Innovation in Camp

Matthew Medendorp and Lauren Harris
March 2021
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Camp means many things to many different people. At its core, camp is people serving kids. To lifelong summer campers and camp directors, the word “camp” conjures specific and dearly held memories of a particular place of joy and belonging. To camp outsiders, camp is a blank slate. And now, in a world filled with rapid and unpredictable change, camp offers the opportunity to combine tradition and imagination to reconstruct its own boundaries.

Many innovators in the camp world are reimagining how to define camp, how it works, and who it serves best.

Camp is fundamentally beneficial for kids’ developmental progress. In a society where human connection is complicated by internet connectivity, social media platforms, and technological convenience, it’s important to evaluate how camp can best meet the needs of the next generation of campers. Camp experiences give kids time away from technology, opportunities for choice and voice through participation in independent activities, near-peer role models, and safe opportunities for challenge. All of these marvelous elements of the summer camp experience are catalysts that shape young people and young adults to thrive in school, at work, and in the communities where they live and play.

We live in an increasingly isolated world. Over the past few years, high school students have reported loneliness in larger and larger numbers. The isolation of remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic underlines the psychological toll that seclusion can take. “[Relationships] are going to be camp’s unbelievable value proposition,” says Laurie Browne, PhD, the American Camp Association’s director of research. “Everybody — kids, adults — we’re all going to need healthy, rich, immersive interactions with each other. And camp has been doing that for 120 years. In terms of what makes camp camp, we know beyond a doubt that people — staff and peers — are the number one factor.”

That essential question, what makes camp camp, is the basis for innovation. The short answer: camp is almost impossible to define. Camp provides “sticky” experiences, safe spaces for growth, relationships, and critical developmental tools in a child’s life. And as camp experts push the boundaries of how camp is defined, they continue to find new and better ways to reach more campers in all sorts of places and circumstances.

Camps are constantly in flux and always in the process of change as they balance the two pillars of tradition and innovation to better serve and meet campers’ needs. Camps in the 21st century need to address the ways in which their communities have changed and their missions have shifted.

  • Who is a camp built for?
  • When do traditions build togetherness and belonging, and when do they exclude?
  • What parts of a camp are essential, and what parts can grow and morph to meet more campers where they are?

The innovation many camps displayed in 2020 when faced with the challenges of the pandemic demonstrates the sort of creativity and resilience that will continue to serve kids as the definition of camp expands and transforms.

Project:Camp

Project:Camp is one organization adapting to today’s shifting landscape. Its mission is to respond to disasters by empowering families and communities and creating trauma-informed spaces for kids.

“I’m a camp director,” founder Mikey Latner says. “I’m not a firefighter. When there’s a wildfire, you don’t send me to go fight the fire. But as a member of a community, I have a real skill set that should be marshaled to support my community in a disaster.”

Project:Camp has responded to natural disasters in the past with programming, going into Houston after Hurricane Harvey and partnering with other disaster relief efforts like Team Rubicon (an organization that mobilizes veterans and leverages their skills and experience to help people prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters and humanitarian crises) to provide for the communities there.

This background in flexibility has met the current crisis as well. During COVID-19, Project:Camp has worked to create a model series of pop-up camps that conform to both LA County and ACA guidelines that can be run by local community organizations (such as YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, or area churches). Project:Camp received grant funding to train a small cadre of community leadership and volunteers to prepare and run the pop-up camps in the case of disaster, with Project:Camp supporting them on the ground. Project:Camp has nimbly responded to the pandemic the same way they’ve responded to hurricanes and other natural disasters in the past. Latner adds, “From minute one, our model is how can we put the tools in the hands of the people who can use them. And how can we support them to do it?”

Some more traditional camps — those not prepopulated with pop-up, disaster-relief plans — have also found new ways to use their unique skills to support communities during trying times.

Pretty Lake Camp

Pretty Lake Camp in southwestern Michigan partnered with its local parks and recreation department to create a day camp model provided for free to area kids during the pandemic, navigating district regulations and camper safety guidelines to provide access to important camp resources under unusual circumstances.

Camp Acta Non Verba

Camp Acta Non Verba in East Oakland, CA, runs an urban farm camp and mentorship programs. Last summer, seeing the need in their community, they pivoted to partnering with local grocery co-ops and offering campers the opportunity to learn while actively participating in supporting the people around them.

One thing these camps all have in common? Clear, creative, and adaptive leadership. That’s where another model of camp innovation comes in handy: the business accelerator, a training program that enables new camps and camp directors to hit the ground running. Not just reserved for Silicon Valley start-ups, business accelerators in the camp world focus on a combination of investment in leadership and investment in character.

Camp Labs

Camp Labs, one organization that uses the business accelerator model to serve the camp world, has a mission to make a life-changing impact on youth in communities across the country by helping founders build new camp businesses. Using the Silicon Valley tactic, the ultimate goal is to get one million kids into new camps.

Passion is the key to success, but many people are limited by a lack of knowledge and experience. “It goes back to this real gap,” Program Director Tommy Feldman says. “I believe that there are so many innovative people out there, but they just don’t know how to get to B from A.” Camp Labs can help aspiring camp directors connect the dots between dreams and reality, teaching them the steps that turn aspirations into successful camps. By empowering new voices in the industry, Camp Labs broadens the camp world’s horizons.

“When you sit down with somebody who has never been to camp but has a passion for kids and wants to do something they think of as camp, you will notice that they just think of it really differently,” Feldman says. This marriage of passion and unique vision, coupled with structural assistance from organizations like Camp Labs, breathes new life into the industry and ultimately offers kids exciting new opportunities.

Foundation for Jewish Camp

Both the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) focus on the future through expanded offerings.

Michele Friedman, director of new camp initiatives at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, an incubator with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation, focuses on the goal of getting more kids — both new and returning campers — to camp each year. In her work, she has learned to infuse specialized summer programs — that attract unique groups of campers — into some of the traditional camp structures and traditions. “We have to build a curriculum within specialty programming so there is a reason to come back,” Friedman says. “It isn’t just a retread of what campers did last year. As they grow with the program, the program grows with them.”

The URJ SciTech Academy in Massachusetts offers an example of a program that continues to expand its base by expanding its offerings. Over time, the academy has developed new programs — volleyball, forensics, dance — to attract different campers. “It’s appealing to a new market, and that really is the goal,” Friedman says. “It’s not going back and stealing all the kids in one camp and building another camp. That defeats the purpose. It’s adding a whole new market of kids who are interested.”

Eyes on the Horizon

There is not a single path forward. That’s part of the exciting future: camp can be many things and fit many people. As more camps model innovation, flexibility, and commitment to trying something new, they demonstrate the world of camp is wide and vast, with room for new voices and big imagination. Camp is important work, and camps across the board continue to adapt and change to do the most important thing: deliver a camp experience and camp values to kids who need it.

Matthew Medendorp is a freelance writer, essayist, and current MFA candidate at Northern Arizona University.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of wilderness camp experience. She has taught hundreds of students in classrooms with four walls and in the wide-open classrooms of forests and wetlands. Lauren writes regularly for the Columbia Journalism Review; she has also published work in The Guardian and The Delacorte Review.


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