Keeping_Campers_Connected.com: Using the Internet to Communicate with Campers in the Off-Season

by Jonathan Musman and Alysa Slay, Psy.D.

The summer camp season ends with an emotional final program, and then campers sweep one last time behind their once-overflowing cubbies, hug the last few counselors who "made the difference," and board that bus for the long, tearful ride home. Now what? What happens next? Do campers hope that their friends will keep in touch? Do they wait for the camp reunion?

How many camps are able to provide adequate, ongoing programs allowing campers to remain connected to you and fellow campers?

Enter the Internet. Believe it or not, it’s still here — the all-powerful, high-and-mighty Internet. Your staff probably use it on a daily basis, and many of your campers probably log on at least a few times a week. Cyberspace is not going away, folks. So, why not harness its benefits to the fullest degree to help maintain the camper connection throughout the year?

Many camps already have an identity on the Internet. Most camp Web sites include digital videos and glossy pictures to offer new campers a chance to learn about the camp program, forms to register for additional information or brochures, and photos and biographies so prospective campersand their families can meet the directors. Some camps have ventured far out into cyberspace, promoting camp through Web sites such as the CampChannel.com, establishing chat rooms or discussion boards, and giving campers a chance to continue e-mailing one another after the season using the camp name as a domain.

This type of connection with campers has become crucial in remaining competitive and in maintaining a high return rate to your camp. Although the meaningful and memorable program you provide during the summer is the primary avenue by which to keep your camp alive year-round in the hearts and minds of all campers and staff, memories inevitably fade during those long winter and spring months. Technology can step in at this point and help to keep camp alive during the off-season through a magnetic camp Web site that gives campers and staff an opportunity to have the next best thing to actually being at camp.

A Web site that offers creative programs, interactions amongst campers, and above all else, the chance to have fun will keep the camp spirit alive year-round. An innovative Web site also allows for such activities as real-time chats between parents, online focus groups, the creation of off-season camp traditions, and opportunities for the campers and their parents to have input into the ongoing development of their special camp.

Creative Connections

Traditional off-season camp programs typically include such events as reunions, picnics, and orientation meetings. By offering creative and interactive on-line activities, campers would have the opportunity to have fun while being connected to camp from their very home. Camps that have a Web site could periodically post a creative cyber activity for campers to enjoy. Moreover, preparation for these programs could be done during the summer time and could serve as an exciting rainy day alternative for cabin groups. The following are three ideas for such types of cyber camp activities.

Bunk map
Children and teens have embraced technology, and many of your campers are probably independently creating camp-related Web sites. Imagine how powerful these individual Web sites would be if they were connected, organized, and monitored. The bunk map activity allows technologically advanced campers and staff to channel their online creativity into establishing a virtual map of camp. Password protect all areas and have a staff member volunteer periodically view the individually created sites in order to ensure appropriate content.

  • During the summer, take a digital photo of each cabin.
  • Have cabin groups write a one-page description of their summer together.
  • After camp is over, create a virtual map of your camp; this map could include cartoon drawings of cabins, buildings, and roads.
  • Campers can then "click" on a particular cabin and be connected to the digital photo and one-page description of that cabin group.
  • Campers could be empowered and given the responsibility of updating and maintaining the page associated with a certain cabin. Updates could include such information as birthdays, sports achievements, or other off-season special events in a camper’s life.

Web site scavenger hunt
A current concern of youth use of the Internet is their access to a wide range of inappropriate information. By providing an organized way of surfing the Internet, campers can have fun while visiting quality Web sites.

  • Either on the camp Web site or through e-mail, periodically send campers an Internet-based scavenger hunt list.
  • The scavenger hunt should include clues to get the
    campers to a particular Web site. For example: "Clue: This river winds its way through South America and is home to many pythons. Answer: Amazon.com."
  • In addition to the clue to the Web site, campers can be asked to "find" certain items or pieces of information at the Web site. For example: "Find the names of five books pertaining to the night sky."
  • Campers should be encouraged to form teams with other camp friends while hunting down information. They can do this easily via e-mail or message boards.
  • Once an individual camper or team has completed the scavenger hunt, the "found" information can be e-mailed to the camp office.
  • Following each scavenger hunt, the names of the winners can be posted on the camp’s Web site or sent out in e-mail form. Winners could also be recognized at camp the following summer.
  • Determining the winners could be based on such factors as the first person or team to complete the hunt, the largest team that worked together, or the most creative answers found.

Electronic time capsule
This activity needs to be started during the summer and would serve as a great rainy day project for a cabin group. Receiving an off-season time capsule is a wonderful way to keep good memories alive and get campers excited for the upcoming summer.

  • During the summer, a cabin group creates a cabin time capsule on paper. This time capsule could include lists of favorite staff for that summer, catchy cabin sayings, poems written by campers, camper nicknames, inside jokes from the summer, and the cabin theme song.
  • The contents of the time capsule could be a free-form project or be organized by an actual time capsule format sheet developed on paper. This format could be used as a guideline for what to include. A pre-written format would be particularly helpful for younger campers.
  • Either the camp counselor or a year-round staff person keeps the completed time capsule sheet along with a list of campers’ e-mail addresses.
  • At a point in time mid-year between when camp ends and when camp starts (February for instance), the person responsible for the time capsule types it and e-mails it to the cabin group. In the event that not everyone has e-mail, the typed version could be mailed the traditional way to a camper.

Creating Off-season Traditions

Everyone knows the value of traditions at camp. They enhance camp unity, strengthen a camp’s identity, and serve as a basis for the emotional connections campers feel to their "special camp." Off-season camp traditions are usually infrequent, time consuming to organize, and in some cases, geographically challenging.

Building Internet-based or virtual off-season traditions is not only a unique concept but is a way to overcome the previously mentioned obstacles. In some cases, the suggestions that follow may seem to be large-scale technological projects; however, once they are in place electronically, they can remain that way for long periods of time with little maintenance. The following is just of short list of possible off-season traditions:

  • Virtual Friendship Circle: Just like a real friendship circle, but the traditional hand squeeze is passed via e-mail. An e-mail is sent to one camper with a message like, "You are a valued link in your camp’s friendship circle. You have been squeezed. Pass it on."
  • Various Annual Contests:
    A variety of contests can be conducted through e-mail announcements and submissions. Examples include a
    T-shirt design contest for the following summer, a recipe contest for the dining hall, or a song-writing contest. Specific contests could be held at the same time each year. Winners could be announced on the opening day of camp.
  • Webcast of the Seasonal Opening/Closing of Camp: Through a simple Internet camera connection or captured digital video, create a wonderful and exciting moment out of opening the camp gates for the summer. A special ceremony can be created to accompany the event. This could be broadcast through your camp’s Web site to all of your campers.

But Technology Just Isn't Technology

By now, many of you may be thinking that all of this is well and good, but does it really belong in the world of summer camp. Most camp directors associate camp with such things as friendship, campfires, rustic living, and getting back to nature. So, do computers and technology have a place in all of this? Internet or virtual cyber camps can never be a substitute for the special place where camp resides in the hearts of campers. The feelings of connectedness and bonding that campers inevitably experience while at camp can be captured and maintained through today’s technology.

The ideas presented here are only a sampling of the endless possibilities the Internet can play in serving camp for reasons beyond traditional marketing or dissemination of information. Today’s children are gaining increasingly more exposure to the magic of technology. Rather than fight or resist this pull, apply a little old-fashioned creativity to make it work to promote the positive values inherent in the camp experience.

Jon Mussman, former camp director and current television producer, and Alysa Slay, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, both have extensive experience working with contemporary youth in a camp setting and are the founders of Firefly Creative Consultants.

For more information on innovative programming ideas for staff and campers, please visit www.fireflyideas.com .

 

Originally published in the 2000 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

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