Day-Camp Diligence

By Charlie Hoffmann

Many parks and recreation professionals have a love-hate relationship with day camps. We love them because they give us a chance to provide children with safe, fun, and memorable experiences that will last a lifetime. If we do our jobs correctly, campers will experience a summer with amazing trips and new programs, while learning skills, sports, and tons more. The better day camps yield a high percentage of returning campers excited for other wonderful adventures. 

However, the challenge is to dedicate the necessary time each month for a camp to be successful. While camp is strictly a summer endeavor for the kids, it’s a 12-month responsibility for the professionals in charge of organizing it. Even a small day camp requires endless planning.

Step Back To Move Forward
Many parks and rec professionals subscribe to the principle of Kaizen—constant improvement over time. This philosophy calls on studying every aspect of an organization and striving to improve it. Therefore, the most valuable component of the camp life-cycle is the analysis phase. We spend a tremendous amount of time after each camp season using surveys from parents, staff members, and children to learn which events need improvement and which events have that special sizzle. “Geeking out” on the data, we review all of the revenue and expenditures to make sure we are operating as efficiently as possible.

This approach forces us to take a step back and ask important questions about camp:

  • Are we doing everything we can to serve campers with special needs? 
  • Are trips as safe as they can possibly be?
  • Is safety training up to par?
  • Is the programming diverse, encompassing all aspects of recreation? 
  • How can we collectively improve?

Asking these questions, having an open dialogue, and putting every camp component under the microscope will undoubtedly yield a better product.

Gather Intel
Once we have analyzed our own program, then we begin to “snoop.” The staff is tasked with studying other camps and seeing what has worked for them. Perhaps they had some great activities that were an added value for their program. Perhaps another camp used technology more efficiently, or added some trip destinations we never considered. One amazing quality of fellow professionals is their willingness to share feedback. I have found so much value in asking staff members of other camps to brag about their accomplishments. Similarly, they are typically more than willing to share their horror stories from the past year. And yes, we all have them! However, hearing horror stories or negative incidents can serve as a pivot-point to focus on and learn from them for the future.

Once the analysis of the prior year is properly completed, then planning for the next summer begins. We advise every staff member to keep a running list of programming ideas. Often, staff participates in events, trips, or activities throughout the year that will benefit the camp. I advise staff members to take ideas from their personal lives and bring them to camp. These may include activities at college (with discretion, of course), religious activities, and social events, as well as fun destinations they seek throughout the year. My goal for each counselor, supervisor, or counselor in training (CIT) is to be ready for the next summer with tons of new ideas for campers to enjoy.

Hire Staff Members
Another success-point for our program has been hiring and screening staff, specifically re-screening and re-hiring returning staff members. We have been fortunate that counselors want to return year after year.

It’s easy—particularly for seasoned, returning staff members—to adhere to the philosophy of “same old, same old.” Therefore, we stress adaptability as a cornerstone of service for the team. Seasonal staff members may not realize that the department has switched focus since the previous summer. Since the summer-camp audience may vary from year to year, the criteria for success may have also shifted. Similarly, staff members should know exactly what the success factors are for the upcoming summer, as they are often different than those of the previous year.

For example, one summer the main objective was to limit the number of incidents, while the next summer it was geared towards fiscal responsibility and efficiency. It’s critical that all staff, particular returning team members, realize the department’s new objectives. We make it clear that each counselor, supervisor, and CIT has his or her own clearly defined goals for the upcoming season. Communicating this early and often will prevent any misunderstandings and will keep the entire organization marching towards the same goals.

Over-Communicate
Another area of focus that has proven to be monumentally helpful is communication. The camp had always done a satisfactory job informing parents of news and reminders throughout the summer. E-blasts, text alerts, newsletters, and bi-lingual communication kept families well-informed.  However, we recently made it a point to over-communicate to parents during the non-camp months.

For example, when we received good news in the fall, we shared it. “We have a new rainy-day location.” Parents were excited to hear about it. In January, we announced “Pete and Lindsay (the world’s best counselors) are returning for this summer.” These tidbits of communication have kept summer camp on parents’ minds throughout the year. It kept them excited and “in the loop” as to the inner workings of our world. Furthermore, it let them know that camp planning is a full-time commitment for us, and we are constantly striving to make it as great as possible.

Pivot As Needed
Lastly, we pride ourselves on the ability to pivot as needed. The year-to-year trends of any youth-serving program often change quickly. Uncontrollable factors, such as demographics, age range, facility changes, administrative requirements, and budget restrictions, can hamper a program’s success. To that end, it’s essential that, as these factors arise, a camp is able to adjust accordingly (and often quickly). Too often, we are at the mercy of variables that force us to change on a regular basis.

Stay Focused
The camp experience can yield a high reward for an entire community, but requires a year-long commitment to garner such success. Focusing a moderate amount of time each month throughout the year will be enormously beneficial. The results are certainly worthwhile, but in order to provide top-notch service, analysis, preparation, and implementation must be of the highest quality. The success of a summer-camp program depends on the camp’s actions in the winter, spring, and fall, as much as it does in the summer.

Even during the next snowstorm, when the thermometer dips below 20 degrees, be sure your mindset is still focused on summer. The camp experience is one of the most important times for a youngster, and the responsibility to make it an amazing one lies in the hands of organized, dedicated parks and recreation professionals.

Charlie Hoffmann is the Recreation Director for Red Bank Borough in Coastal New Jersey. He studied Recreation Management at Coastal Carolina University and has nearly two decades in municipal and commercial recreation.  He writes regularly and also published “What About Us?  Recreational Programming For Adults” in PRB in 2014. Reach him at choffmann@redbanknj.org.

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Sidebar

A Sample Camp Life Cycle

September—Solicit input via focus groups and surveys.
October—Analyze last year’s metrics and feedback.
November—Consult with other professionals.
December—Develop a game plan for the next summer. Set trips, dates, times, and pricing models. Square away the budget.
January—Keep your audience informed (in January, and as updates happen). Begin registration.    
February—Screen, hire, and re-hire staff members. Make sure registration information is available.
March—Establish policies. Begin frequent communication with supervisors and staff members.
April—Set up training and proper lines of communication (e-blasts, text alerts, newsletters, etc.).
May—Finalize last-minute preparations.  Confirm all programs, speakers, equipment, and orders.
June through August--Implement a program of which the whole community will be proud.