A Recipe For Successful Youth Programming

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc./stevanovicigor


I cannot count the number of times my colleagues and I have come up with a great idea for a new program, camp, or class and then watched staff members struggle to turn our vision into reality. After one or two failed attempts, they often revert to some of the more tried-and-true standbys. For example, a company I worked with planned elaborate theme-based summer day-camp programs, complete with activity schedules, materials lists, and instructions for each and every project, game, and song. Generally, by week 3, most of the staff members were doing their own thing, having repurposed the supplies, allowed children to come up with new and unique uses for the materials, and even used the “lesson plans” as scrap paper. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone, but there is a better (and easier) approach to program innovation.

The Main Course

The most important ingredient for successful programming is enthusiastic and motivated staff. Just as a gourmet meal cannot be made from inferior ingredients, no great youth program can exist without a passionate and committed leader.

Many of us have approached programming in the past by planning what we think children (or parents) will be interested in, and then try to find staff to run the programs. On rare occasions, this approach works. A staff member is hired, takes what is given, and delivers an outstanding program. More frequently, some level of disconnect leads to dampened enthusiasm and confusion, and may even lead to a hurried search for a new employee.

So, how can we plan programs that staff will be excited about? Begin by using staff members’ strengths and interests.

However, maybe you had your heart set on offering five different basketball camps, or little tumblers’ gymnastics, or a toddlers’ nature-explorer program. You may be contractually (or historically) obligated to provide these special activities. But I’m talking about entirely new programs you and the team would like to offer based on surveys, board member input, or just an honest desire to offer more to members of the community. These “experimental” programs can and should be developed with real ownership from a staff that will deliver them.

At a previous camp at which I worked, a nature program had historically struggled to attract interest from the campers. One summer, two long-time staff members asked if they could be in charge of nature for that season. The director, somewhat surprised, agreed. These counselors, who were both artistically and musically inclined, renamed the program “Funk in the Forest.” They started getting campers excited about all of the cool things they would be doing over the course of the summer. From that point on, the program was one of the most popular at camp. Many of the activities, like hiking, bug hunts, and nature-based crafts, remained the same. What changed was the enthusiasm and ownership the staff shared with the campers.

I admit that letting staff take the lead in program efforts can be somewhat uncomfortable, but I’ve seen firsthand how well it can work. It’s also important to distinguish between empowering staff and being completely absent from the process. While still being active in planning, I tend to work more as a guide or resource. The final product is a collaborative effort, but I do retain the right to decide what is put before the public.

Side Dishes

Once staff members are engaged, there can really be some breakthrough programs. But a couple of other things should be kept in mind to ensure that everything goes well.

First, I’ve learned that one of the biggest mistakes is confusing enthusiasm for skill and competence. For example, a staff member who really loves hockey may be excited to offer a learn-to-skate program. On paper that looks good, but when the passionate staff member ends up looking like Bambi on ice during the first class, I know that things will probably not end well.

Second, there may be too much of a good thing. It’s like loving a certain type of pizza, but eating it every day loses its appeal. In youth programs, it’s the same when a great new program is offered too frequently, or is spun into other programs, or is loaded with kids in trying to keep up with demand. Strategically limiting offerings creates a buzz and leaves families with a positive perception of the programs, increasing the likelihood families will return.


To truly provide a stand-out experience for each participant,  follow up with each one in a meaningful way. Working with youth (and parents) is a relationship-oriented business, and nothing matters more than communication and interest. Online surveys are fine for gathering general impressions, but they do not compare to a face-to-face conversation, a phone call, or even a personalized email. By taking the time to solicit honest feedback, you are letting the families know they are valued and you really care. Just as a delicious piece of cake is a great end to a meal, a personalized opportunity to share and reflect on an experience is a perfect way to wrap up a program.

Dr. Zachary Mural is a professional educator and youth-development professional with more than 20 years of experience. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Technology and a M.A. in Youth Development, and is currently the CEO of Youth Development Consulting, Regional Director of Private Schools for Minnieland Academy in Manassas, Va., and an Expert Online Training faculty member. Reach him at zach@youthdevelopmentconsulting.com .