Learn what three community rec professionals do to ensure kids have a great time at summer camp.
“Summer camp is an irreplaceable experience for young people,” said Andrea Golden, the director of youth and camping at the Minnesota JCC.
Golden shared how kids gain important life skills and memories that are unique to the experience of summer camp. They become part of an encouraging and fun community, gain a sense of independence, and connect with nature because of these programs. They also connect with older staff as campers and typically come back as employees to continue the tradition for the next generation.
The Minnesota JCC offers different camp programming that varies in age range, length, setting and activities. Some of the offerings include horseback riding, rock wall climbing, canoe trips, a ropes course, field trips and Jewish cultural programming.
“We’re always innovating and working on new ideas for the next summer,” said Golden. “There are many activities campers are involved in throughout the year that can be taken and reworked to be applicable in a camp setting. We look at programming from the past and incorporate new ideas to ensure we remain an exciting place for all participants.”
Another way to gain ideas for programming is by looking at or consulting with various outside sources to determine what kids are interested in. Desiree Brandon-Gouveia, the association director of day camp and family programs at the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis, works with the after-school program. Because staff are connected with many of the kids who attend camp, they help Brandon-Gouveia create ideas targeted to a specific group of campers.
These unconventional methods of brainstorming can draw a variety of ideas, and Brandon-Gouveia emphasized the need for an open mind during the process.
“Taking a leap of faith is important when coming up with camp themes or activities,” explained Brandon-Gouveia. “Brainstorming as a team can turn an eccentric idea into a relevant and possible one. We can’t stop ourselves from voicing our ideas because we believe it’s too outlandish or different. We have to be willing to try new things in order to connect with more kids.”
The YMCA of Greater Indianapolis hosts a residential summer camp offering and two types of day camp options. The traditional day camp is held at the YMCA facilities while the Discovery day camps offer a wider variety of activities. These camps happen at local schools, churches or other community partner organizations, and their specific themes appeal to a variety of interests.
Some of the camp themes include learning about cooking, exploring the city, or learning how to ride and take care of horses at a local stable. Discovery camps focus especially on STEM subjects and encourage kids to expand their curiosity.
“We always look at what kids are interested in and see how we can tap into that market,” said Brandon-Gouveia. “Our camp is successful because we spend time building relationships with families and kids that come into our programs. We make the effort to get to know each child. What makes them unique? How can we serve them and provide the best experience possible?”
Wesley Long, the executive director of Triangle Y Camp (Tri-Y) at the YMCA of Southern Arizona expressed a similar sentiment. How the results will affect campers is always at the forefront of decision making. The goal — like with most summer camps — is for participants to have fun in a safe environment.
They offer eight one-week sessions of summer camp, and each week has special theming from superheroes to holidays. Some activities they offer include a 55-square-foot climbing wall, a 200-square-foot zipline, archery and axe throwing, etc. Tri-Y also has a 20-plus year partnership with a local stable that helps facilitate the horseback riding program.
“We always strive to provide an exceptional experience to each camper that comes through our gates,” explained Long. “Our staff are strong-willed, well-trained and ready to make sure all campers get the attention they deserve and need. Staff are there 24/7 for our campers.”
Part of this commitment is ensuring staff have the support they need and proper training before camp starts. Tri-Y staff go through a two-week-long training period where they learn about the YMCA, facilitating activities, mental and emotional health, sensitivity, inclusivity, and operations. Staff also have available resources and support through the leadership team.
“We try to instill the four core values of the YMCA — honesty, caring, respect and responsibility — into our staff and all trainings we offer,” said Long. “It’s two weeks of long days, but the staff come out of training well-prepared to handle most scenarios that arise. We also make sure our staff know asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of wanting to learn and make every camper happy.”
Being as detailed and prepared as possible was Long’s main piece of advice. Beyond that, showing appreciation to staff throughout all processes can also increase team morale and support.
At the Minnesota JCC, providing support for staff is vital because of the nature of the job. The responsibility of taking care of kids — often overnight — is not something to be taken lightly. Golden stated many of the campers go on to become staff of the camp because of the amazing time they had as participants.
“We focus on hiring exceptional staff, and we create experiences and programs campers appreciate and will take with them far into the future,” said Golden. “We have an intensive training program each staff member takes part in to prepare for the summer, and what we learn helps us face any problems that may arise during camp.”
Going to summer camp is often a formative experience for kids. It can be a lot of pressure to ensure you’re providing a fun and safe environment, but focusing on both camper and staff enjoyment can improve everyone’s experience.
“Camp is supposed to be fun and engaging; lean into that,” said Brandon-Gouveia. “The more you and your team take part in the fun, the more the campers will relax and take part as well.”