The year 2020 seems so distant, and yet our goal as a collection of camp professionals is to serve 20 million campers by that year. So how do we get there? I have long been a proponent that programs sell camps — not Web sites, not brochures, and certainly not e-mail blasts (all of which are still important marketing tools). Anywhere from 60–80 percent of your campers came to you in their first year because they heard from someone else about your amazing program, how fun it was, or how many friends they made. I cannot really picture a mom trying to highlight her child's experience by bragging about our marketing materials. It would sound strange and out of place: "And then I went on their Web site. My goodness it was to die for. You'd love it. Oh my . . . the pictures, just startling . . . ." Sounds weird, right?
Marketing is an important aspect of the summer camp business; but the fact remains that we are program design experts, first and foremost. To get to 20 million campers, it will be improvements in our programming that make the difference. Stating that it is important to enhance our programs is the easy part. How we choose to accomplish this task can make all of the difference. There are so many clichés out there that we use to inform our decisions. One of the more prevalent ones I hear these days from managers, consultants, and trainers is some variation on one of the following: "Let's not reinvent the wheel here, guys"; "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"; or "Keep it simple, sweetheart." I personally have used each one of these as a camp director, whether it was to dismiss a minor problem in an otherwise functional situation ("If it ain't broke, don't fix it") or a reason to just copy and paste in a new program at our camp ("No need to reinvent the wheel, right?"). There must be a reason I and others like me have reached out to use these tired sayings over the years.
Likely the reason is that our time is precious, and during certain months, its value rises faster than an ounce of gold. Since most of us do not receive payment in gold, our reward is usually doing our job well and seeing its impacts. My good friend once referred to the true payment from his camp job as "psychic income" — a cheesy statement to be sure, but one that we can all relate to as camp professionals when we see the smiles on our kids' faces.
Two factors — a lack of time and a desire to provide effective programs — act together to create a thriving environment for clichéd thinking. We are so rushed at times that we do not have the capacity for true individual thought and fall under the influence of automatic thoughts. When our attention is maxed out, our brains switch to autopilot for all but the most important issues, and our autopilot is designed to use up the lowest amount of cognitive energy possible. Even though we have side projects and tasks to deal with during the off-season, this is the best time of year to reflect, to tackle problems that we allowed to linger throughout the summer, to revise our systems, and in general, to prepare for a better summer at our camps. It is a rare period in which we are not simultaneously pulled in an infinite amount of directions and can turn off the autopilot, look around, and see where it has taken us.
There may be those of you out there who create and re-shape your program each and every year, unimpeded by the silly sayings I have quoted. For you, I hope this article provides suitable justification for your annual labors and perhaps some new tools to enhance your ability to chip away at your program. For others who have been content to trace your programming from other sources or who do the bare minimum to keep the status quo, I would like you to explore the potential values both for your organization and yourself in starting something from the ground up.
Before you walk up to your blank slab and attempt to carve out a brand new wheel, you need a vision. It is easy enough to hack away at a task with no end goal, but you will soon find yourself tired and frustrated. So first and foremost, begin with a general outline of what you want your new program to be. Your vision must include particular details. If you were literally carving out a wheel, you should keep in mind the following about wheels: they are round; they spin; they are made of durable materials; and they make difficult tasks easier. As with a wheel, there will naturally be certain components that are critical to your program, such as fun, safety, skill instruction, interaction, and character development. As a brief side note, this is a great process to undergo if you are relatively new to your role as a camp director or do not have much experience in crafting programs. Developing a new program is also a great way to become an expert in that particular activity or area of camp.
With your general vision established, research other programs similar to the one you want to construct for inspiration and for an example. Think of it this way: You need to understand the specific type of activity you are creating. Again, certain wheels have specific attributes that are important. A pulley is a wheel that has a particular function, and as a result, all pulleys share certain traits. All adventure trip programs have several foundational practices in common with one another, but the design of each program is unique. A hike in the Ozarks has many important differences compared to a hike on the Appalachian Trail. If you are designing a hiking program, researching trip programs in other areas will allow you to generate a list of very important questions: How do I get the kids to the trail? Where do they sleep at night? Who cooks and what do they make? What training does the staff need? What equipment does the camp provide? What are campers expected to bring with them? Questions like this are vital. As you research, they will likely pop into your head; write them down because the final stages of program design will involve answering them.
A Plan Specific to Your Camp
Now, armed with both a vision and an understanding of other people's visions, it is possible to put together a comprehensive program plan that is specific to your camp. This is probably the greatest benefit of reinventing a wheel — it does exactly what you want it to. Imagine using a bicycle wheel from a children's road bike on your mountain bike. Your bicycle would certainly look ridiculous, but there would also be a host of other questions about the safety and effectiveness of your revamped bike. Once you have learned about the common pitfalls and acceptable practices of other camps, you will know how to shape a program that will meet the particular demands of your environment. This is when you begin to answer all of those questions generated during your research phase.
Your well-rounded program is likely a little rough around the edges at this point, but taking shape nicely. Having someone review your craftsmanship can help you refine your work by smoothing over small cracks before they become large gaps. The more people you can use to review your new invention, the better. Differing perspectives are the most valuable when they are applied to complex problems, and some of the programs you will likely form in your career will be intricate, with multiple challenges to overcome.
Always a Work in Progress
No great program is ever truly complete. There will be unforeseen difficulties that arise as campers enjoy their new activities in real-time. As you hit these bumps in the road, be prepared to reshape your program, and don't be afraid to consider major changes if necessary. We can become a little too committed to our own ideas, even when they are not working as we originally intended. Suppose your program is generally successful. There will still be a need to alter it over the years. Even the best constructed wheels become worn out with time and need to be updated or replaced. So it is with camp programs.
This may seem like a drawn out process, and I know it is tempting to go out there and snag something from someone else's repertoire. Thankfully, the camp industry takes a relatively laid back approach to copying. In fact, we often thrive collectively as a result of sharing, but there is something special about creating and inventing a program unique to your camp and your campers.
Despite its rewards, reinventing large components of a camp program is not something to be entered into lightly or without much time to do it (unless it is an area in need of immediate change because of camper or staff safety). No matter how ideally a process like this can be described, it will always be victim to the ever-present world of practicality. As a general rule, large programs take more time and money to build than small ones, so you will have to decide what is possible with the resources available to you. That is no reason, though, to shy away entirely from reinventing a program or activity.
A Culture of Innovation
No matter how large the budget or how small the staff, if you can encourage a culture of innovation in your camp, everyone will benefit.
I recommend, even if you are low on resources, that you encourage your leadership staff to develop one new program each year. It can be small in scale and require little money. For instance, you could have your staff develop a new integrated set of nightly activities for cabins with interconnected moral lessons. That is something that would be easy to research, cost little money, and be simple to review. In the process, your staff will learn more about group bonding and embedding character development within simple activities than they knew before. The personal development staff members undergo in this process is powerful. In addition to learning something new, they gain the kind of self-confidence that can only come with creating something and watching others enjoy it. You can also be sure that the knowledge they gain is applied to other areas of their work, as well.
This is not just an important process for the new blood and young leadership staff in the camp profession. Some of you who have been in the industry a little longer may recall the joy you had in creating something new and unique. You may remember what it was like to do all of that work and see the staff and campers grow and develop in your program. You may look back and feel that "psychic income" we all treasure wash over you. If you want to feel that again, then it is time to dust off those chisels, look around your camp for those old or borrowed wheels, and get ready to carve out some new ones that may look better in their place. I guarantee that you will learn something new in the process and find personal growth. Just like wheels and programs, we as people need to be reshaped and updated from time to time. You may just find the most important reinvention in this process is you. Happy chiseling.
Matthew Barstead is a program director at YMCA Camp Tockwogh, where he oversees the extensive aquatics program (sailing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, canoeing, kayaking, and windsurfing), conferences and retreats, challenge course, and pool. During his ten years in the camp profession, Matthew has also worked as a counselor and unit leader. Contact the author at MBarstead@ymcade.org .