Recently, I ran an email round table and the topic was “Creating a ‘Campy’ Feel at Day Camp”. Based on the submissions I received (and my own experiences), there seems to be a handful of things any day camp can do to give their program more of a traditional summer camp feel that most sleepaway (resident) camps naturally have.
These days there are a ton of day camps everywhere. While some day camps are in a natural setting like a park (national, state or city), many are located on school and church properties.
Sure, some of these camps aren’t looking to create that “campy” feel. Others, however, are, especially the ones that are being run by people who have worked at resident camps in the past. They understand that there is a magical feel to a traditional overnight camp that day camps inherently miss out on. These are the ones who are looking to grab a piece of that magic and add it to their already incredible day camp programs.
Here are the 10 ways (and 3 bonus tactics) to create a more traditional “campy” feel at your day camp.
Let’s begin with using resident camp terminology.
Many day camp programs that are run by schools, or organizations that run after school programs most of the year, call their campers “students”. Want to start getting that traditional camp feel? Call your kids “campers”.
Cabins or Bunks
There probably aren’t any cabins or bunks at your day camp, but that doesn’t mean you can’t refer to your rooms as cabins or bunks. You can also refer to your groups as “cabin groups”. Or, you could give different groups their own group names (using a nature theme) like “Bluebirds”, “Otters”, “Redwoods”, etc.
Last year, I started giving each group their own “bunk”. The bunks are really just classrooms, but I gave the counselors and campers permission to decorate their bunks and make it their own. Just by changing our terminology, it really changed how the kids felt about their space. It wasn’t just a classroom- it was their own personal space.
Submitted by Rosemarie L.
I work at a day camp and last year we experimented with having ‘cabin’ names. We already had group names that allowed the parents to identify their camper’s group for lunch and trips, so we split smaller and let the kids pick names. The kids loved it, we had ‘cabin’ time and used it to talk about what they were doing outside camp. It also made splitting up on trips easier because we just called ‘cabin’ names and they knew where they were supposed to go.
Submitted by Cindy G.
Canteen, Tuck Shop or Trading Post
Do you have a camp store? You should. You can turn one of your rooms (or a corner of a large room) into a camp store with all kinds of neat things to buy. If you decide to have a camp store, or already have one, call it the “canteen”, “tuck shop” or “trading post”. It’s very campy.
Do you have a gym or one large room where you bring everyone together for camp-wide games and activities? Instead of calling it the “gym” or “rec room”, call it the “lodge”.
Each morning you probably get all the campers together. You may not have a name for this gathering. Well, now you do. This is referred to as a “morning assembly”.
A great way to bring that campy feel to your urban buildings is to decorate. You can decorate your hallways, walls, restrooms, entrances, etc. with backgrounds, silhouettes, cut-outs, gossamer, fabric, and more.
I’m housed in school classrooms and I encourage the counselors to decorate the room with a “campy ” feel to it. We use bulletin board paper to decorate the doors to our rooms but have limited wall space in the rooms. This year I’m going see if I’m allowed to decorate the hallway or at least the entry way to the hall.
Submitted by Karen B.
We are in a community centre with a library in the same building. We divide up our gymnasium and run 3-4 camps per week. Unfortunately, we have big bright windows from the main hallway looking in so it’s a bit of a fishbowl really. I think I’m going to capitalize on that this year and cover the windows with some kind of forest-y scene with trees and have pre-cut forest animals. That way campers can pick their favourite, decorate it and put it up with their name. That will bring positive onlookers without the creepy feeling of being watched!
Submitted by Caroline S.
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Resident camps are full of traditions. A tradition is usually an activity, program or event that is done each session of every summer. One camp I worked at had a tradition of having each camper and staff touch the “lucky rock” (a large boulder) each morning. A tradition that most resident camps have is that of the campfire program. Most day camps don’t have many traditions. I believe this stems from the high turnover of staff every year and the overworked leadership who have many other hats they wear all year other than summer camp. With after school programs, special events, and more, they just don’t have the energy or desire to think about creating traditions, while many resident camps live and breathe summer camp and have all year to plan for each summer season. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Creating traditions can be very easy. Simply keep the activities, programs and events that are camper and staff favorites, and work them into every session of camp, or at least once per summer.
The ways in which we bring the feel of “camp” to partial day programs is through traditions – and returning staff – which are shared and expanded upon each year.
- Working to build community through daily large group “Opening” and “Closing” routines
- Using reflection after new activities or at the end of the day
- Crazy chants
- Banners with signatures that are added-to each season
- Storytelling/remember when…
- Certain songs or games only played at that camp
- We use bandannas to distinguish groups so we make sure we use different colors each year for returning campers to “collect”.
- Group photos of camps and staff also build identity and community.
Finally, creating traditions for staff helps them to get into the spirit of summer day camps:
- Orientation day which includes unveiling this year’s staff shirt and a shared meal at a super long, decorated table
- Camp closing debrief each week with supervisor (and ice cream)
- Mid-summer halfway social
- Ongoing capture of staff and camper quotes for annual “Quote Board”
These are all things we do to keep our staff in the groove for 10 weeks.
Submitted by Shannon B.
4. GROUP SIZE
I have seen too many day camps with group sizes of 20 or more campers for every one counselor. Resident camps have cabins that are 8-12 campers. This smaller size helps counselors control their groups more easily, helps campers to bond with their new friends and their counselor, and makes it easier to move from one activity to the next.
Hopefully, you have around a 1:10 counselor to camper ratio. Provided that’s the case, instead of having large groups of campers, create smaller groups. You can always combine groups for activities.
As mentioned earlier, if you have multiple rooms, you could go that extra mile and give groups their own room to decorate. It’s like having their own cabin. Only have a few rooms? Separate the rooms by age groups.
5. MORNING ASSEMBLIES
Resident camps often have morning assemblies which may include flag raising, announcements, a camp song, a staff skit, a staff or camper challenge (Minute to Win It games are ideal), and maybe a trivia question or riddle. The main thing you want to use this time for is announcements. Letting the campers (and staff) know what’s going on that day helps to put anxious kids at ease. After all, don’t we all want to know what to expect each day?
Just like in sleep away camp we start our mornings in day camp with “flagpole”. We gather the whole camp before first period to sing the national anthem, make daily announcements, counsellor challenges, play music and everyone does our camp dance. It is a great way to start the day on fun upbeat note as well as keeping everyone informed of what’s going on in camp each day.
Submitted by Laurie W.
6. CLOSING CEREMONY
I was once told that every camp session should start and end with a highlight. At the beginning of the week you want to get everyone excited for the session. At the end of the week you want to send them all home on a high note. These are two times the campers will remember the most.
A great way to end a week is with a closing campfire. When I say campfire, I mean that in a general resident camp sense. You don’t actually need to have a fire. This just means you gather the whole camp together, they sit in a semi-circle around a staging area, and one or two people lead the program. Closing camp programs come in all shapes and sizes. They can include repeat after me songs, slow and meaningful songs, skits, stories that have a moral, a sharing of camp stories from the week, acoustic music, slide shows full of pictures from the week, recognition and rewards for campers and staff, etc.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s a programmed event. In other words, don’t just gather the whole camp and then wing it. The whole staff should be involved and know what will happen and what is expected of them.
Closing ceremonies can be full of fun and laughs, they can be a serious time for reflection, or they can be a combination of both. You ceremony will most likely be different from what other camps would do based on your audience, environment, general camp program and staff.
Something I like to do is a closing “campfire” on the last day. The kids work on skits and songs throughout the week and perform on the last day!
Submitted by Misty R.
Here are some links to help with planning a “campfire” program:
Speaking of campfires, which can really help to bring that “campy” feel to your day camp, let’s explore a few ways you can have a campfire when one is not available at your facility. In the email round table, day camp directors mentioned how they would create fake campfires and lead “campfire programs”.
I am a municipal day camp and hold camp in our school. I attend the Tri-State Camp convention, and envy the overnight camps which seem to be able to create that magical “Campy” feel so easily. So, I started to introduce things that I see are so successful for them, but tailor it to our surroundings. A few years ago, I purchased an electric “Camp fire”. It’s really just a prop with a light and a blowing flame, but gives us that “campy” feeling. Each Friday we gather around the campfire for campfire songs. The kids and counselors love it, and it has really helped us build that sense of community.
Submitted by Rosemarie L.
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(At our camp), a campfire area doesn’t exist, and the typical time for a campfire (evening) is not during our time of operation, so we have a morning campfire (the coolest temps of our day) in a moveable fire bowl in the middle of the week where we roast marshmallows and make S’mores, sing camp songs, and hear great camp stories. The campfire experience is so quintessentially “summer camp” that it really adds to the overall “campy” feel.
Submitted by Whitney W.
If you have outdoor space where you can place a portable campfire, there are plenty of options. Here is one of my favorites:
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8. CAMP SONGS
Nothing brings that “campy” feel like camp songs. If you are doing this already, then you know what I mean. If there are no camp songs at your day camp, odds are you probably don’t know any. In that case, learning some camp songs is the first place to start. The good thing is, they are easy to learn and lead, especially the repeat after me songs.
Next, you’ll want to teach these songs to your staff during training. Some of your staff may even know a few from when they attended camp as kids. I like to teach the camp songs to the staff and have each of them choose their favorite to lead during the summer.
Finally, you’ll need to implement camp songs into your program. Camp songs can be sung pretty much anytime of the day, but especially when the whole camp is together like during morning assemblies and at the end of the day before the parents pick up their children.
To make sure our Day Camps have a campy feel, we make sure to tie in classic campfire songs when we can. We tend to sing them in line, waiting to head into the dining hall for lunch. When the leaders start, it gets the campers’ attention and they join in too! It’s a great way to kill some time if we are lined up early, or if the dining hall is just finishing getting ready for us. A great way to use campfire songs with no campfire!
Submitted by Leah S.
We try to bring the campy feel to our day camp by having a camp sing along every day after lunch. Last year’s favorite songs were: Princess Pat – and has been for over 20 years, baby shark, Reese’s peanut butter cup, the second story window and a pizza hut.
Submitted by Michelle S.
A big part of that “summer camp” feel are the camp songs that kids/staff sing. Each morning, all campers and staff head over to our flag pole to do some morning songs to kick off the day. After we do some songs and the silly moves with some of the songs, we make camp announcements about theme days, upcoming family nights, etc. Most campers enjoy the songs and get in to them, and parents have shared with me that they hear the kids singing them at home! Most of our songs come from returning staff over the years, YouTube search “camp songs”, or on Ultimate Camp Resource.
Submitted by Danielle C.
9. LATE NIGHTS AND OVERNIGHTS
Lots of day camp directors say that this is a great way to bring that “campy feel” to their programs. There are different ways to approach this:
- Older campers do an overnight and younger campers do an extended day program
- Everyone participates in an overnight
- Only older camper do an overnight and the younger campers must wait until they are older
- There is no overnight, just an extended day for everyone
- Families do an overnight together
- Overnight is done indoors
- Overnight is done outdoors
My Special Needs Camp will have a “Camp In”. We set up fake Christmas trees in the room to give the feel of being in the wilderness, we set up tents and sleeping bags all over the room and we make a fake fire pit (we download the sound of a crackling fire to make it more realistic). The group will then sit around the fire and sing campfire songs. The group will also make S’mores (using the oven but eaten around the campfire).
Submitted by Amy M.
Bringing the residential camp feel to day camps is a challenge, but here’s one way we do it.
We run an “in-camp overnight” for our older campers. We don’t stop programming at the end of the day, campers sleep in our building overnight, and wake up for the next day of camp. We’ve experimented with different evening activities and other programming during the overnight, but over the past two years, we’ve settled down to make it during our Color War. This gives campers a true residential feeling to Color War, makes activity planning easy and engaging, and gives the campers more time during their favorite part of the week. It also takes some of the work our counselors usually did at night (painting banners, writing songs, etc.) and gives the campers time to work on those things as well, as would happen at a residential camp.
For our younger groups, because we don’t do an overnight, we choose one evening to do an evening program for them, with a later pick-up, allowing them to get a taste of special programs as well.
Submitted by Daniel B.
10. COLOR WAR
The Color War program is one of those programs that is a tradition for some long-standing resident camps and has recently become more and more popular with both resident and day camps. Yet, most day camps (and even many resident camps) have no idea where to begin when it comes to starting a Color War program. In fact, many day camps don’t know what a Color War is.
A Color War is a competition between 2-4 teams. All the campers and staff are divided into teams and are represented by colors, red vs blue, for example. Some camps may call their Color War something else like Color Clash, Color Olympics or The (name of your camp) Games. They may use animal names for the teams instead of colors, bears vs tigers vs sharks vs panthers, for example. A Color War can last one day or all summer.
No matter what the set-up is, a Color War is full of competitions for points. In the end, one team will be victorious. Below is a great video to give you a taste of a traditional Color War program.
If you want tips and tricks on how to run your own Color War, check out my book Color War Tips, Tricks and Great Ideas where I took the best submissions from the Color War round table I did along with Color War submissions from other round tables and put them all together in one book.
Last summer we tried Color Wars for the first time. We are a day camp that is open all 10 weeks of summer and about 90% of our campers are all summer (minus a couple of weeks). We decided that we were going to call it Grove Games (after the creator of PCM) and it would be held every Friday for 9 weeks.
As I presented this idea to my staff they seemed interested. We had never tried anything like this before and it seemed fun and different. I told them that we would make a homemade trophy that was huge that two teams would fight over for the summer. I also told them that to make this work, they would have to be 100% sold out and give it all they had not just on Fridays, but all during the week.
My staff was sold…and Grove Games was born. So, the campy feel was created because my counselors and I were 100% sold on this idea. “Nice trash talk” was all week long and before the end of the first week, the campers were completely into this. We encouraged teams to wear their colors, not just on Fridays, but each day they could. This part went so well that it extended into the weekends and parents would send me pictures of their children in their Grove Games Team’s color with very creative trash talk captions.
By the time we were ready to award the trophy at the end of the summer program, no one wanted it to end. The campers were completely behind their team and completely invested in the outcome of this event. It is one of the best programs our camp has ever done.
Submitted by Stephanie P.
This is a personal choice, but I find that there is definitely magic in having staff use camp names. It’s a whimsical addition to the program that staff usually love, as do the campers and their parents. There are some directors that are adamantly opposed to camp names, and I have never understood their arguments against it. Be that as it may, using camp names will most certainly add to that “campy” feel.
I work in a Day Camp program and I wanted the kids to have some of the excitement/fun of overnight campers. My co-worker and I have both had experience as being the counselor at overnight camps. One of the things that we enjoyed and brought to our camp was to have fun names for the staff. Instead of Miss so-n-so; we became Gumby, Marbles, and Curly.
Submitted by Janet R.
REWARD AND RECOGNITION PROGRAMS
I could go into great depth at all the reward and recognition programs camps and schools run, but that would take a while. Instead, I’ll just say that whether you’re rewarding campers for picking up trash, keeping their areas clean, sharing with fellow campers, etc. or your recognizing their courage on the ropes course, skill in archery, contributions to camp, number of years coming to camp, etc., having a reward program is very camp.
Personally, I’m in favor of a bead program and awarding items to campers and staff for the number of summers they have been coming to camp.
I liked the idea of the bead program so I incorporated it into our summer program. Our kids are the same all summer long; parents drop them off before work and pick them up after work. So the kids build a necklace all summer long. Some categories: Are you here today (white bead), Did you do acts of kindness (blue bead), Did you participate in one activity (yellow bead), Were you a safe rider on the bus (purple bead), etc. The categories were endless and we looked for reasons to give the kids beads. We have kids that now have 5 years worth of summer camp necklaces.
Submitted by Janet R.
We give campers yearly patches for the number of years that they have been a camper and/or staff member. We also have mile-marker gifts as well for 5 years, 10 years and 15 years. Our 5-year gift is a watch; 10-year gift is an embroidered sweatshirt; 15-year is an embroidered jacket. This makes the campers have a sense of belonging to our camp as any overnight camper would. It gives them something to look forward to.
Submitted by Lynn P.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought about having mail call at day camp until I read the following submissions, but I think it’s a great idea of you’re trying to get that traditional camp feel.
At camp it is so much fun to receive mail; so I sent notices to the parents with our address and asked them to write letters to their kids. It was lots of fun.
Submitted by Janet R.
We have a MAIL day where the campers “get” mail from their parents. Parents are able to drop off mail all week long and that helps us to make sure that each camper actually gets some mail, so that no one is disappointed.
Submitted by Kimberly M.
FINAL WORDS OF WISDOM
The biggest thing is infusing that “campy” feel during staff training and showing the staff what that looks like. Then it will trickle down from them into the programming and groups they are running! I do this by trying to do a staff training sleepover somewhere. That gives the staff a chance to bond with other staff. Among the normal staff training stuff, like emergency procedures, we play together and do lots of team building!!! This is my BIGGEST piece of advice!!!! Start that “campy” feel in staff training!!!
Submitted by Misty R.