Oh So Fine…

During the summer of 2005, the Boone County Parks Department office in Burlington, Kentucky received a strange call.

”I was fishing up there at Camp Ernst Lake and I don’t know if there’s something wrong with my eyes, but I think their trees are turning blue!”

There was nothing wrong with the fisherman’s vision. The trees were electric blue, but their transformation had nothing to do with nature.

The two (dead) 30-foot trees were group art pieces painted by campers and staff during week six of YMCA Camp Ernst’s dynamic Fine Arts program.

This new program is a different approach to the idea of “fine arts” and how it fits in resident summer camping.

The Big Idea

YMCA Camp Ernst’s Fine Arts program had its beginnings during the summer of 2004. Near the summer’s end, three of my college-aged friends and I approached our camp director Jon Perry about our new idea: we wanted to create a program which combined the unique aspects of summer camping, such as scale, nature, and fellowship and combine them with “fine arts.”

We told him the program would be different than other fine arts programs because it would be “extreme” and based on four founding principles:

1. Make it different than school

2. Set each camper up to succeed

3. Give each camper a “rock star” experience

4. Use art to teach teamwork and leadership

Roadmap To Success

After a while we convinced Perry, but he had a few requirements of his own:

1. The program must have tangible results. IE: Each child should feel that he or she accomplished something.

2. The program could not just be another specialty program. Each camper would have a chance to participate, so it had to be fun AND have universal appeal.

3. There must be a final presentation summing up the week and giving every kid that “rock star” experience.

After our meeting with Jon, we evaluated our strengths and pooled our individual talents. We decided to focus on re-inventing three genres: music, art and drama.

Each genre was “taught” by college student-aged counselors already working at YMCA Camp Ernst who had a special interest in the field. The counselors applied the “founding principles” to their genre and the result was fun, funny and exciting.

The Program

For the inaugural year (2005), each camper unit was assigned certain times during the week to visit the Fine Arts Area. For example, our 10-year-old girls had fine arts on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. On day one, they chose which club they wanted to attend and then spent the rest of the week working on their project.

Likewise, the counselors who were watching over the girl’s cabin could simply assist a member of the Fine Arts team OR lead their own Fine Arts club: such as creative writing, camp newspaper, or dance.

This allowed us to give the campers more diversity in their club choices and involve the counselors so they would buy into the new program.

Drama Problems (and Solutions)

Invariably, when drama is taught at summer camp the focus is on skits, drama games, or plays. Our drama teachers Caroline Creaghead and Phil LaVelle only met with their group three times for 45 minutes so the kids could not perform a play.

“Even if the skits had a lot of audience participation, no one could hear the skits, the kids would get nervous and they always had problems actually being funny, entertaining and audible,” LaVelle said.

Phil and Caroline realized they weren’t setting the kids up to succeed.

Their solution was to film the campers and make movies. If the campers were nervous, it didn’t matter. They could do as many takes as they needed. Using a Macintosh computer with the free program iMovie, Phil and Caroline edited the footage using slow motion and funny music. The camper movies quickly became the hit of camp. Instead of being nervous and mumbling through a skit, the campers felt like movie stars when their images were projected onto a giant screen as the entire camp watched.

Each week, four approximately two-minute-long movies were produced. Phil and Caroline would start with a basic theme such as a “Western.” The first day, the campers worked as a team to create a general outline/script for their movie. The next day, they filmed the movie and edited. On the final day, they filmed any extra shots and played drama games.

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