Implementing Special Events and Programs at Camp

Daniella K. Garran and Christina Peterson
July 2015

While a summer at camp is, in and of itself, a special event, sometimes it’s important to shake up the daily routine to revitalize both campers and staff, especially a few weeks into the summer. Staff who teach a par-ticular activity exclusively may become tired of the same routine; going over the parts of a boat or perfecting a camper’s forehand day in and day out can get tedious even for the most avid activity enthusiasts. Similarly, campers need a break from structured swim lessons and shooting at archery targets. Planning special events throughout the summer is key to keeping campers and counselors engaged and happy.

Some special events may be difficult to implement due to the weather, the daily schedule, or financial constraints. However, there are many ways to successfully incor-porate unique events using your existing resources and facilities. As you plan special events, bear in mind that the same safety standards must be adhered to, particularly around water-based activities; it is worth reminding your campers and especially your staff that the same expectations for safety and supervision remain in place even during special events.

How Can You Incorporate Special Events into the Program Effectively?

Both day and resident programs will benefit from a change in routine so long as the event is thoroughly prepared for and planned out; an event done right will be talked about long after the summer and allow for some additional community building. Before implementing special events, you should evaluate their impact on the overall program. Some things to consider include:
 
  • How will this affect your dining services?
    • Will there be different meal times?
    • Is there a need for special food items or snacks that must be ordered ahead of time? If so, is there a plan for campers with allergies or special diets?
  • What are the staffing needs?
    • Are your lifeguards or activity specialists available at that time?
    • Do you have adequate supervision available at the time and location of the event?
  • Are there any facility-related factors?
    • Consider factors such as the tide, vehicle or boat use, etc.
  • Are there any safety concerns?

We have found at the Monomoy Day Camp that special events work better during the second half of the week when the campers and counselors have all hit their stride. Additionally, we have learned that a successful special event only needs to take up part of the day; that way campers working toward an award or needing to finish up a project have the opportunity to do so as well. This is important so that campers and their parents feel a sense of accomplishment with regard to their time at camp. Counselors usually enjoy the change just as much, if not more, than the campers.

Determine whether the event should be kept a surprise or shared ahead of time so all involved have adequate time to properly prepare.

How Can You Meet the Needs of Different Age Groups with Special Events?

 
All age groups will enjoy something apart from the norm, but it is important to struc-ture the activities so there is something that will appeal to the various age groups. We do not expect our oldest campers (age 17) to participate in special events the same way that our youngest campers do (four at Monomoy Day Camp and eight at the resident camp). For example, some of our junior counselors assist with the setup and execution of our annual resident camp track meet and swim meets. The older campers enjoy the sense of responsibility when it comes to timing a lane, measuring long jump distances, and tabulating results, while the younger campers thrive on the sense of friendly competition with their bunkmates and the opportunity to participate in some events they might not normally engage in at school.
 

What Kind of Special Events Are Most Successful?

Perhaps the summer has been excessively rainy, precluding campers from engaging in some regular activities and forcing them indoors. The arrival of the first sunny day should herald a change in activity schedules, allowing campers to swim, sail, cycle, or hike — perhaps even for an extended period of time. Rebrand the day as “Marvelous Monday,” “Terrific Tuesday,” “Wacky Wednesday,” “Thrilling Thursday,” or “Fabulous Friday,” and shake up the schedule so campers can maximize their time outdoors. Resident camps may even open up activities after dinner allowing even more campers to take advantage of the nice weather.

Here are some special event ideas you can adapt and implement at your camp.

Field Day/Spirit Day

Some camps have elaborate color wars that have been a part of their culture for many years. How can smaller camps or camps without such a program institute spirited, friendly competition using the existing facilities and minimal funds while making the event fun and unique for all? At our day camp, we turn the final day of our summer season into an all-camp spirit day. The morning consists of spirit games on our fields. The games aren’t anything fancy, but they are filled with excitement and enthusiasm. They take some preparation and planning but require little financially, as we are able to use things we can find around camp. Each year we may switch up the games, but we always keep some classics in the mix. The shoe scramble, for example, is our director’s favorite. This is where everyone on a team takes off one shoe and they all are placed in someone’s arms and thrown up into the air. Then, one at a time, campers must go find their other shoe, put it on, and run back to tag the next member of the team to search for his or her footwear. We have different stations that teams can rotate through to ensure everyone remains organized and accounted for and safety guidelines are followed.

After the breakout games, we have an all-camp Rock, Paper, Scissors champion-ship. This might sound insignificant, but campers love it — and when the champion is an eight-year-old, his day is made as he is hoisted up onto his counselor’s shoulders and celebrated as if he scored the winning goal of an Olympic soccer game. We do an all-camp game of musical counselors and finish up with unit sprints in the order of youngest to oldest. The spacing of the sprints serves to give some time between groups heading down to lunch. Then, after everyone is re-energized with pizza, we have make your own sundaes for dessert. After watching our final drama perfor-mance of the summer, we have a camp-wide procession and flag-lowering ceremony to symbolize the end of our “Best Summer Ever.” We round out the day with final unit awards and one last spirit assembly packed with unit songs, awards, creature features which highlight talent performances of our campers, the presentation of our summer’s plaque, and the reading of our camp’s tradi-tional poem that each year ends our season. The day is a busy one but a fun conclusion to an amazing summer.

Outdoor Movie Night

Around mid-season, many full-session resident campers can show signs of being overtired and needing a break. A great low-key activity is an outdoor movie night. Using a projector and either a sheet, screen, or the side of a building, have campers bring beach chairs, blankets, towels, and care package goodies for a relaxing night under the stars. Such an event is a special treat for campers who have been unplugged and screen-free for several weeks and can allow campers and staff alike to recharge.

Beat the Heat

We’ve all endured oppressively hot summers when regular activities are difficult to run. Listless campers and coun-selors can barely pick themselves up off the bed when the temperature hovers around 100. Days like this are great for a modified “beat the heat” schedule. Set up a variety of activities that will keep campers wet and cool such as Drip, Drip, Drop for the younger campers — a makeshift waterslide using tumbling or wrestling mats and a hose — and pool games like penny pick up, water polo, or noodle relays. Utilize your beach or pond if you have one. If not, get creative and set up sprinklers on a field and have a dance party. Rotate cabins or small groups through each station. End your beat-the-heat activities by making homemade ice cream.

On a smaller scale, we are lucky enough to be located directly on Cape Cod Bay, which permits us to plan some half-day beach activities for the day camp units by age groups. This allows for a relatively simple change of pace and does not interfere with the running of our regular program. The units are able to spend time with their counselors and each other while laughing, resting, exploring, and, most importantly, making memories.

Holidaze

Many campers and staff consider their camp friends to be family, and who better to celebrate the holidays with? July 31 (think December 31) provides an excellent opportunity for a full “year” of celebra-tions. Begin with a New Year’s countdown by lowering a beach ball from a flagpole and then have a New Year’s toast with sparkling cider. Move on to Valentine’s Day and have campers and staff make valentines that will be distributed later that day (or if you’re really ambitious, you may choose to mail them out in February). St. Patrick’s Day can be celebrated with Irish dance lessons (particularly if you have staff members from Ireland) and by wearing green, of course. Easter can be observed with an egg hunt (or you may choose to substitute something more summery for the eggs, such as mini-beach balls or colored ping pong balls). A fun way to observe Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day is with a special barbecue or picnic. Ask your dining services to cook burgers, hot dogs, and other all-American treats. Halloween is especially fun given that campers will have to come up with creative costumes using only what they brought to camp. Nevertheless, the campers and staff are sure to amaze with their resourcefulness. You may also have a pumpkin decorating contest, perhaps substituting more seasonal fruits or vegetables. Thanksgiving can be celebrated with a parade in which campers wear handmade turkeys or Pilgrim hats. 

Set up some relay races in which campers have to set and clear a Thanksgiving table or gather as many items as they can at a mock Black Friday sale. Finish off the Holidaze with a celebration of Chanukah and Christmas in which campers must go on a scavenger hunt around camp looking for items on a holiday wish list. Holidaze is easily adaptable to include other holi-days or special days. However, launching a successful Holidaze requires a good deal of planning. Many companies have a great deal of holiday props and paraphernalia available all year long; just be sure that anything you order will arrive in time for your event.

“Feel Good” Events

Every year, the Cape Cod Sea Camps and Monomoy Day Camp launch a week of special events in anticipation of the camp’s participation in and support of the Pan-Mass Challenge. This two-day, 192-mile bike ride from Sturbridge to Provincetown, Massachusetts, is the biggest fundraiser for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. While the camp takes pride in raising money for this worthy cause, the ultimate goal is to instill in our campers a sense of giving and doing for others. Special events in conjunction with the Pan-Mass Challenge might include an all-camp Zumbathon, a camp-wide counselor hunt (with plenty of supervision around the grounds), and singing telegrams. For a small contribution, campers may partici-pate in these unusual and fun events.

Because of the time restraints at the day camp, we usually have a Thrilling Thursday afternoon the week leading up to this event. Campers usually have a pool party and then time to make posters and cards to be used as encouragement for the riders. On Friday afternoon, we host a bake sale when parents and grandparents come for our weekly spirit assembly. The campers take pride in being able to help and make a difference with the money we are able to donate and the smiles they bring to the tired riders’ faces.

Consider identifying a special cause or charity with which your camp can partner and organize special events as awareness- raising and fundraising opportunities.

Whatever special events you choose to integrate into your summer, remember that activities should be age-appropriate, structured, and adequately supervised. Campers may not remember every friend-ship bracelet they made or every goal they scored during a summer, but they are bound to remember that time their cabin won Spirit Games or the hottest day of the summer when there was camp-wide, beat-the-heat fun. We wish you a summer full of sunny days, wacky Wednesdays, happy campers, enthusiastic counselors, and pleased parents.

Photo courtesy of Daniella K. Garran, Cape Cod Sea Camps, Brewster, Massachusetts

Daniella K. Garran is an assistant director at Cape Cod Sea Camps, where she has spent nearly every summer since 1984. During the “off season,” she is a seventh-grade social studies teacher. She is also the author of Hello Mother, Hello Father: Celebrating Summer Camp.

Christina Peterson’s love for summer camp began as a five-year-old, and she hasn’t missed a summer since. Cape Cod Sea Camps has been her summer home for over 25 years. Following her career as a camper, Christina moved through the ranks and is now the Monomoy Day Camp’s program director.