Programming with a Theme

Jeff Merhige

The positives for a child who attends a summer camp experience are widely known. Children and youth develop independence, self-esteem, and confidence; they experience positive role model influences; they make friends; and they learn new skills and have new experiences in a safe environment. In recent years, camps have also been asked to focus on improving educational benefits to stay relevant for today’s kids. In response, pop culture and literary-themed camp programs that encourage reading, critical thinking, and character development have evolved.

A Summer Learning Solution

With addressing summer learning loss a high priority for parents, there is an opportunity for camps to use their unique settings to help kids gain knowledge and learning. Camps with pop culture or literary-themed programming are on the rise, and they combine educational goals with the magic of summer camp. The popularity of great books, iconic pop culture brands, and great storytellers combine with the natural wonder of camp to ignite the imagination and enhance summer learning potential.

Learning in natural, relaxed settings (like camp!), is proven to boost focus and problem-solving abilities (UC Davis, 2013), and camp provides the outside experiences kids seem to be lacking in our new technology- and indoor activity–based norms. At literary- and pop culture–themed camps, campers are being encouraged in lessons of character development, reading, math skills, and fun. Meal times become book discussions and activities become learning and skill exercises.

And to the campers, all this learning is fun! Imagine the thrill a camper feels at the opportunity to bring his or her favorite books, movies, and/or television series to life. The idea of traveling to a galaxy far, far away, exploring a world of wizards or demigods, or joining the Rangers of Aurelian in missions can become a reality at camp.

Preparation

The preparation begins for thousands of excited children as summer approaches. Camps must think through the processes of the program, facility, and staff readiness. The school classroom is on break and the natural classroom is in session. How do we make our camps ready to teach these new lessons in our natural setting?

First, camp directors need to choose the stories or themes they plan to bring to life. Choose a popular theme or story with a positive base message — one that can be converted into value-teaching activities and games, is appropriate and fun. Campers need to understand the higher societal message within the story and be able to relate; otherwise, the theme — no matter how popular it is — will not benefit the child or the camp. For example, Hunger Games may be popular, but it does not provide an opportunity for positive youth development experiences. Survivor, on the other hand, is a game show where people vote each other out, but in camp we can change that to a vote for people while keeping the activity/team-challenge premise of the game as part of camp programming.

Second, design a storyboard to outline how the program will run and which games will be used to create a full and dynamic experience for the campers. Look at a normal week of camp activities and overlay the story themes and activities. What fits? What can be themed and converted? What needs to be added to bring the story to life for the kids? What new games or quests need to be added?

Third, determine what facility changes, if any, are needed to help set the environment for the kids. Most of the time, camps can achieve this with decorating and signs. But for the more ambitious, building a “tribal council ring,” a Quidditch field, or maybe even chariots for kids to race will help create the setting.

Last, hire staff that are first and foremost going to be great counselors. But for full-immersion, weeklong programs, hire staff interested in playing a role the whole week while also being a counselor and helping to bring a story to life for kids. We have found drama students, education majors, English majors, and counselors who are fans of the story or theme generally want to be a part of the experience.

Examples of Themed Programming

Survivor

Camps can put a twist on Mark Burnett’s Survivor. Camps re-create challenges and hold a character development “tribal council” where kids vote for other campers who have shown the best of their nature (instead of voting each other out, like on the show). Kids vote for their peers who set an example. The goal for the campers is to work as a team and display their best characteristics individually. The goal for a participant is to receive votes at each tribal council. At our camp, we use a voting area and let campers videotape their votes, just like the TV show. The camper with the most votes by the end of the week wins the title of “ultimate character survivor,” and in some cases, receives a free week of camp or other prize.

Harry Potter

Harry Potter camps are still hugely popular and allow kids the chance to live out their favorite parts of the wizarding world. Campers sit around a camp fire and discuss all aspects of the stories; they spend rest hours reading and re-reading their favorite parts; and days are spent bringing the books to life, which is what camps do best. “Potions class” becomes a fun science activity of mixing different ingredients or smoothie making. The nature center transforms into caring for magical creatures. Zip lining with a broom becomes flying training.

Campers bring robes and wands, and they go on story-related quests each day. They compete house versus house in camp Olympics, a Quidditch World Cup, and challenges all week. Role-modeling staff encourage imagination and teach new skills wrapped within the theme. This experience drives kids to learn more, read more, expand their imagination, and even role play within the world of characters.

Percy Jackson

The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan is not only an incredibly popular series that has been made into two movies so far, but it encourages the learning of Greek mythology and makes history fun for kids. It sparks their imagination with a world of demigods, monsters, and heroes. In fact, the story takes place at Camp Half Blood and Camp Jupiter. This is a perfect tie-in for converting Percy Jackson programming at traditional summer camps.

The book has cabins arranged by Greek god names, which is also an easy conversion for camps. “Lava wall climbing” in the book becomes “climbing” at camp. The staff create Percy Jackson t-shirts and add in programming like chariot races and a version of capture the flag similar to the books’ version. Importantly, the story and the adventures teach character, values, and leadership, which are all the traits of campers’ favorite Percy Jackson characters.

The most difficult part of transitioning a story or popular theme to camp programming is creating the big game or quests that kids need to participate in to feel they have become part of the story. Treasure hunt challenges that campers undertake with interactive characters played by staff are a good way to do this. For example, in Percy Jackson programs, create a few quest games based on The Lightning Thief where they must find and retrieve the lightning bolt. A quest game based on Son of Neptune could include the tasks of freeing the captured mythological god and defeating the evil giant.

Quest games must use details from the stories to give the kids the true experience of the book they love so much. It is within these quest games that we can teach teambuilding and cooperation while enhancing the reading and story experience in nature with talented camp counselors.

Star Wars

Camps bring the world of Star Wars from the screen, books, and games to a camp experience for campers to live the dream of being a Jedi, doing the right thing, and defeating injustice. Camps strive to teach character and good judgment. They show how to communicate with others, work as a team, trust others, and learn acceptance of different cultures and backgrounds. With a Star Wars theme, these goals are achievable in a fun way.

Coming to a Star Wars camp and training to be a Jedi while going on quests against the Sith and the Evil Empire brings the story and fantasy to a real setting. Kids wear Jedi cloaks and train like Luke Skywalker (climbing, light saber techniques, and quests to save friends, escape the Death Star, or find Obi Wan Kenobi’s home). Campfire programming becomes “Jedi debriefing” where campers discuss how they worked as a team and what is needed to make them stronger in their teamwork for the next challenge. Nightly quests with light sabers add to the night hike tradition of camp. Closing campfire becomes a Jedi graduation from the week’s adventures and training. Lucasfilm Ltd. has even supplied a camp resource to help camps program their Star Wars camps: www.starwars.com/camptoolkit.

Ranger’s Apprentice and Brotherband Chronicles

The books by John Flanagan (Ranger’s Apprentice and Brotherband Chronicles) also make for creative camp programming. Campers get the chance to nurture the characteristics of a ranger within themselves and learn skills like archery, horsemanship, camping, wilderness survival, and tracking. Campers hide in the woods, go on missions, ride horses, learn archery skills, and discuss their favorite characters under the stars and around campfires with counselors. This is a great book series to convert into camp programming, especially camps that have horseback riding — it employs all the skills camp teaches while allowing kids to practice being a member of an elite group that saves the kingdom. John Flanagan and Penguin Young Readers Group Publishing are huge supporters of camps using the Ranger theme. There is a toolkit resource for camps available at www.rangersapprentice.com/camps.

Falling Skies

Dealing with an alien invasion is possible at camp with the help of Steven Spielberg and the people from TNT’s show Falling Skies. Give campers the ability to save not only their camp, but the planet, from an alien takeover. An alien invasion might seem like a hard premise to turn into camp programming initially, but this theme allows for teaching teamwork to a cabin group working together to defeat the aliens that have taken over their camp. Cabin groups must rescue any captured cabin mates, use their map skills to locate food and information on the invaders, solve the mystery on how to defeat the aliens, and use their new information to take back the camp. It is a fun theme that allows for all of camp to play. TNT has also provided a national tool kit for camps to use to assist with bringing alien invasion to their camp: www.fallingskies.com/downloads.

Success in Encouraging Learning

The day camps and resident camps that have chosen to focus on developing these themes into fully themed programs have experienced great early success. The demand for combining camp skills, facilities, and magic with popular themes that are relevant for today’s kids has been tremendous.

With concern for summer reading and learning loss high, there are now programming ideas that encourage reading and enhance campers’ curiosity to learn more about stories and creative arts. Summer camp can be more than the magic of the summer season; it can be an educational partner. The advantage of a natural learning environment and unique delivery method makes a connection with kids — one that sparks a desire to learn, explore, and find answers. These are learning attributes that any teacher appreciates when the student returns to the classroom.

Note: Should you have questions or concerns about the use of any trademarked materials, consult your legal counsel.

Additional Resources

Reference
UC Davis. (2013). Relaxation techniques. Retrieved from www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/hr/hrdepts/asap/Documents/Relaxation_Techniques.pdf

Jeff Merhige is the executive director of the Joe C. Davis Outdoor Center / Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville, Tennessee. He has been professionally involved with camping for over twenty years. He and his wife, Amy, met at camp, and have two children, Sydney and Luke.

Originally published in the March/April 2014 Camping Magazine

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