We spend way too much time keeping campers busy in activities. Not that having new stuff every year isn’t valuable, or making camp “fun” isn’t a worthy goal. But, by themselves neither will bring your campers back. “Fun,” as it turns out, is a commodity like milk. Kids can get it from a lot of different places and one “fun” can be pretty much like another.
“Blasphemy!” you say. “Our evaluation forms all say kids love the fun at our camp!” Yes, and they love the fun at other camps, too. And they love playing X-Box and hanging out at the mall. Ask the campers who returned for a second year or more and you’ll get just one answer: “I came back for the friends.” Yet when I tour camps, and ask them what they do to specifically help kids make friends, I find out why the average camper return rate is so low. We think it happens automatically.
That was pretty much true for decades. But in our effort to be safer at camps, our risk-managers have eliminated many of the times and places where kids and counselors use to make friends. We’ve taken out a lot of the “down time” where they use to sit and talk with each other. We prevent kids and staff from being alone together. We fill the days with activities so kids can’t “get into trouble.” These are all worthy goals and I’m as glad as any parent that camps are safer. But as camp professionals, we should be smart enough to figure out how to do both.
Encouraging Friend Making
Here’s an example. Most camps have either a high or low ropes course, or both. We give groups of kids fun, even thrilling experiences there. But if you ask the best ropes course instructors where the most important learning takes place, they’ll tell you it’s in the “debriefing” after each initiative. But watch your own staff in action and you’ll often find they cut that part short or skip it all together to get on to the next event.
Marc Gravitz, a renowned facilitator visited my course and said, “If a challenge course activity has been successful, the debriefing time may last twice as long as the event itself. But looking at your course, how would I know that was the goal?”
We had no specific places for the debriefing to take place. Taking Marc’s advice, we added circles of benches near each challenge-course activity. The participants were eager to have a place to sit and the circle automatically kept everyone involved. As a result, our instructors could sense when the discussion in the group was more important than going on to the next challenge. Overnight people began to treat each other differently. When they got back to the dining hall they couldn’t stop talking. They’d learned about each other, and they were becoming friends.
Change the Direction
Kids today do few things where they face each other. They’ve always faced forward in the school bus and in the classroom, but now they sit side by side and face a video or computer screen when they get home, too. Mom drives them to activities (no more walking) where instead of deciding how to pick teams and agree on the rules in a vacant lot, they sit on the bench and wait for their coach to rotate them into the game. Then home again in the minivan. More than ever, kids need the times and places where they can sit, face each other, and talk about the activities they’ve just shared. Otherwise, they haven’t shared anything.
How does this apply to your camp? Let’s take a tour, starting with your cabins. Is there anywhere in your cabins where kids can play cards? (Four kids don’t fit on one bunk). How about a small picnic table in the middle of the room or on the porch? Is there time during the day when they could sit around it and play cards or checkers? Just imagine if every cabin had one of those big carpet checkerboards like you find at Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores and a deck of cards. Kids would be making friends, just like YOU did when you were a kid, or in college.
Where do kids line up and wait at your camp? Outside the dining hall? At the Trading Post? Outside the pool or waterfront? If you had picnic tables there kids could be facing each other, sitting as cabin groups, sharing snacks and stories and laughs. Every picnic table is a clubhouse with a hundred uses. Drill a hole in it, add an umbrella and it looks like a resort!
Compare your camp web site to “resort” web sites. Most of those sites aimed at adults will have an almost identical picture of two Adirondack chairs facing a great, relaxing view. You can just see yourself sitting in one of those chairs and talking with someone, can’t you? So where are those chairs at your camp? Don’t your campers think of camp as their summer vacation? Don’t they want a break from the hectic pace of school? Just look at some of the accompanying photos of camps whom have added “gathering spots” around camp and you know instinctively how they’ll be used.
Friend Making Games
Did you play kickball or baseball as a kid? You know one reason they’re so popular? Because you spend half the time watching the game and talking to the other kids on your team! But what your camp probably doesn’t have are the dugout benches where that can happen. (Again, you can’t beat picnic tables; and an igloo cooler of water makes it a natural gathering area. To make it perfect, put it in the shade – trees if you’ve got them, or a vinyl-tent “carport” if you don’t.) It’s not the game that makes the friendship it’s the time talking about the game with new friends that makes it a lasting memory.
One of the best friend-making activities of all time is four square. Only four kids are on the court, but dozens more can be in a line circling them waiting their turn. They’re commenting on the game, learning the rules and techniques, telling stories, idolizing mentors and inspiring young ones. Each camper village and every “waiting” area should have at least one four square court and ball-holder where staff get the game started any spare minute.
There’s No Time Like The Present
Why talk about these things this time of year? Because it’s the perfect time to build them! The fall is especially perfect for getting volunteers and alumni out to camp for workdays. The weather’s great, camp looks good, the bugs are leaving, and you’ve got leftover food you can feed them! None of these things are particularly expensive. A donation from a board member, volunteer or parent of $100 is enough to build a picnic table with their name routed on it. But if you put it off until next summer, you’re likely to be too busy to get around to it and your campers will again have fun without the lasting friendships that make the memories last… and invite them to return to your camp year after year.
Gary Forster is a graduate architect and the camping specialist for YMCA of the USA. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.