boundaries that better fit the ideal space you need.

·        Having too many visual aids will require campers to focus on too many places. Aim for signage that evokes a sense of space without over inundating the senses.

·        De-clutter the room so campers can focus where you need them to.

Creating a theme that anchors a program to the overall camp mission, establishing rituals that help make a program a familiar part of tradition, setting realistic expectations based on a schedule, and building program space effectively will help ensure that a new program area at camp is built on a solid foundation for success. Remember to keep your perspective, make the most of every moment, and do the best you can!

Matt Dorter is the Executive Director of mainstages, an educational theater company for children that runs day and overnight camps in Astoria, N.Y. He has overseen the implementation and development of new programs at hundreds of summer camps nationwide. Reach him at