A Successful Day Camp

By Lauren Lotz

The New Lenox Community Park District’s Camp Wewannago, for grades 1 through 7, has experienced a significant increase in enrollment each year since 2013. In fact, the number last year grew to more than 300. While some agencies have seen a drop in enrollment for summer camp-programs due to struggling economic times and rising unemployment, this has not been the case in New Lenox, Ill.

Needs Of Working Parents Identified
This camp, originally titled Day Camp, was popular with its 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. hours, but when the park district decided to change the name and lengthen its hours to accommodate working parents, its growth exploded. The park district created two supplemental programs titled Early Risers and Night Owls. These additions allowed working parents to take advantage of early-morning hours from 6:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. before camp, as well as later evening hours from 4:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. These extended hours were needed for parents seeking summertime childcare before, during, and after their normal work schedules, while school was not in session. When local schools were out for the summer, the district was contacted by a host of parents looking to solve their dilemma of requiring day-long care while they work. While many camp hours focus on the middle of the day, the addition of before- and after-care was the answer working parents were looking for.

The park district’s arrangement was made possible through an intergovernmental agreement with the local school district. Both the before- and after-camp programs are held in a local grade school adjacent to Camp Wewannago. However, for any camps that may be considering this service, keep in mind the arrangement does not have to be with a school. An adjacent church or community center may provide a satisfactory location. Further, with many schools, churches, or other organizations’ buildings being under-utilized during the summer months, it may be worthwhile to explore all options before committing to a location.

Early Risers And Night Owls
Camp Wewannago’s Early Risers program includes a light continental breakfast, arts and crafts, and inside gym or outside activities—weather permitting. The after-camp portion, Night Owls, includes a light snack and various activities. All of the food items are pre-packaged, eliminating the need for a full kitchen; only a refrigerator and storage area are necessary. These two programs combine for a unique full-day solution for working parents, while also providing an interesting summer-camp experience. When these two programs were implemented, enrollment increased 40 to 45 children per day. 

Flexibility Is The Key To Success
Most parents would agree that during the summer, their work and home schedules vary greatly, depending on school vacations and typical family activities. The camp’s unique registration flexibility includes a variety of options for enrolling. Jason Braglia, who oversees Camp Wewannago, is convinced this approach is the key to its success. “Many camp programs limit the parents to registering for full weeks without per-day flexibility. We feel it is so important to provide various options, be it one day, two days, a full week, etc.” This creates various cost and schedule options, where the needs and wants of both working and non-working parents can be accommodated.

Schedule Structure And Weekly Themes
To create a positive camping experience, the park district utilizes two structures that clearly have been successful. First, a set schedule for planned activities for each of the five days during the week was created. Here is a sample schedule:

  • Monday: Camp on-site and/or explore local parks
  • Tuesday: Local park and/or local attraction (e.g., bowling, movies, ice skating)
  • Wednesday: Water day (camp on-site or water parks/pools)
  • Thursday: Camp on-site barbeque, including a walk to the local ice cream shop or on-site enrichment programs (e.g., anti-bullying talk, nutrition, exercise, etc.)
  • Friday:   Full-day field trip (e.g., Chicago museums, entertainment centers, carnivals, aquatic centers, zoos, baseball games, etc.).

Camp leaders and coordinators can be assured that each structured day is appropriately staffed and activities are properly prepared.

Second, various unique and different weekly camp themes allow for activity stations that accommodate not only for the number of daily campers but for age differences and abilities. Some recent themes have included nature, pirates, circus, Fourth of July, and Christmas in July. Each station may include a sport, craft, drawing, water activity, or board game; each accommodates the campers’ ages.

Staffing And Safety
Due to the large number of campers attending each day, the park district has implemented a series of staff and safety measures. The staffing formula is maintained at a strict 10-to-1 ratio to provide better one-on-one interaction. This allows for staff members to get to know each camper and then identify activities in which he or she may respond positively. Further, each staff member’s qualifications and experience in the camp are used to determine which age group would be best suited for their interests and talents. Additionally, when a field trip is slated for a pool or water park, the staff ratio is reduced to 7 to 1. Camp Supervisor Jason Braglia explains, “For those days when swimming is involved, we want to assure any nervous parents that our staffing is strong and safety is our main concern. To accomplish this, we have instituted a swimming grading system where parents identify the swimming strength of their child using a green, yellow, or red system—green being the highest level of ability.” The park district uses the same color-coded wristbands as a group identification-tool, and also helps monitoring by staff. Braglia indicates, “These measures help to reassure any parent who may be hesitant when a water outing is planned, as well as to provide important information to staff.”  Also, the park district requires that all staff members are trained and certified in first-aid and the use of an AED.

Finally, although not all park districts or departments are able to implement a camp program on the level or size of the New Lenox Community Park District, the key to all successful camp programs is remaining flexible, affordable, and fun-filled for the families you serve.

Lauren Lotz is the Communications/Marketing Supervisor for the New Lenox Community Park District in New Lenox, Ill. Reach her at lauren@newlenoxparks.org.