Top Programming Ideas 2006

It's hard to believe it's already 2006… but it is. And what better time to regroup and plan next year's programs. Whether it's an involved program, or one that's a simple icebreaker, our hope is that you'll glean something practical to use from our annual Programming Ideas feature that will help round out your programming or add that something extra to help with retention and recruitment.

Our contributors, representing a broad spectrum of experience, were kind enough to offer their perspectives and ideas. If you happen to meet up with one of these great camp professionals, please let them know you appreciate their input. They took time out of their busy schedules to share their ideas with you, and are deserving of extra recognition.

If you have any great ideas, or you're looking for more information, please let us know. E-mail us at, call (830) 257-1012 or fax (830) 257-1020.


The Big Tent
I believe that the most successful camp events are those that manage to engage all the camp's activities, campers, staff and camp families. More importantly, the event must generate enthusiasm and a need for participation and preparation from everyone.

The camp community can be a diverse population, with a wide variety of personalities, interests and skills. However, when you rally the troops with a united cause or event, that group can accomplish amazing things together. I believe that contributions and accomplishments can come in all shapes and sizes. Here's an example of how our camp benefited from a total team effort, individual accomplishments and had a lot of fun all at the same time…

One of our most popular events last year was our Mini Circus, which was the culmination of our week long theme of Clowning Around!

This event was designed to capture the effort and achievements of our entire camp community. Each camp group and staff member was given the opportunity to participate in this event.

The event was held on a Friday afternoon, which gave everyone the entire week to prepare. The event highlighted the energy, creativity, athleticism, knowledge, concern, respect and pure fun that is generated throughout camp life.

Our sports specialist used his time with the campers to work on tumbling, juggling and tossing skits. Campers of all ages took tremendous pride in their progress and the staff noticed that many campers, who usually were not particularly fond of traditional sports, really got excited about this and worked hard on the athletic skills required to perform these tasks. Suddenly hoola hoops, bean bags, plastic bowling pins, rings and balls were flying everywhere.

Our arts and crafts and nature specialist used their time to work on designing and creating posters that expressed our campers' love of animals, clowns and life under the Big Tent, which was beautifully illustrated on a giant mural in our social hall, where this event took place. I think that parents are still trying to get off all the paint and glitter that the campers got on them during that week.

Our music and drama specialist used his time with the campers to work on some traditional, as well as some non-traditional, circus skits for the gala event. Children of all ages love the spotlight and I think that singing in the bathtub will never be quite the same anymore.

Our general camp counselors took on the responsibility of Clowning Around with their groups and making jesters of themselves and the campers. Silly faces and crazy outfits were created and goofy antics were practiced to perfection. Shaving cream pies, water balloons, silly string, big noses and colorful faces filled the campus in preparation for the big event.

Our campers' families got into the act as well, either as spectators, participants or supporters. Clearly, even the adults involved regained that special twinkle in their eye as they fondly remembered their own days as a camper or their experiences watching a circus. 

The directors were responsible for providing a cotton candy and popcorn machine, which were carefully operated by our CITs alongside our lemonade stand. They also took great pride and pleasure in hawking their goodies (free of course) among the standing-room-only crowd.

Our Master of Ceremony used our sound system to perfection, pumping up the crowd and getting everyone, spectators and participants alike, revved up for the event.

We did use some outside help, hiring a professional magician for the event. He gave the experience immediate credibility, but the true stars of the show were our campers and staff. They were magnificent and really put on a magnificent display, creating a buzz that lasted for many days following the event.     

--Jeff Krieger is the director of Camp Or Hashemesh, Clearwater, Fla.


Survivor Weekend
By combining Amazing Race and Survivor, Camp Woodmont developed a new weekend activity that quickly became a hit among campers. It involved dividing the camp into four teams with different ages on each team. To keep the teams fair, we ensured each team had an equal number of older campers and younger campers. Counselors were also assigned a team to manage; however, they were not allowed to participate in the competition.

First, each team was charged with developing an official name, a team chant/cheer and a team flag. The camp director assigned each team a color (green, orange, blue and red) to be used in all their competitions. Then, the director gave each team banner making supplies (markers, old sheets, scrap material, glue and string). After the teams developed their identity, the game was ready to begin. 

Each team was given a competition at a different location in camp. For example, at the pool, the team had to complete a clothes relay race to get the clue for their next location. At the lake, they had to get to three floating bottles in the water without using paddles to get the next clue. Of course, a certified lifeguard must be on site for any events held near water. At the field, each team had various relay races to complete. The teams that successfully completed each competition received points. 

At the end of all the competitions, a tribal counsel was held whereby each team was given one last opportunity to plead for votes from counselors. Counselors were instructed to vote for the team that demonstrated the most spirit and cooperation among the campers. The teams were encouraged to cheer, wave their flags and dress in their colors to impress the counselors. Many campers painted their faces and bodies in their colors and they really enjoyed the spirit of the pep rally/tribal council.

To ensure fairness, counselors were not allowed to vote for their own teams. The votes were tallied and added to the points from the competition and the team with the highest number of points at the end of the weekend won an ice cream sundae party. 

This activity was extremely successful and encouraged a great deal of leadership and cooperation among campers. The challenging part was developing the individual competitions and overseeing them to ensure fairness. We used three impartial staff members to help supervise the events and give out clues.  

--Alyson Gondek has more than 25 years experience in camping. She is a co-director at Camp Woodmont, located in Cloudland, Ga., on Lookout Mountain. She also owns a public relations/marketing firm. Alyson lives in Cleveland, Tenn., with her husband, Mike, and two children, Chelsea, 14, and Savannah, 9.


Teamwork, Teamwork, Teamwork
River Way Ranch Camp has been in business for 40 years. Our enrollment fills at 340 children per session with a strong waiting list of campers who are hoping to attend. In all these years of experience, I have learned that the activities are only a tool which makes the objective of creating friendships and memories and increasing each child's self-confidence easily attainable.

Beginning long before the campers arrive, the staff is encouraged to participate in pre-training courses, which serve two purposes. One, we train our own lifeguards and ropes course facilitators, and two, the counselors, especially those coming to camp for the first time,  experience the same anxiety, personal barriers and ultimately the success that our campers will experience.

Once the counselors have felt the butterflies from having to push themselves to participate in a course, where they themselves may feel a bit inadequate, they can more easily relate to what our campers feel when they attend camp activity classes. The fear of showing a lack of ability is what causes many campers and counselors to opt out of participating in new activities.

Some of the most successful programs we have used to help our counselors and campers break through their personal barriers includes our ropes course.

Most camps have a ropes course of some sort. If not, low ropes or ground activities work wonders. With no more than 15-20 people in a group, dividing friends into different groups, have the campers form a line, shoulder to shoulder. The line can be taped on the ground, or in our case, we line them up on a horizontal telephone pole.

Without any verbal communication and without losing their balance and falling off the log, the participants must align themselves by ascending birthdates.

Teamwork is a must as they crawl under legs, step over other campers who kneel down, or hang on tight as they attempt to walk around their neighbor. This game requires the group to work very closely together and it cannot help but create a bond and a comfort with new friends who have helped them to be successful.

The difficulty can be increased to include month, day, year or decreased to simply ages. For those who master this easily, blindfolds introduce a new twist.

--Nancy Oken Nighbert is the Executive Camp Director for Riverway Ranch Camp in California. 

Getting-to-Know-You Breakfast 
On the first day of camp, we have a pancake breakfast for all families enrolled in our summer day camp. This gives the campers and parents an opportunity to meet their counselors, get to know other campers and become comfortable with the large group we have.

This is an easy and inexpensive to welcome new campers and their families and catch up with the returning families. Everyone has always left with a smile on their face and the parents feel comfortable leaving their children in our care.

--Sara Perna is Day Camp Director for Fort Meigs YMCA, Toledo, Ohio


Aqua Tae Kwon Do
We all know what we remember most about summer camp. Sometimes it is just the most simple activity made fun. One of our most popular counselors returned for a dose of summer camp, after graduating Harvard Law School. We made a big deal about his return and the campers were very excited to have him back. He advertised his Water Aerobics class (but with a more exciting name, “Aqua Tae Kwon Do,”) He dressed in a purple leotard and attracted well over 100 campers into the Aquatics Sports Center to imitate the many original moves. The laughter and cheering was heard all over camp. The campers talked about this class for the rest of the session. Campers who were coming in the following session had already heard about it via email from their friends. Amazing what a little PR will do.

--Nancy Oken Nighbert

VBB (Volleyball, Baseball, Basketball)
Playing surface -– indoor or outdoor basketball court

Supplies –- 1 volleyball, 4 bases, 1 basketball net (at regulation 10 feet for children 8 and up, if possible, smaller basket heights for younger children)

Basic game –- the basketball court is set up like a baseball field with home plate at one basket, first, second and third bases set up like the baseball field. 

Two teams play, one team is at bat while the other is in the "field". 

The object of the game is to score more runs than the other team.

The team "at bat" starts by putting the ball in play. This is done with a volleyball serve. After hitting the serve the player then runs around the bases without stopping. If they touch all bases and touch home before the fielding team gets them out, they score a run for their team. However, if the team in the field makes a basket before the batter touches home plate then an out is recorded.


1. The team at bat makes a batting order and each player in turn gets to bat.

2. The team in the field must make three passes to one another before attempting to make a basket.

3.If the ball is dropped during any pass attempt, then the team must re-do the passes.

4. If the ball is caught in the air from the batter, the fielding team must still make the three passes and make a basket in order to get the player out.

5. Bunting, like in baseball, is allowed (some games with younger players should not allow bunting).

6. Counselors should act as umpires and make the routine foul ball calls. They should bat too. Campers love to see how far they can hit the ball.

7. The game can be played either with the regular three-out rule or can be played with everyone batting and counting the number of runs scored in that at bat.

8. Establish at the beginning of the game how many innings will be played.

--Mitch Bernstein is Senior Program Director for the Brandywine YMCA in Coatesville, Pa.


An Olympics Twist
Camp is full of individual activities. Campers sign up for classes based on their interests. Counselors encourage campers to try new activities. By the beginning of the second week, many campers have tried over 20 different activities. It is then that we schedule our all-camp Olympics.

Keeping in mind that many campers shy away from competition, River Way offers a different type of competition for the Olympics. (Some camps call this the Color Wars.) All campers are divided into six teams. The senior campers apply and interview to become a team captain. No one is turned down (little do they know).

Instead of having specific campers try to do their best in a sport or two, we have every camper participate in every event. For example, in the first rotation of activities, the red team may be assigned to the basketball court. Instead of five campers playing, while 40 watch, every camper will move through a line, with the music roaring, and quickly shoot one basket. Make it or miss, no big deal, they move on quickly to the next event.

There is no time to notice who on your team has made the shot. But, every child feels that he/she participated. The facilitator does keep score, but scores are announced later in the day when no child would feel responsible for loosing a point.

--Nancy Oken Nighbert

Scavenger Hunt
Scavenger Hunts are great activities to use for individual groups of children and as a mass camp activity. The key to a great scavenger hunt list is variety.

Looking for and finding objects listed on a scavenger hunt list is fine, but additional items must include other things like answers to math problems with 10 functions, subtraction, multiplication, addition, division, etc.  Also, trivia questions about movies, sports, entertainment, areas in which the campers have interests.

You can also hide objects around your site/facility and make up hints that send the campers on a hunt for the object or objects. The clues should make the campers think, but don't make them so hard that the campers will get frustrated and not want to continue looking for the objects.

One last bit of trickery you can use is also a lot of fun. A few items I always put on a list are fish. If you don't have a body of water at your facility the kids sometimes ignore this item. However, the ones who are able to think out of the box usually do what is necessary to find a fish; that is, to draw one. The other item is a group picture. Again, for those campers who can think abstractly, they come up with a drawing of a group while others actually look and ask people if they have a photo picture of a group.

--Mitch Bernstein

Peanut Pal Week
At Long Lake Camp For The Arts a long-time tradition has been Peanut Pal Week. The entire camp -- staff and campers -- pick a peanut with another persons name stuffed in it.

Each person must do things special to their peanut pal -- make gifts in the shops, pick flowers, get their meals for them --in secret, often employing others to help them while keeping the secret.

At the end of the week we have a peanut pal dance where each person gets dressed up as their secret pal. Throughout the week there are numerous events that coordinate with the week such as peanut related meals, a peanut related movie, roasted nuts at a campfire, and golden peanuts spread around the grounds.

This event brings much love and togetherness to the camp. Kids love it and it helps to bring staff members, like kitchen and maintenance, into the fold and a valuable member of the camp, especially if done near the beginning of the season.

You must have "adopt a peanut pal" announcements and little things ready because there will always be some people left out. The camp also needs to have ideas to and get-togethers to allow kids with few ideas to spread the cheer -- perhaps some workshops where campers can make things for their peanut pals and help things along.

--Marc Katz is the owner of Long Lake Camp For The Arts in Long Lake, N.Y.


Capture the Flag, All Summer Long
Our day camp is split into groups according to their age. Once they have established their groups, each group decides on a group name and mascot.

Once everyone has agreed upon a name, they make group flags with the mascot and group motto on it. Throughout the summer we have a game of capture the flag going on between the groups.

Each group is awarded a point if them return to the closing ceremony with another group's flag. At the end of the summer the points are counted and the winning group(s) earn an ice cream party. This has been a big hit with our campers.

--Sara Perna

Age-Appropriate Activities
Often times campers ages 14-16 feel they are too old to be campers. Creating special programs just for the senior division can aid in keeping your kids enrolled until they are ready to become CITs.

For example, a separate dining area for seniors, where they play music and each evening a different group of seniors will DJ the music. The groups rotate and each camper has input as to the order of songs, which songs, and so forth.

For the younger children, perhaps a floating lunch on the lake. Campers sit in an inner tube and lunch is served on a surfboard. This is a bonding activity for a cabin group, lots of fun and the fish eat well afterward.

A most popular activity with our 7-12 year olds is Paint your Counselor. Campers use food items such as ice cream, hot fudge, carmel, strawberries, nuts, whipped cream, etc. Campers have to answer a question regarding counselor trivia and the first to answer correctly gets to bring their cabin group up to pour ice cream, etc., onto their favorite counselor or better yet, a director.

Counselors are all lined up sitting on a bench in front of the group. Campers who are not decorating at the moment are enjoying hot fudge sundaes.

--Nancy Oken Nighbert


Treasure Hunt
Another favorite activity utilized mostly as a special event is a treasure hunt. A set of clues is made up which basically sends every camper around your site. The more creative the clues and the more they have to think about where to go for the next clue, the better.

The culmination of the hunt can end in a couple of ways. One way is to include and actual treasure map in the last clue. This will take them to a general area where they are then told where to look for the buried treasure.

Directions from a starting spot take the camper in paces, north, east, south, and west until they reach a spot where they think the treasure is buried. Most often, they are off a little and then it's up to the counselors to give hints as to where the treasure actually is.

Another way to run the hunt is to have the campers perform a task at each clue location. This just puts a little fun into the mix. Tasks can include chewing bubble gum until the person can make a bubble, eating crackers and whistle, sing the national anthem, do 20 jumping jacks, etc. 

Again, the staff will make or break these events. Enthusiasm is the key. A motivated, energetic and committed staff will make any camp program and event an exciting part of the camp experience.

--Mitch Bernstein

Russian Baseball
Another game we play, which is wonderful for 60+ campers, playing together at one time, is Russian Baseball. Any number of people can participate. No strikes, no balls, no worries.

Camper number 1 steps up to swing (note that he's swinging, not necessarily batting).

Each camper gets one swing. As soon as the swing is complete, no matter if the ball is hit or not, the camper runs onto the playing field. He has 15 seconds to run, wherever he chooses, but cannot be tagged with the ball. Once the 15-second whistle has blown, the swinger and all other runners are safe and all campers on the field freeze.

Next swinger comes up and swings. Same thing. 15 seconds to run onto the field, all other teammates are also running around attempting to get to first base first, then second, then home without being tagged. The only base-touching rule is that it is in that order. The bases are set up anywhere on the field you wish, but far apart.

Once everyone of the team has had a chance to swing, they take the outfield and the new team comes up to bat. Runs are counted as each camper has successfully touched first base, second then home. This game is fast, exciting, with no one person to blame for strikes, walks, outs, etc. And great exercise for us directors who attempt to keep up!

--Nancy Oken Nighbert


Day Camp Olympics
Each summer we hold our annual Day Camp Olympics. Each group competes in a variety of activities which include:

·         Jousting -– I used a balance beam and pool noodles. This was a huge hit with the campers and counselors.

·         Sumo Wrestling -– I tied two pool inner tubes together for the campers to wear. This was enough protection for the campers in case they fell over.

·         Cake Eating Contest

·         Baby Bottle Drinking -– The campers participating in this event race to empty their bottle.

·         Potato Sack Race

·         Donut Challenge –- The campers participating in this event race to eat a donut covered in chocolate sauce tied to the end of a sting. This is difficult and messy but a lot of fun to watch!

·         Banana Challenge –- The campers participating in this event race to peel and eat a banana using only one hand.

·         Cheese Puff Challenge –- Two campers are required for this challenge. One camper has whipped cream on their face while the other camper throws cheese puffs and tries to get them to stick. The first group with five cheese puffs wins.

The challenges have always been a big hit with the campers. They look forward to all of the challenges and the awards ceremony. We award prizes for first through third place. At the end of the ceremony the counselors often participate in a few of the activities. It has always been really neat to see the campers cheering on the counselors.

--Sara Perna

Ice Breakers
It's great to plan camp-wide festivals or organize a sports tournament with a bunch of teams. Sometimes though, smaller programs provided the chance for participants to build a positive relationship with your camp and its programs. Here are some low-key, small-group programs to consider…

T-Shirt Icebreaker: How often have you gone to a meeting or program and someone slaps a piece of paper on your back with a famous person’s name on it? Then you're supposed to ask yes or no questions to find out your new identity. Let's face it. That icebreaker is overdone! Drop it from your repertoire!

Here's a different twist on getting to know people… Ask people to bring (or wear) a T-shirt that has special meaning to them. Then simply take turns sharing why the shirt is special. Some comments are funny, others sentimental.

Frozen T-Shirts: Speaking of T-shirts, here's a fun and easy to do team building activity. Depending on the size of your group, get a T-shirt for every four or five people. Ahead of time, soak the T-shirts and wad them up in a tight ball, then stick them in the freezer overnight. During the event, give each team a frozen T-shirt ball and see who can get their T-shirt defrosted enough so a team member can actually wear it. Only one rule… no water allowed. (This prevents everyone from going to the sink and running water on the shirt to defrost it.) Now, other liquids are allowed. You'll have people racing for hair dryers, throwing the frozen ball against walls, sitting on the frozen shirts, etc.

Beyond Hello: Of course you want people in your programs to interact with each other. Instead of asking everyone to simply shake hands with the person next to them, try this idea. Ask people to stand, look someone in the eye and introduce themselves while shaking hands. Do this to 8-10 people.  Now take it up a notch. Ask people to make eye contact and introduce themselves while giving each other a high five. By now people are pretty energetic. This time, ask people to introduce themselves to 8-10 people by saying their name while giving each other an over the back high five. For the final introduction, introduce yourself while making up your very own handshake. People will be smiling and ready to participate in any activity!

Rube Goldberg Inventions: You probably remember seeing pictures of Rube Goldberg's whimsical inventions. In order to wake a person up in the morning, he'd sketch a design where a string was attached to a cat's tail. As the cat moved, the string pulled the window blinds which triggered a lamp to fall, which landed on a bowling ball, which rolled over the sleeping person's head… guaranteed to wake him up.

For a fun, small group activity, have groups create their own Rube Goldberg inventions. Give each group a basic objective such as knocking down an empty soda can. Then provide an assortment of boards, string, balls, tape, toys, etc. Set a time limit for groups to create a chain-reaction invention that eventually knocks over the can. This is great for getting groups to interact with each other in a creative setting.

Name Tag Ice Breaker: As people arrive, give everyone a standard adhesive name tag. Provide the following directions…

In the upper left hand corner, write two things you enjoy doing in your spare time.

In upper right hand corner, write two of your favorite movies.

In the bottom left hand corner, write two of your favorite foods.

After the name tags are filled out, ask the group to mingle for 3-4 minutes, finding someone who enjoys the same things in their spare time as another person.

After chatting a few minutes, ring a bell to signal that people now need to find someone who likes the same movies as they do. Repeat by finding someone who likes the same foods. For a twist on this activity, ask people to find someone who is a direct opposite. For example, if a person enjoys rock climbing in their spare time, they find someone who enjoys crocheting. Then they talk about their respective hobbies.

--Silvana Clark has over 20 years of experience helping thousands of children create arts and crafts projects, and is a frequent speaker at camp and recreation conferences.

This game engages all players and requires just a basketball court (the more baskets, the better), a kickball that is small enough to go though a basket, as well as a first base, a second base, a third base, and a home plate.

Everyone on the kicking team is allowed only one pitch to kick the ball. This is done to increase the pace of the game. Each kicker can advance to a base until the fielding team can shoot and score at any basket on the court.

There are no outs kept but each half-inning is over when every player on the kicking team gets one kick at the plate. When the ball goes in the basket and the kicker is not on base, the kicker is out.

If the fielder misses the basket, the kicker can continue to the next base. To keep the fielding team on its toes, every fielder must rotate (as in volleyball) to a new location on the court after every kicker has a turn.

The object of the game is to score as many runs as possible and prevent the opposing from scoring in five innings of BasKickBall.

--Dr. Susan Langlois has 25 years of experience in higher education administration and teaching. She has taught sport venue management at Springfield College and the University of Connecticut and has served as a design consultant for facilities for many fitness, athletics and recreational programs. She has written numerous articles in the areas of camp and recreational programming.

--Craig Roderick has extensive experience in the field of health fitness, sport management and athletic training. He teaches sport venue management for Endicott College, has been part of several design teams for sport and recreation facilities, and has written numerous articles in the areas of camp and recreational programming.

Colorful Check-In
Though the following is something we use at soccer camp, it can be used at any type of camp… Each camper receives a colored name tag upon check in during the first day of camp. The campers are grouped by age and skill level, which is designated with a particular color.

The camp coach who will be working with the different groups also has a colored name tag. At the start of camp the campers are instructed to walk around and find all the other campers with the same colored tag and to then find their coach.

The process can take up to 30 minutes and the campers have a great time interacting with each and the excitement grows as they get closer and closer to find the entire group and eventually their coach.

The color remains with the teams for the entire camp. This process makes it easy to coordinate games, take attendance, and organize walks to lunch. On the last day of camp the campers make costumes which reflect their team pride and team colors!!!

-- Dr. Dina Gentile has successfully coached at the Division II and III collegiate level as well as with premiere youth teams. As the Endicott College women's soccer coach, Gentile has won five conference championships, participated in four NCAA Championships, and compiled a 142-67-7 record in 11 years. Gentile is the owner and director of Precision Soccer Camps, organizing soccer camps on Boston's North Shore for over ten years. Currently, she serves as the Player Development Officer for Beverly Youth Soccer.