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Summer camps have always been a key component of YMCAs. Since the coronavirus pandemic has taken away traditional camps for many facilities, some are getting creative to still deliver the fun atmosphere of camp to the kids in their community. One of those organizations is the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago.

The Chicago Y decided to pivot to give families options for this summer, including virtual alternatives. “Whether it be in-person or online through a computer screen, it is still interaction,” said Man-Yee Lee, a spokesperson for the Chicago Y. “Many parents know by now that what’s unique about the Y’s approach is we are very intentional about building interpersonal skills and instilling strong, responsible values among kids — something they haven’t been able to practice during this period of isolation.”

While the Y is still able to offer in-person camp at some of their locations, they are adding virtual summer camp options to cater to family needs. Beginning June 1, kids got to choose from 17 different specialty camps that have been converted to an online, interactive format. Some camp topics include: Animal Planet, improv, science, art, cooking and creative writing.

“Counselors have incorporated plenty of movement, games and interactive activities to keep campers highly engaged during the two to three-hour sessions through hands-on experiences and learning tools,” said Lee. “Supply kits to aid each lesson are delivered by mail in advance to the camper’s home.”

summer camp

Having online specialty camps provides a unique opportunity to offer key components of the camp experience, such as experiential learning, camp routines and building connections. Lee said developing positive, supportive relationships and meaningful peer connections are crucial elements of social-emotional growth that are supported during online camp.

“Y camps in particular emphasize social-emotional skills that encourage independence and responsibility, and help develop problem-solving and relationship skills,” said Lee. “This year’s camp offerings will provide much-needed learning and fun for children, and the opportunity to develop memories and friendships that last a lifetime. These are skills campers take with them when they go back to school, attend college or get their first job, even.”

The Chicago Y has been happy with the response to the online camp so far. Their Online Specialty Camps are already 80% full, and some camps even have a waitlist. While virtual camps have been a learning process, Lee said they are thankful for their talented, smart and experienced staff who are 100% committed to giving kids the best summer yet.

Below, Lee shares four pieces of advice for other facilities considering hosting online camps:

  1. We knew we weren’t going to cancel summer camp this year because we knew our families needed us. So it wasn’t a question of if, but how. As fewer options for parents became available, it became apparent to us what parents needed was options. As we started to shape the options, we made a very deliberate effort to approach the task at hand from a parent’s perspective. What is the No. 1 thing parents are concerned about during the coronavirus pandemic era? Safety. Most of our team members are parents themselves, so this wasn’t difficult for us.
  2. Know your audience. Be sure to find out what families want. We surveyed our families to find out their priorities. Many said they are looking to let their kids have fun and let out some of that cooped-up energy after weeks of being housebound. On the other spectrum, some parents are looking for more opportunities to continue academic learning. Both groups wanted more interaction for their kids, so we looked at ways to fulfill both those needs. We also found out there was interest in finding out what virtual options we would come up with.
  3. Really listen to what parents are looking for. For example, we heard parents wanted to regain a level of interaction for their children, which they weren’t going to find in their home. That’s why we felt the virtual option would appeal to them. But we were also very sensitive to the fact that the last thing kids need is more screen time. So if we were going to offer a virtual option, we knew we had to make it truly interactive. We needed programming that would get kids’ bodies and minds moving.
  4. A lot rests on the quality of the counselors facilitating the online sessions. At the YMCA of Metro Chicago, we are incredibly lucky to have an amazing team of counselors who are not only smart and experienced with getting kids to come out of their shell, but also have what seems like a never-ending supply of energy that is really infectious and quite literally jumps out at you from the screen.
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Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown is a staff writer for Community Rec Magazine. She can be reached at taylor@peakemedia.com.

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