It is the community feel that distinguishes camps from one another. Each one is unique and made up of traditions, games, ceremonies or even camp jargon that kids remember and pass on to other campers.
One aspect of programming that some camps use is the all-camp Big Game or special event activity, which also works well for day camps.
Big Games are different from the traditional activity programming that is offered to children. Campers are usually divided into smaller groups and get to experience archery, arts and crafts, field games, nature, climbing, and so on.
Big Games can bring the entire camp together to experience a unique form of programming that encompasses hundreds of campers at a time and gives the counselors an opportunity to work together on a shared project.
Camp directors need to remember that role modeling for campers is not focused on the senior staff alone. Campers come into contact with all ages at camp. The how and when is normally designed by the program director.
The merging of ages in activities can be very positive if structured and supervised, and made easier by professional role models, your camp staff.
The Right Combo
To enhance your camp culture, provide the opportunity for older campers to have the ability to work with younger campers. It creates closeness in the camp and a role-modeled progression throughout the program.
All-camp games allow younger campers to see how older campers play, and provide for them a sense of achievement that they are playing the same game as older campers. Younger campers have met and want to be like older campers… Older campers remember that there is a responsibility that comes with having younger kids around.
Now on to the games! Most camps have similar programming. The golden oldies that most camps play in variations includes Capture the Flag, Counselor Hunt and Dutch Auction, to name a few.
The real fun, and the real indelible memories, comes from going beyond the basics and in order to include more imagination, more decision-making, more characters, and more winners. Games that encompass the entire staff, and all the campers, are easy to create if you follow a few steps:
1. Choose the story or theme for the game. All great games have a story line or theme — Wizard of Oz Day, Harry Potter Day, Medieval Day, Paul Bunyan Day, Pirates, Gold Rush, and others… Big event games can follow along with a day’s theme or stand alone as an evening or afternoon activity.
But to make it fun, first sit down and discuss the theme and brainstorm the story. Look for the details… What was the name of the pirate who came to camp and buried his gold? Why did he do it? Who was after him? Who were his crew? Why did he end up at camp? A great technique is to try storyboarding, which in our case at Camp Kern is the use of index cards and ideas to lay out the game.
Let no idea be squashed at this point in the process. It is important to get team input to get buy-in from those selected to help plan.
Any experienced program director remembers the program in their past that didn’t go well! Let’s avoid that by getting more people involved. This increases dedication and commitment to the game.
Another way to increase your chances for a successful game is to take themes that are in line with current themes in kids’ lives. This allows campers to identify easier with the characters and their objectives.
We created our Harry Potter Day game a few years ago and updated it with a Chamber of Secrets version this past summer. In addition, we created Pirates, which was perfect timing with the releases of some new pirate-theme movies. The flexibility and ease with which campers and staff identify with the project adds to its possible success.
2. Choose the type of Big game. Is this going to be an all-day theme game? Afternoon all-camp or evening activity?
It is important to decide the timing allotted to the game. The timing of the game allows the planning team to think of ways to build up anticipation and education for the game for the kids. An all-day game should start building up the day before. Here at Camp Kern, when we run our Harry Potter day, the campers receive acceptance letters to Hogwarts the night before. The letter outlines the basics of the day to follow after their sorting ceremony at flag raising.
The morning wake-up is the theme music from the movies over the camp’s PA system! For an evening game we introduce the concept of the game by dinner time. Counselors answer questions over dinner, or a skit might be put on for the kids during the meal.
3. Create from the eyes of a camper. With the storyline in place and the length of the game decided, brainstorm what the campers are going to do from start to finish. Plan each step from the campers’ perspective. How do you know what to do? Who do I travel with? Where do I go, and how do I know where to go? What is my goal? How will I know it’s over? What will it be like as the youngest camper? The oldest?
Use the story board to see how a cabin group or single camper will navigate the game from first instructions to roll call at the end. The details are important at this point in order to understand what they need to make it successful and fun for them.
Ask yourself, “What’s fun at this point?” While planning a new pirate’s game here at camp we used a wall for storyboarding. Then we took a card representing the cabin group and moved it from start to finish, stopping along the way to discuss what will happen at each point.
There were pirates who were selling items the kids needed, pirates giving clues to solve the map riddles, and of course, black beards ghosts trying to delay their journey and get their gold!
We changed our minds as the creative juices starting flowing. We spent nearly an hour changing up the rotation of the game to meet the progression of the story. Again, allow all ideas to be heard. Keep camper safety and ease of understanding in front of the process at all times.
4. Plan and hide the logistics. Now it’s time to create the magic. Look at each point of the camper progression and ask your planning team, “What is needed to make this experience actually happen?”
This is where staffing, props, decorations, written materials, emergency communication and first aid, roll call for campers, and all the other details happen. You must see what characters will need to make the story come to life.
What do the counselors need to know to be informed and prepared to play their role in the game? For Harry Potter day and Pirates, all counselors receive a character packet. In it is a list of the rules, suggested character profile to help them get into the part, gold doubloons, clues to give kids and a quick reminder of where the children should be going after they see them. The biggest disaster in a big game is when the characters (staff) do not know where to send the kids after they come to them!
Some staff acts as wandering characters. Theses characters have two roles:
1) Give clues to campers
2) Provide wandering supervision as the game proceeds
The greatest part of big games to kids is the perceived freedom to play a game as a cabin group. The youngest children are assigned CITs or older campers in our leader-in-training program to move through the game with them.
Older cabins move as cabin groups. The wandering characters and staff at all stations and on the boundaries provide all the supervision necessary to ensure a safe game, but the feeling of “freedom” the campers get adds to the memory of the event.
The Golden Rule of Logistics is to ensure the camper’s knowledge of how to play the game! The worst big game theme days and special activities were the ones where the children did not understand the rules, and made worse when they sought out answers from staff and only two or three people truly understood the game!
Make the rules simple to understand and break the game and characters down so that staff knows the game, but only needs specifics for certain parts.
On Pirates day, staff are assigned to stations and or wandering characters. Everyone understands that the kids meet with wandering characters to get clues and beads. They then go to the stations to exchange them for gold. Great! Not everyone memorizes what the station leaders need to know to exchange the beads for gold, sell certain items that are necessary for the kids to have, and point them to their next destination to earn a map piece.
To educate the kids, think of a few ways to get the basics of the game communicated before you actually play the game. Do not try to teach a new game on the athletic field just before you play it!
All of us camp professionals have memories of sitting for an hour or more after dinner trying to explain the game we are supposed to try and play before the sun goes down! Here, we are fans of surprising the kids with letters in their cabins.
Theme letters, if it’s Pirates day for instance, are then written in the way a pirate would speak. Alien Hunt? Written by the MIB Headquarters at Area 51! Harry Potter Day, Kern Branch of Hogwarts School. The Under Siege Game, written by the United Nations Special Operations Headquarters! The point is to make even the introduction and first explanation sheet fun!
The kids will read their letters and then be able to talk to their counselor about it! The counselor should already know how to play the game and be able to talk with their cabin.
Later, the kids will hear the rules again, and then a refresher just before starting the game. We try and educate the campers on the game at least three ways or times before actually playing.
Do not forget to discuss sportsmanship at the individual counselor level and the all-camp explanation! It is always explained that failure to display sportsmanship and the four values will affect their scores, receive demerits (Harry Potter), or other consequences. In addition, acts of kindness and true sportsmanship will be rewarded!
Whenever possible, plan these games weeks in advance to provide your staff the chance to get the clothes or costumes they will need for the big event.
For our Pirate game, everything from creative gold doubloons to pirate maps (dipped in tea and edges burned) had to be created and placed throughout the game stages.
Staff knew about the game for two weeks. On their time off they bought, created or found all types of props for the big day. The makeup work was amazing and some of them looked as though they had just walked off a real pirate ship.
It was fun for the staff and the obvious effort in the costumes and props added to the campers’ and staff experience.
Harry Potter day is another day where the counselors will read the book in advance of the game to get the aspects of their character down to the smallest detail. When Camp Kern plays Under Siege (a four-way version of Capture the Flag and Counselor Hunt) the entire camp transforms into four army bases!
The story is brought to life for the campers to experience, enhanced by everyone involved, costumes, props and details will create a memorable camp community moment that will stay with your staff and campers for years.
Jeff Merhige is the executive director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio.