Designing A Camp Program

This past summer I sent out a new curriculum for camps to consider. It included activities for counselors to help campers learn and practice the skills required to make friends. The concepts were well received. I learned which activities were judged the easiest to implement, and which were viewed as too complicated. I was shocked, however, by the most common remark of the camp directors I interviewed: “We can’t tell our counselors to do specific activities.”

My first thought was, “Who’s the boss at your camp? What do you mean you can’t tell counselors what to do?” Fortunately, I didn’t say it out loud. From their viewpoint, they were powerless. Apparently their schedules are either too rigid (no time for counselors to do anything with their cabins), or too loose (kids do whatever they want every day). But the result is the same–counselors don’t have any time to just “do stuff” with their campers, and the directors don’t think they have the ability to change that.

Mixing Up The Mindset

Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, so?” Your camp schedule is perhaps the only one it’s ever been, and what’s popular today is either a really strict schedule (where everything is done by cabin groups rotating between scheduled activities–one hour at archery, one hour at canoeing), or “free-range campers,” (where the kids pick their own activities each day).

The schedules seem vastly different, but they’re actually built on the same idea: Create one schedule that requires little or no daily preparation by the counselors, and stick to it all summer. You would be surprised how many camps use one or the other, and staunchly defend their choice (even though their reasons–like their programs–are polar opposites.)

Lifelong Skills Or Mediocre Memories

Take a look at your own program schedule and see not only its strengths, but its weaknesses. Can kids do an activity often enough during a week that they actually learn a lifetime recreational skill, like canoeing or archery? Or do they get just a taste and the same taste next year, and the same the next year?

Years ago, kids learned skills at camp that lasted their whole lives. Some campers didn’t want to just “shoot bows and arrows,” but wanted to hit the target, then hit the bulls-eye, and then use the “good” bows. And they didn’t want to just splash around in a canoe; they wanted to learn to make it go straight like that good-looking instructor could. They practiced the bow stroke, the j-stroke, the draw; they prepared for the big race. They were the leaders when their cabins went on a canoe overnight. But they could do that because there was a canoeing class, with an instructor who taught a curriculum of skill development and mastery.

A few years later, those campers taught canoeing to others. Then maybe some took a date for a canoe ride at college. And eventually they may have taken their own children on family canoe trips and built lifelong memories, strong bonds, a love for the outdoors and good health. The same was the case for crafts, nature observation, dancing, fishing, volleyball and outdoor cooking. Each year, millions of kids learned enough about a new hobby not only to want to do it again, but to be able to do it again.

But that’s fairly rare these days. We don’t so much as teach at camp as we “schedule.” We move kids safely from one area to another, one activity to another. We do the planning and set the rules (including strict time limits), and do the same thing every day, every week, every year. Kids aren’t expected to want to learn; we’re happy if they just show up. No wonder it becomes more difficult each year to find camp staff who can teach skills. They never learned them at camp themselves.

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