Who Did We Build It For?

The problem with most summer camps is that they are built by a bunch of middle-aged men (I’m allowed to say that because I am one of them), and our customers, for the most part, are 4’1” and under (I am assuming that the average 9-year-old is about that height).

Go check out your camp from a child's perspective.

How do I know that this is a problem?

Two ways:

One, in my 15+ years in the summer camp industry, I have sat in on many strategic planning sessions, looked at the layout and design of camp properties, and walked around camp with many donors and high-level leaders.

In all this time, I have never had a 9-year-old with me for any of the planning sessions, any of the stressful days looking at blueprints or during the walk-around with the donors.

Why is that?

I’m sure this doesn’t apply to you, but maybe this article is more of a kick in the pants for me to say, “Why would I ever design something for a particular group of people (9-year-olds) and not consult them on what they wanted?”

The second way that I know we have a problem is that I have walked around camps (my camp included). Have you ever looked at your camp from the vantage point of a 9-year-old? It is different. They are much shorter.

I think of basketball courts that I have seen at almost every camp. Most camps I have visited have a basketball court, which is not a bad thing, but the problem is that the goals are 10 feet tall and they are not adjustable.

Do you know what percentage of 9-year-olds can consistently make a basket on a 10-foot goal? 3 percent (I did the research).

This means that 97 percent of our 9-year-olds who are playing basketball at camp are not making a basket.

In case there was confusion, the point of basketball is to make a basket.

Here is the equation I used to make a change to the basketball court at my camp:

Problem: 9-year-old + 10-foot basketball goal = no fun for 9-year-old

Solution: 9-year-old + adjustable basketball goal = super fun time for 9-year-old

I have heard research that says the retention rate for first-time campers 8 and younger is around 30 percent, but for first-time campers 10 and older the retention rate goes up to 60 percent.

We can make some arguments about the social aspect of camp being more suited to older kids, but maybe part of the problem is that even though we think our camp is built for kids, it might not be.

What is in place at your camp that might not be that kid-friendly (or parent-friendly)?

It could be the size of the equipment, the scariness of the woods, bathrooms that aren’t in the cabins, or rules we have in place for using different activity areas of camp.

I am not saying that we need to change everything at our camps, but it would be a good idea to hear the perspective of our camp from the eyes of a 9-year-old.

Yes, I will be doing my next board recruitment trip at a third-grade classroom.

Dave Bell has directed day and resident camp programs for more than 15 years. Currently, he is the Executive Director of Camping Services for the YMCA of Greater Seattle. He is a former American Camp Association Southeast Section board member, a certified Y-USA Day Camp Director Trainer and a Y-USA partner YMCA camp consultant. Reach him via e-mail at dbell@seattleymca.org.

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7 comments on “Who Did We Build It For?

  1. Dan Zenkel on said:

    Great article. I’d love to hear some other examples aside from just adjustable basketball hoops and cabins with bathrooms.

  2. Gary Forster on said:

    Architects can be part of the problem (I can say that because I spent 5 years in school to become one.) Dave’s most important concept: We need to talk less and listen more. I was just at a camp planning session with an architect who actually said, I kid you not, “We are not going to let our customers define our aesthetics.”

  3. Keith Hadigate on said:

    Good article.
    I agree, “One size does not fit all.”
    In planning our programmes, how often do we take into account age and gender characteristics. We need to taylor our programmes, our activities, even many of our facilities to be age and gender appropriate.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Zack Smith on said:

    Enjoyed the article Dave.

  5. Great timing for me on this article! I have a meeting on the 19th to discuss the development of some property we have. Guess who is not on the committee? No youth or teens…might have to work on that part!

  6. James Davis on said:

    Nice article! Couldn’t agree more. Out of curiosity, where do you get your data on retention rates for various aged campers? I’m currently constructing a tool to help camps figure out how to monetize their retention rates and haven’t come across any tangible studies on those numbers. Thanks!

  7. dave bell on said:

    Hey guys,
    Thanks for all the great comments! My perspective on how a camp is designed is based on two things: 1. Gary Forster who made me look at everything differently at camp (http://garyforster.com) and Ideo (http://ideo.com), the design company, who does extensive research in the habits of customers. I think one the best things we can do is observe the habits of our customers to see where our gaps might be in how we design facilities and programs. Thanks again for the feedback!

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