Over the past several years, summer camps have reached a crossroads in the digital era where tradition meets technology. For the true-blue traditionalists, camp policy dictates that campers must not pack their beloved devices, untethering children from the fast-paced routine they endure at home in exchange for the opportunity to “plug in” to nature. Leading trust walks through the woods, these directors go to great lengths to steward their campers through the serene surroundings of camp.
For the 21st-century pioneers, camp-wide wi-fi has been installed, and underutilized spaces at camp are converted to audio/video recording and editing suites complete with a variety of computers and equipment to produce high-quality reminders of their stay at camp while bluetooth speakers pump music into the dining hall from a thoughtfully planned playlist on the program director’s iPhone.
As these belief systems barrel down the path towards your camp full speed for a head-on collision, an opportunity appears. Maybe, just maybe, there is a chance for coexistence, a symbiosis of nostalgia and innovation. In order for the digital and the natural to find agreement, an objective leader must emerge; one who can identify with campers and their desire to connect with the goods and the woods.
During my years as a leader at camp, I witnessed the strategic implementation of traditional activities when many camps were leaning towards modern advances, and vice versa. A few summers back, we added archery to the menu of programs. Stepping back from this decision, many will say “don’t most camps have archery as an option?” For many camps, the answer is that they do. What they may have missed is how the program team incorporated technology and accessibility to bring this element of camping to today’s campers.
At the archery range, you will find what one would come to expect. Targets are hung in a lean-to. A firing line is established in keeping with industry recommendations. A shed full of bows, arrows, and a first-aid kit is nearby. What you might not expect to see is what makes this program area so special. A photographer captures images of arrows in flight launched from adaptive bows, oriented horizontally in the lap of a child to allow for greater control and interaction. Moving targets led by pulleys and clotheslines increase the challenge for all. Archers are given the opportunity to take photographs, learn not only about the basics of the activity, but perhaps the proverbial ABCs of photography: aperture, back lighting, and color balance.
This alteration to the norm allows this particular camper an opportunity to do something that they might not before have considered, as he has Muscular Dystrophy. His muscle tone is diminished and drawing a bow in the typical fashion proves difficult. With this creative intervention, he can now participate alongside his peers, building confidence and a new skill simultaneously while building on an already existing love for photography.
The programming takeaway message here is to be an innovator and a constant evaluator. We must always assess and re-assess what makes a camp vital and engaging for campers.
Clean Up The Clutter
But then I realized this doesn’t just apply to programming. While attending a convention a in 2012, Gary Forster led a session on camp facilities. While dispensing advice on a variety of practical solutions for the physical maintenance of camp, one point resonated above all others—Keep an eye out for the invisible garbage.
As camp professionals, we are so absorbed in every facet of our camps that we sometimes become part of the landscape. As much as a camper or returning staff member might look forward to seeing the ropes course or the lake, they too look for you in their mental picture of what camp looks like. What we also miss so often in the mental picture are the unpleasant reminders of unfinished projects, eyesores that turn into landmarks, and accepted circumstances that deserve attention.
When Forster mentioned ‘invisible garbage’ he was not referring to a pile of trash that had gained some sort of Harry Potter-esque status. He meant the things that we overlook because we have accepted that
they will always be there. For me, it was an old overhead projector. As one of many random in-kind donations accepted over the years at camp, a classroom overhead projector had arrived and never found a useful role. It had been shuttled from storage closet to stage area, from the basement of an office to the bottom of a box and there it remained for 6 months at the entrance to a camper cabin.
Every morning, I would look at it, sigh, and make a mental note to find a new home for it. There was a positive though. It was a cycle of self-disappointment that generated an opportunity. It opened my eyes not to a purposeful future for the projector, but to a new way of thinking. How many times had I noticed something that failed to meet my expectations at camp? Were there things that I settled for because that was just the way they were? I had let invisible garbage get the better of me for too long and it was time to face it squarely. I threw away the projector and put together a plan.
The first step in my invisible garbage battle was to get to know my camp again. I went on a tour with a volunteer who regularly led tours to see camp through a different lens. My life at camp was always in a rush so I tried hard to go slow, and consider the perspective of different stakeholders. How would a parent view this activity? Would a child respond favorably to how we eat lunch? How long has that laundry cart been sitting there?
The next step was to categorize the areas of improvement. I focused on three logical headings:
For the people, I considered the quality of the interactions between staff member and staff member, staff members and campers, and campers and campers. I noted how respectful each one was, how careful they were with each other’s feelings, and how they grew to understand one another. Effort was made to share these observations informally when we crossed paths in the dining hall late at night or in a more concrete fashion during one-on-one meetings.
To best understand the places of my camp, I studied how they were used and what needed attention. Devising a simple Excel spreadsheet to capture a growing list of facility-based concerns, I was able to communicate, prioritize, and track the progress of a variety of small, medium, and large projects ranging from simple touch-up painting to much more intense, expensive capital projects. I monitored how spaces were incorporated not only into the summer camp program, but how they either dovetailed into or out of shoulder season programs. This gave project planning parameters for the facilities team who managed much of the on-site improvements. It also forecasted potential scheduling conflicts for user groups, volunteer work days and other schedule-dependent activities in preparation for the cornerstone summer camp program.
When it came to the stuff, I participated in the most cathartic process possible. With the help of my colleague, the program director, we surveyed the grounds in a pick-up truck and started to dispatch the unnecessary and cluttersome items that held the camp back from an efficient and attractive appearance. We treated this like what one might see on a home-improvement show. We created three areas for trash, keeping, and re-purpose. What remained was a clean and user-friendly program area storage space along with a streamlined collection of usable supplies. It felt good.
Whether it is facing the inclusion of technology or minimizing invisible garbage, know that change is good, as is respecting the folklore and history of a camp. Be mindful of innovation and tradition and offer campers opportunities to grow wherever possible.
Considerations Before Change:
- Timing is everything. Consider the impact on the program and the people. How much of an intrusion or a solution will innovation create? What are the advantages of permitting campers the use of electronics? Make sure that you factor in the age of your camper and give thought to where and when devices may be permitted. Also, make it clear to staff members that they are always on the clock as role models. If a counselor is on his or her phone at the ropes course, the kids will notice.
- Knowledge is power. Perhaps you are overlooking an opportunity to learn something. The camper who has their earbuds in might not be introverted or tuning you out. They may have a strong interest in music or poetry and allowing them to listen may help them connect with activities, other kids and you. It might just create that Aha! moment you and your camper have been looking for all summer.
- Tranquility for some is noise for others. A peaceful lake for early morning fishing might appeal to you as a source of calm in the beautiful chaos of summer, but for your camper it might be stressful. Giving your camper a chance to be themselves might mean some loud headphones during rest time.
- Look yourself in the eye. What are you willing to sacrifice for the success of the camp? Have the guts to self-evaluate your stance on innovation and the positive impact it can have on the camp, the staff members and the campers. Take a deep breath and ask yourself what you can to do to continue to motivate, inspire, and grow your camp community.
John Lefner is the director of operations at the Saratoga Independent School in Saratoga Springs, NY. Prior to joining the school, he was the assistant director of operations at Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, NY and provided leadership to various YMCA branches and camps in Florida and Rhode Island. Reach him at email@example.com.