“It’s time to vote,” “You’re fired!” “Will you accept this rose?” are phrases that have become a big part of our recent television and pop culture.
How do camps turn these themes into programming that helps us to bridge children from the television and into the natural, magical world of camp?
I like to think it is by taking TV shows, movies and popular fads and re-constructing them to represent the values and good choices we want kids to have growing up.
Through doing this, we are able to attract children to our camps, and most importantly, we achieve taking what is familiar and popular for the kids and use it to teach them values and decision-making skills, while constantly exposing them to the magical world of camping.
The television show Survivor is one of the most popular television shows in the world. In it participants, lie, deceive, compete and strategize to vote others off, with the goal to be the last one standing at the end.
Last summer, we decided to take the show and create a camp program that would teach the four core values and create a team respect and environment. To succeed we also needed to make the program as familiar to the kids as the television show.
For six months the staff not only created a new voting structure, but decided to film the entire camp experience. We built a tribal council ring, built challenges around the camp like the show and involved local sponsors in helping us to create rewards that would amaze the participants.
Campers who signed up received a confirmation letter of burned parchment. On check-in day they immediately spent the next day and half in survivor training school, where they were taught fire building, orienteering, knot tying and shelter building.
The skills taught in the training school were skills the campers would need during their council competitions and their reward competitions.
The premise of our version of Survivor was character. The campers were informed that they would be competing as teams to get to tribal council. The goal was to get there; the goal in the entire game is to get votes.
Unlike the show, where getting votes is a bad thing until the last vote, in this program the campers are looking for votes, and the only way to get them is by being a good person and displaying character throughout the entire game.
At council each team member casts two votes — one for themselves, and the second for someone they felt displayed the best character, and whom they felt helped the team in any way.
The votes were read at every tribal council. On the first day of camp all campers are given the opportunity to place one vote into the voting box for themselves.
On the last night of the program, the three campers with the most votes are announced and allowed to say whom they would vote for to be the ultimate Survivor other than themselves. The rest of the campers are the jury and a final vote is cast.
The camper with the most votes is announced as the ultimate Survivor and as a reward receives a free week of camp the following summer.
The Survivor Effect
The amazing effects of this program were many… We encountered no discipline problems in this program at all, the campers worked harder at getting along and communicating than I have seen in most programs, the campers treated everyone well — not only their tribe — because of the program design. The kids came up with the rule that other than actual challenges, the game was off when in camp.
Camper cliques were not a problem, and unlike the television show there were no alliances or deceiving taking place. Campers spoke about character and values all week long and discussed how and when they show people displaying aspects of good character. Sportsmanship was at the highest level at all times.
The difficult aspect of the program was the amount of detail involved. Setting up two challenges a day was difficult and we quickly realized how many non-counselor staff was needed to make the days work.
The lesson learned was the effect on the campers when you do get the details done. The constructed challenges were amazing and the campers responded to them.
We built a 14-foot-tall tower that the campers had to find and tie on the ladder rungs, five foot by five foot word searches, box puzzles and a 12-foot-tall teeter-totter.
Using the teeter totter we were able to re-create the survivor challenge where participants build a fire in a bucket on one side and then race to fill a bucket with water on the other side, thereby lifting the fire bucket into the air to burn a rope that is stretched ten feet above.
To make the challenge safe, we bolted the bucket into place, only allowed one team to compete at a time, and the team had to be separated into water and fire, which controls running around the entire structure. We had an area below the fire bucket that was a no-stand zone, along with extra staff supervision to add to the safety.
There were also challenges that were not so elaborate, but involved the camp itself: Canoe relays, flag hunts, all-camp relays, orienteering challenges, climbing, swimming, and so on.
In one challenge, a canoe, paddles, and life jackets were hidden all over camp. The campers had to find each item and the portages them to the lake and then compete in a floating buoy obstacle course.
Reward challenges were created as to motivate the campers and to amaze them. Outback Steakhouse donated a free dinner to the winning tribe at the restaurant, and Max and Erma’s donated an all-you-can-eat sundae bar for the winning tribe at the restaurant, to name a couple.
My favorite reward challenge was a simple one… The Survivors had to spend the evening making bracelets. In the morning they had to sell the bracelets to the youngest campers in camp (who were supplied with Survivor Dollars). The raised Survivor Dollars was then used for a dessert auction.
Throughout the week video footage was shot at all points. The video was edited and used to create a program DVD that was shown at the parent program and then given to every camper at the end of the program. It was amazing to see the parent’s reaction when they were able to see the entire experience of their campers.
The success of the program has been huge. We had only planned on running the program one week, but we were forced to run two based on the number of people wanting in.
This summer we plan on running our Ultimate Character Survivor program again, along with our evening big games based on Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, and will now be launching a Great Quest Program based on popular themes from: Indiana Jones, Treasure hunting shows and The Amazing Race television show.
Again, we are looking at ways of taking these popular identities and converting them into fun, magical, character-building programs for the campers.
This theme-based program building is not only a lot of work, but also a lot of fun for the staff. It allows opportunity to involve their ideas into program and builds a stronger staff team at the end. Good luck with your program.
Jeff Merhige is the executive director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio.