Last summer, I was hanging out with a group of our oldest campers, many of whom have attended since they were four or five years old. As I’m constantly thinking of program improvement, I asked these camp veterans what suggestions they would make for the upcoming summer. After many clever ideas, one quieter young man spoke up: “Whatever you do, don’t change it too much. It always feels like home, and you can’t do anything to mess that up!”
This got me thinking: We know that camp is a community; an open, welcoming, and safe environment in which everyone supports each other. Our staff, campers, and camp parents tell us this each year when they return to camp. Our staff works together collaboratively to serve our campers, who live together in a unique, almost familial way. It’s a different sort of relationship than what’s typically created at school or in the home. Camp communi¬ties are typically more heterogeneous than those other environments, and yet the ties that bind are often stronger.
In our current climate, it’s more im¬portant than ever to be intentional about this unique benefit of camp. As Michael Brandwein often shares, we hear all the time about the “magic” of the camp experience, but it’s imperative that we think deeply about the work we do to create this magical community. What follows are suggestions for building even greater commu¬nity at summer camp — ways to strengthen the bonds that are created through the camp experience.
In addition to ideas directed to campers and their families, I’ve also included suggestions on strengthening the sense of community among camp staff. Our staff are superior role models for their campers, and (whether they know it or not) their ac¬tions and interactions “trickle down” into their campers’ relationships. A positive staff community is the foundation of a positive camp community.
I have written with a day camp perspective in mind — it is what I know (see my article "Why Day Camp Matters"  in the November/December 2011 Camping Magazine). I do believe there are unique advantages and challenges to a day camp experience, and some of these ideas capitalize on those. However, all camps are similar in more ways than they differ, and you’ll find that the majority of these suggestions are applicable to any kind of camp.
Before the Summer
Effective community-building begins before the summer does. Events and communications prior to camp set the expectations for a welcoming and open environment. Relationships germinate during the spring, coming into blossom during the summer. By reaching out to campers, families, and staff before they arrive on site, camps can lay the founda-tion for positive communities. Of course, many of these practices are helpful tools for marketing and camper recruitment, too.
Here are some suggestions of how to approach this critical time of year:
Reach out to your local community. One thing that makes day camps unique is their narrower geographic reach: campers typically come from a much smaller area than at resident camps. Smart camp programs capitalize on this by making their programs an integral part of the neighborhood.
The easiest way to make these contacts is through your local schools. Donate to their auctions, carnivals, and parent as-sociation fundraisers, either financially (camp gift certificates make a great auction or raffle prize) or in kind. You probably have some great sports equipment, games, or camp counselors sitting around in the off-season that would make an excellent addition to a school’s carnival. In many neighborhoods, local elementary schools are centers of the community, and your camp can be a part whenever families gather there.
Open your site and offer programs in which your neighbors can participate. Besides reaching out to your local com-munity, bring the community to you. Block parties, barbecues, and picnics are wonderful opportunities to introduce families to your camp. In addition to offering fun activities for families to participate in, these events demonstrate the welcoming environment of your camp: the camp community is built from the local community in which it resides.
Your camp can be a knowledgeable resource for the surrounding area, as well. You probably have a resident expert in camp crafts or outdoor skills, for instance. Consider offering weekend or evening classes in these areas to give families a go-to source for enriching educational opportunities.
With staff, reinforce your camp’s values from the very first communication. With the sometimes-sterile language that good human-resource practices dictate for things like job descriptions and employment applications, it can be difficult to display a welcoming spirit to potential staff members. However, you can code-switch within communications: although our online job application was written by our HR attorney, the accompanying Web site, with frequently asked questions, is warm and “campy.” Similarly, our interview covers “essential functions,” but it also delves deeply into the character traits and personal growth that camps value. (Bob Ditter’s September/October 2011 Camping Magazine article, “Truth and Consequences: Interviewing Skills for Camp Professionals,” is a great how-to resource in this area.)
Connect staff with each other prior to camp beginning. We know that staff members’ sense of belonging comes from their fellow staff much more than it does from the top down, so this is essential. Pair new staff with veterans before the summer and have them share tips and ideas. Create a private Facebook group for staff as an online space for them to greet each other and contribute to the pre-summer excitement. I’m always surprised to see how organically staff culture develops, just on Facebook, through the interaction of new and returning staff.
During the Summer
Many of the most effective parts of the camp experience are inherent in what takes place throughout the camp day: living and playing together, encouraging each other, meeting new people, and so on. These things can’t help but create a sense of togetherness among campers and staff; however, by being intentional about how they’re implemented and structured, camps can maximize their effect.
Build “down time” into the camp schedule. Many day camps struggle to pack a wide variety of activities into six or eight hours of camp. Campers rush from one program to the next and can miss opportunities for the most powerful kinds of bonding experiences — those that come from just “hanging out” and having a casual conversation with your new friend or your counselor. Utilize lunch, “circle time,” and even transportation to and from camp as teachable moments on how to converse and build friendships.
Allow “internal cultures” to flourish. At resident camps, cabins become subcommunities within the larger community of the camp, each with their own unique cultures. At day camps, groupings of campers can serve the same role. So, ensure consistency of camper groups and counselor assignments (this may sound obvious, but I know many day camps who assign campers and staff to groups on a day-to-day basis, without a thought for consistency). Allow adequate time for these groups to develop their unique cultures. Campers can sometimes feel “lost in the crowd” of the hundreds of campers at a day camp, but they can more easily find their niche among a smaller group.
Involve parents in the daily community of camp. Day camps often take their proximity to families for granted and simply offer a broad “open door” policy of which few parents actually take advantage. “We’re just down the street,” these camps think, “they can always just stop by.” We can obviously strengthen community by being more intentional about this! Structured parents’ days, barbecues, picnics, and talent shows are simple ways to bring families into the community of camp during the summer and give them a firsthand view of the changes and growth in their campers. Day camps can utilize other methods to bring families into the loop, as well. E-mail newsletters and Facebook pages are great ways to talk to families about the camp experience — letting parents feel involved in the culture of camp without ever setting foot on the actual property.
Create intentional opportunities for staff bonding. When staff members live at home during the summer (as opposed to at camp), they can quickly scatter across the city once the camp day or week is finished. Staff will have bonded through their shared experience of working long days at camp, but less-outgoing staff members may still feel left out of weekend plans or “unofficial” staff parties (which, of course, may not be camp-appropriate). To intentionally build staff communities, camps can offer fun, low-impact weekend and/or evening activities throughout the summer: trips to a baseball game, a citywide scavenger hunt, movie nights, and so on. Challenging another local camp to a softball or kickball game is a great way to build your team in a positive way. These programs become safe environments in which staff members can interact without the pressures of their daily work or the peer pressures of unsanctioned parties. The effect of these is even greater when some of the planning is done by the staff members themselves. Much as with campers, you’ll get more involvement from a wider array of staff if they’re allowed to do some of the organizing.
After the Summer
When summer ends, we hope that our campers and staff carry their memo¬ries, friendships, and growth with them throughout the year. They should always feel a part of the camp community they joined during the summer, no matter where their lives take them. How can we enhance that feeling and help the kinship of campers and staff remain strong? As with the “before the summer” suggestions, many of these principles serve a dual purpose of being great tools for retention, as well.
Show your gratitude to families and staff. Send a thank you note, both to campers and staff, after the summer. Your participants voluntarily joined a unique, powerful group of like-minded individuals over the summer. Without them, there would be no community to build, and they deserve your gratitude for their contribution. Reinforce your culture, traditions, and values through this note. Of course, this can be a part of (but should go above and beyond) your “early bird” registration form!
Keep everyone in the loop. Camp doesn’t stop just because the summer does: Send out newsletters, e-mails, or Facebook updates letting your community know about what’s happening at camp. Many resident camps do a great job of sharing the news about a newly-born lamb in the nature center or posting photos of the dining hall after a winter blizzard. Day cam