Top Programming Ideas

No matter whether you operate a day camp or an overnight camp—there is always a need for fresh programming ideas. Every year, we scour the industry looking for the latest and greatest tips and techniques on how to improve your already-stellar programming lineup. So use what you can and when you’re done, think about sharing your best ideas. There’s a camp on the other side of the country who hadn’t thought about doing it your way! Be sure to drop us a line at editor@northstarpubs.com.

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Freshening Up “Oldies But Goodies”
In summer 2018, the Centerville-Washington Park District (Ohio) Summer Recreation Program incorporated many new games and twists on popular classics! Campers enjoyed new varieties of dodgeball, such as “sponge dodgeball” and “four-team dodgeball” to add to its collection of games.

Backwards Soccer
Another game that campers loved was “backwards soccer.” While soccer rules still apply, players can only strike the ball with their hands, keeping the ball on the ground. Goalies could only use their feet, and each player could only touch the ball once before someone else had to. It was a fun, new challenge that also built teamwork skills.

Hungry, Hungry Hippos With A Twist
A variation of “Hungry, Hungry Hippos” was added to the game repertoire. There were four teams and each camper had a number. A random number of items (tennis balls, dodgeballs, etc.) were placed in the center ring. When a number was called out, the corresponding campers had to walk, jump, run, or skip to the middle to grab an item. Only one item could be retrieved per trip, so campers could keep going back until the items were gone. Then, a new amount of objects were added to the middle, and a new number (or numbers) is called. The team with the most items at the end wins.

How Long Is A Minute?
The very hot summer called for adding many new quiet games for campers to play in the shade. A favorite was “How Long is a Minute?” in which children try to all guess as accurately as possible when a full minute has elapsed. Some campers got quite good at this game. To increase the challenge, staff bumped it to two- and three-minutes intervals.

Musical Cones
A popular transition game was “musical cones.” For this game, set up a ring of colorful dome cones with one fewer cones than campers. Sing a camp song. When the song stops or you call out “musical cones,” the campers placed a foot on a cone. When a camper was out, they got to transition to the next activity. Our counselors used this technique to transition to activities that needed individual set-up, such as a craft or face paint. It reduced the amount of time that campers spent waiting for the next activity in a fun way.

New Crafts
This summer also incorporated new crafts. Many of these crafts were designed around a theme that the counselors sometimes chose for the day:

  • For paper-cup fireworks for Fourth of July, counselors cut the sides of a cup into thin pieces, and then the campers dipped them into paint. When the campers pressed the cup down on the paper, the thin pieces spread out, creating a firework explosion image. How cool is that?

  • One day, our preschool group did sensory bag painting. The counselor put two or three dots of paint into a baggie, and the preschoolers would move the paint around to make designs. Just make sure that baggie is sealed or taped!

  • Campers reveled in an old-fashioned, simple craft—paper airplane days! Staff printed and laminated many different “how-to” guides for making different paper airplane designs for campers to follow. Afterwards, they had a paper airplane race!

  • The end of summer brought little foam books for campers, with campers coloring the different pages that were all about camp during summer. On the back, the counselors wrote each camper a note about how happy they were that they were in their group.

These new games and crafts led to end-of-summer comments from parents, like, “This is the most awesome program ever … will definitely be signing up again” and “SRP was my son’s favorite activity of the whole summer! Can’t wait for next year. Thank you!”

Alyssa Schulte
Centerville-Washington Park District
Centerville, Ohio

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Saa Taa Naa Maa
Saa Taa Naa Maa is a yoga chant that refers to the circle of life. SAA refers to wisdom, TAA means patience, NAA is for energy, MAA for communication. Participants get in circles of 4 to 10 and are seated cross-leg style on the floor facing the center of the circle.

Make the Ok sign with both hands and begin to rotate each fingertip touching the thumb while saying each sound of the chant; for example:

  • Index to thumb—say SAA

  • Middle finger to thumb—say TAA

  • Ring finger to thumb—say NAA

  • Pinky to thumb—say MAA.

Keep rotating fingers, repeating chant five times, then say chant really fast with fingers faster and faster then stop!

Layer the learning, by adding a pat to thighs and clap. So thighs say SAA, clap TAA, thighs NAA, clap MAA. Speed it up and end with fast patting thighs then stop!

Next, clap for SAA, then each person pats the hand of the people sitting next to them in circle for TAA, back to clap NAA, pat MAA. Again go faster and faster until the end with rapid pats on partners’ hands then stop!

Its going to get harder. Now go back and add the thigh pat for SAA, clap for TAA, pat side folks for NAA, clap for MAA, start over with SAA on thighs, now with lightning speed, then stop!

Keep going, you’re not done yet. Each person then turns in the circle to come face-to-face with a partner. This can be done in trios so no one is left out. Start with clap for SAA, pat partner’s both hands for TAA, clap NAA, pat MAA. Then—you guessed it—go faster and faster, then stop!

Have everyone stand up and turn facing clockwise. Put right hand forward, thumb up, palm facing inward. Put left hand back, palm facing out. Each person should find a hand to hold. Then release hands so palms hover close, about an inch apart. Then pat hand for SAA, again for TAA, NAA and MAA. Keep doing it while everyone starts to walk or march in a circle until they make it back to where they started.

The last round is a doozy. Turn counterclockwise, left hand forward, right hand back to find a hand again. Then do the inch hover and pat for SAA, BUT now rotate arm position from front to back then pat hand you find for TAA, rotate again forward for NAA, them back for MAA. Once the group has it down, start marching or jogging.

At the end, take a big breath in as a group and raise arms up over heads, bringing hands together in a prayer-like position. Lower hands to heart and bow to the center of the circle as a sign of honor to one another and say together “Namaste.”

Dr. Lyn Litchke
Associate Professor of Recreation Therapy
Department of Health and Human Performance
Texas State University, San Marcos

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Sheriffs And Outlaws
This hide-and-seek/tag game has 4 to 5 sheriffs and the rest of the kids are outlaws.

The outlaws’ goal is to find all the (pre-hidden) “keys” before they all go to jail.

The sheriffs’ goal is to put all the outlaws in jail.

Outlaws can run and hide while looking for the keys, but when found and tagged, they must go to jail. The only way they can get out of jail is if another outlaw finds a “key” to let them out of jail. A key can only be used once. The keys will be hidden around the area by counselors before the game starts.

The game is over when all the keys are found. The sheriffs win if they have more keys than the outlaws. The outlaws win if there is not anyone in jail.

Helpful hints:

Outlaws may choose not to use the keys that they find right away. They may want to wait until the jail is full or until the end of the game to make sure no outlaws remain in jail.

Sheriffs and outlaws will want to keep their keys private so no one knows how many keys either group has.

Something should indicate who the sheriffs are (bandana, pinney, shirt color, etc.)

Keys may be handed off from person to person if necessary (i.e., the same person that finds a key does not have to be the one that uses it).

It may be best to have the groups meet up before the game to discuss strategy.

Keys can be anything—they can be made out of cardboard—it doesn’t matter; but they do need to be recognizable. Ten keys may be a good number to start with and it may be easier if each key has a number or a different color—something to make them all different to ensure that a key is not used more than once.

Monica Kaskey
Recreation Supervisor
Pewaukee Parks & Recreation
Pewaukee, Wis.

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DreamWorld Week
In the ongoing quest to find something resembling a fresh theme for a week of summer camp, we developed “Dreamworld Week.” The idea was simple—we would set aside the few hundred dollars we would spend on programming for that week until the week itself began. On the first night of the session, we gathered all of the campers together, and asked them to write down three things they hoped to do at camp during the week.

We instructed them to write one pretty normal activity, one more outlandish activity (like the foot Olympics), and one “reach” activity (like going to the moon).

Afterward, our programming staff and our leaders-in-training put in a long night brainstorming on how we would help make these dreams happen—including when they’ll run, who will run them, and what sort of supplies will be needed. Obviously, we never take anyone to the moon—but decorating a cabin like one on the moon can go a long way! I’d give you some examples, here, but kids are so darn good at coming up with phenomenal ideas that I doubt you’ll need them!

Dreamworld week went so well, that we now do it for every single week of camp. Because, why not? It's logistically hairy at first, but once we got the hang of it, it just became part of our routine.

For more information, visit https://gocamp.pro/blog/we-started-a-new-camp-and-we-didnt-bring-progressive-programming-heres-how-we-keep-things-fresh

James Davis
Laura Kriegel
Jack Schott

Founders of Go Camp Pro

Bell Exercise
Kids listen closely as a bell is rung. Camp counselors ask each child to raise their hand when they no longer hear any sound. They remain silent for another minute, paying close attention to other sounds they’re now able to hear after the ringing of the bell. Kids end the activity by sharing the sounds they were able to hear—a bird outside, someone stomping down the hallway, a car on the street—during that time with each other.

Ashley Maginnis
Marketing Assistant
City of Vancouver, Wash.
SPARK Youth Camp

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Jedi Force Training
The idea of “the force” from the Star Wars films is one of common humanity—that we are all part of a collective experience and bound together by our flaws and emotions. Camp counselors ask kids “How can you tell when a person is upset if they don’t tell you?” “What can you do to help a friend when they are upset?” “When you’re upset, what do you need from others?” Campers sit quietly with their eyes closed to “feel the force” and focus on breathing. As a takeaway, kids are asked to seek out “the force” during the week and be more aware of the emotions of their fellow campers.

Ashley Maginnis
Marketing Assistant
City of Vancouver, Wash.
SPARK Youth Camp

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The Great Adventure!
Note: This activity is perfect for ages 9 to 15, and encourages both individual and teamwork skills.

Introduction/Background For Campers
You and your cabin/group members are on an adventure of a lifetime! Twenty years ago, a mysterious international counselor from New Zealand was said to have buried treasure right here at camp. Rumors suggest it contained riches beyond a camper's wildest dreams! And just this year, we uncovered the first clue that leads to a map for the treasure!

But it’s not just any map ... it’s actually two maps that point to the buried treasure. As a result, the cabin/group will be split into two teams, and each team will be given their first clue. Every clue contains pieces of the map that leads to the buried treasure. Find the clues, collect the map pieces, solve the map puzzle, and the treasure can be yours!

Staff Description And Instructions
This activity is perfect for team-building; although the group initially competes with each other to find the buried treasure, in the end they must work together as one group to complete the map and find the treasure together. It’s a twist on the reality show, Amazing Race and an episode of Fantasy Island from the 1980s where two warring families/clans had to work together and put together a map in order to find buried treasure they both wanted.

The treasure can be typically anything, though in the past I would actually take some candy, a few sodas, coupon for a free pizza party, etc., and enclose it in a sealed container and actually bury it a foot underground somewhere in camp. Mark the location with some stones in a way that couldn’t naturally occur, and at the same time would never draw attention to itself.

Divide the group into two sub-groups, trying to have similar numbers of natural leaders in each group. Each group is given their first clue. The group needs to solve the clue, and when they find the location of the clue, there will be another clue waiting for them, along with piece(s) of the map. Solve the clues, collect map pieces, and at the last clue, the team puts together the map.

However, the team will find that they only have half a map, and will not be able to find the treasure without the other half. They will then realize that the other team has the other half of the map and they will need to help the other team complete the clues so that both teams work together to complete the puzzle, and find the treasure together.

There’s genuine excitement as groups compete with each other and individual team members contribute by solving the clues and racing to the next location. They will absolutely beg you for clues when they get stuck, and at some of the clues, they need to solve puzzles (more on that below). Given enough time, you can make this a two-hour activity with 12 clues and multiple puzzles, but it can be done in an hour or less with fewer clues (though the setup takes just as long).

But it’s worth it. Over the years, I know this was one of the campers’ favorite activities, and works for a very wide group of ages and all skill levels. Best of all, all members participate and when the group finds the treasure, there’s always a celebration of completing the goal and best of all—everyone wins.

Here are the steps:

1. Create a map of camp on 8.5 x 11 paper, that identifies where the buried treasure is. Have instructions on one half of the map (example: “Ye will find the buried loot 30 paces due west of the X on the map”), and have the “X” (some kind of physical camp marker like a sign or flagpole) on the other side of the map. Mark/describe other parts/pieces of the maps with locations to throw them off, or even multiple Xs that the other half of the map will let the reader know (via printed instructions) which is the correct X.

2. Make a few copies of the map on heavier stock paper (if available). Take one of the copies and cut the map diagonally into two halves so that the X is on one half and the actual specific directions our on the other half. For each half, cut into 10 or more puzzle pieces and keep the pieces separated from each other into two piles. Label the back of each puzzle piece in the two sets with either an “A” or “B” for team A and team B.

3. Create six or eight or more clues, and make two identical sets numbered 1through 8 (or however many clues you have). Label each set of clues each with team A or B. You will hide two clues at each location, one for team A and one for team B, and each clue can have one or more puzzle pieces attached to it. Teams can only grab their team’s clues and map pieces of course. Here’s a typical set of clues:

  • You can find your buddy here. (Answer: Swimpoint buddy board. The kids then race to swimpoint to find the next clue.)

  • What’s the population of Texas? (Answer: They have to look up the answer in the encyclopedia in the camp library, and inside next to the entry on Texas is the next clue and map pieces.)

  • Roses are red, violets are blue, if you don’t hang me up, I get mildewed. (Answer: This is an example of misdirection ... could be towels, could be wet clothes on outside clotheslines. In this case, it was life jackets in the boathouse.)

4. One way to make it even more fun is to have clues that are actually “puzzles” that the group needs to solve together. Examples include:

· I’m just hanging around waiting for someone to mooring with. (Answer: a buoy in the lake. Campers then need to realize the clue is in the middle of the lake somewhere. All you do is take the next clue, seal it into a plastic gallon milk jug, attach a rope and weight, and place it 50 to 60 feet offshore near the canoes. (Remember, there will be two milk jugs marked with one for team A and one for team B). They then work together to get a canoe, get lifejackets/paddles, canoe out, grab the clue, and canoe back). Kids will be shocked that they need to physically move a canoe and paddle to get the clue. Naturally, hilarity ensues when the canoe tips or otherwise kids accidentally get wet.

I'm all bogged down. (Answer: at our camp, we had a bog that was such that you wouldn’t want to wade in it (though you could). The next clue was placed in a milk jug and placed about 30 feet out of reach in the bog. Two 10-foot planks were placed nearby. Campers had to work together as a team and build a “moving bridge” to the clue and back by standing on the board, then working together to move the second board in place, and over and over again until they reached the clue and got back on land. Although we had a bog, this could be done on dry land and pretend that it’s a bog (or lava) and if anyone falls off the board, they have to start over. They will eventually get it right and work together.)

5. The same set of clues can be used for both teams. However, have team A start with clue #1, and team B start with the last clue. That way, they will meet somewhere in the middle, and they won’t be able to cheat either and just follow the other team.

6. On the last clue they find, tell the team that they won, meet back at a central point in camp, and put the map together.

7. They will then figure out they only have half of the map and will beg/ask where the other pieces are. Typically, one team will finish faster than the other one, by one or two clues, and eventually someone will figure out that the other team has the other half of the map.

8. The two teams work together to complete finding all of the clues, and put together the map. You can actually do another puzzle here on the map (at one point, I had each team collect an idol/trinket along the way, and when the three idols were placed on the map in their respective marked spots, it formed a triangle, the center of the triangle on the map was the treasure).

9. Remember that you made copies of the map in step 2? By this time, the map pieces are a mess. Once it’s clear the map is generally put together, give the whole team a clean copy of the entire map.

10. All campers find the treasure, and share the reward.

11. Finally, exhausted teammates go back to their cabin, and regale in stories about who found what, who helped in critical spots, that they knew all along they would have to work together, etc. etc.

Some Notes

  • When I first began this activity (twice a summer starting in 1991), I was way too clever and had teams criss-cross the camp from one end to another. The problem is that the most athletic campers were more than willing to sprint to the next clue, leaving their teammates behind. So as a rule, place the clues about 75 yards apart. And this makes it so much easier for you when you build the course, while keeping the two groups generally out of eye sight of each other as they finish the course.

  • I would type the clues out and print two clues to a piece of paper and then cut in half. This way you can reuse the clues in the future. I typically used thumbtacks, as nearly all of the places in camp to place clues were near locations made of wood. Tape can be used, too, of course.

  • When laying out the clues, make sure to mark down which clue you placed at each location, the answer, and where the next location is. With two sets of clues, it’s easy to get confused.

  • It will take an hour or more just to lay out the course, so plan accordingly.

  • Make copies of the map and clues before you start so you have copies for yourself and your co-counselors. In addition, extra copies can be reused during the summer and in the following years.

I believe that teambuilding activities like these are what make camp, camp. I can still vividly remember the cheers and excitement when each group would solve a clue or complete a puzzle, and the look on the campers’ faces when both groups realize they have to work together is priceless.

Jon Biedermann
Former Camp Counselor & Village Director
North Star Camp for Boys, 1991-1999

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A Field Trip In Town
Kent Park and Recreation partners with a local business to add diversity to its summer day-camp program. Campers spend some Mondays at Club Getaway, an adventure resort, which is located about a mile from the town park where the camp program meets. Parents drop off and pick up at Club Getaway, eliminating the cost of transportation. Club Getaway provides staff member(s) to accompany campers and staff through the day’s schedule of activities which can range from swimming at the waterfront, bungee trampoline, zip line, rock wall climbing, aerial swing and more. The buffet luncheon, where the campers enjoy going back for seconds, is a popular feature of the day away from camp. By networking with this local resort, the park and recreation department is able to provide variety for its camp program without leaving town.

Lesly Ferris
Director
Kent Park and Recreation
Kent, Conn.

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Escape Room
In the summer of 2018, supervisors and counselors from the town of DeWitt Day Camp took on the task of creating an escape room for campers in grades 4 through 8. They spent a week preparing the different puzzles and challenges as well decorating the room with hazard signs, “toxic” waste, and other foreboding items. Their hard work and creativity was well received by the campers, and the escape room became one of the most popular special events of the summer.

In the days leading up to the event, excitement was building as campers signed up in groups of approximately 10 for a chance to take on the challenges in the room. Each group had an hour to escape, and was monitored by Supervisors Casie Auricchio and Renée Lyman who had designed the various puzzles in the room.

Campers worked together to follow clues that would lead them to the combination of the final lock and free them from the room. The clues included rhymes and number patterns that were decoded using critical-thinking skills. The supervising adults did not participate in the problem solving, allowing the campers the opportunity to cooperatively collaborate with their peers to crack the codes. Each group demonstrated great team work, eventually solving all the clues and unlocking the final lock. After a successful first event, counselors and campers are already looking forward to next year’s escape room.

Megan Ball
Recreation Supervisor
Town of DeWitt, NY

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Family Nature Camp
Family Nature Camp engages the entire family for a week of fun and adventure! Together with professional naturalists, families are guided on field trips that include bird-watching, hiking in Acadia National Park, exploring ponds and tide pools, and combing the cobblestone beaches of beautiful Mount Desert Island. Families stay on our oceanfront campus and enjoy local, organic meals prepared in our dining hall.

Renee Duncan
College of the Atlantic
Bar Harbor, Maine

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On-The-Go-Camp
What makes our camp magical? Traveling around town in search of the best our city has to offer. Campers enjoy riding a 25-passenger bus with their friends and getting to go to some of the most fun and exciting places around town. The passion behind On-The-Go Camp is providing experiences for kids that they would not typically receive in the classroom or with their families. We thrive on exploring the outdoors and trying new things, encouraging campers to take a break from the electronics.

Campers range in age from 8 to 14 years old and are given the opportunity to be active in their community and explore what is right in their backyard. Most campers will try out a new activity and learn that they really enjoy it or are really good at it and continue on their own with further instructions. Many come back to camp year after year just to do the same favorite activities that they are not able to do anywhere else, like cable wakeboarding, sailing, or broom ball. Fencing, pickle ball, horseback riding, foot golf, and archery are just a few of the sports campers get to try their skills at.

Camp is not all sports and games; we learn some pretty neat stuff, too. Like the time we visited a dairy barn and learned where our milk comes from. It was during a visit to our local university’s food laboratory that we learned what viscosity meant, and how food dye is made that really tickled our taste buds. We of course visit with lots of animals in the wild, nature centers, zoos, rescue groups, and in presentations.

Let’s not forget about one of the most fun things to do in summer—get wet! We visit many local attractions that offer our favorite summer activity of swimming in many different forms of pools and waterslides. We also plan water days involving fire hoses, water balloons, and even some messy food items. Enjoying the great outdoors in lakes, creeks, rivers, and beaches is another favorable activity. We always rinse off the mess, but never the fun.

We enjoy incorporating challenges or team-building into our destinations. We include scavenger hunts, photo contests, and races into some of our more commonly visited locations, just to keep the fun going. We even get to challenge our minds at escape rooms.

We begin planning in February with our weekly themes based around offerings in the city like baseball games and timing of the climate (i.e., wet activities work best later in the summer when temps are typically warmer). The next month is when we research and schedule as many free (Metro Parks) or low-cost activities as possible. After that, we begin our regular trips that kids come back for every year. Usually in May is when we fill in empty space with new activities, locations we have never been before or new vendors in town. We utilize the large university local to us, looking for outreach programs and a contact person. There is a bit of negotiation that takes place between us and the vendors when prices are out of our budget; it never hurts to politely ask. Over the years, we developed relationships with community folks and created a large network of vendors.

How do we afford all these fun activities? Using the planning methods above we plan our budget around the registration cost, and subtract a 10 percent administrative cost as well as staffing costs. The amount left over is what we spend on admissions to the places that charge us.

Josh Stegman, Lauren Lange, Megan Price
On-The-Go Camp
Worthington, Ohio