Not Just For Kids

By Katie Hartman

The summer camp industry is a valuable source for inspiring, activating, and energizing community spaces for people of all ages.  Public parks are taking note by utilizing amenities and programs to reintroduce the “plugged-in” generation to adventure, exploration, and fun, and promote family bonding by providing a wide range of play opportunities that have been tried and tested at youth and family camps.


Design Principles
Great camp design places people at the center by focusing on the individual. Reflective of each unique mission and vision in design, we may expect the unexpected while developing a long-term memory of place. Designed to nurture both structured and unstructured activity, a successful design instills a sense of ownership in which individuals see themselves as primary stakeholders and custodians.  Like camp design, great park design is a celebration of the community and the surrounding region.

Family and youth camps are essentially small communities and are designed not just as simple spaces, but also as stories with a past, a present, and a future. They are a balance of passive and active spaces and experiences that allow for spontaneity, memory making, and imagination, where campers are encouraged to try something new and different, get outside of their comfort zones, and think creatively.

Basic camp-design principles naturally translate into park design. Here are a few key examples that contain the essence of camp:

  • Create a first impression through imaginative signage, an arrival experience, a welcoming staff, and iconic views. Build anticipation!
  • Create a central gathering location or “heart of the camp,” such as the dining hall, camp commons, or flagpole. Surround the central core with activity-based destinations to create critical mass. 
  • Provide opportunities for people watching. Not only is it entertaining, but people actively learn from one another by simply observing.
  • Encourage discovery through engaging activities, education, and programming, as well as opportunities for informal and spontaneous adventures.
  • Develop traditions, build a legacy, and create memories. 
  • Establish a brand. The brand is a reminder of where you are; choose logos that are memorable and easy to repeat EVERYWHERE!
  • Plan for the necessities! Operational buildings and facilities ensure that everything works together and can fade into the background.

The Camp Experience
What is it about the camp experience that is so unique? Golden State YMCA’s Camp Sequoia Lake Master Plan provides a glimpse into the application of its key design elements.

Located in the mountains east of Fresno, Calif., and near the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park, the 743-acre site serves families, youth, seasonal campers, and groups. The camp focuses on core values of youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. It seeks to teach real-world skills relevant to today’s youth and families, while maintaining the heart of the YMCA camp experience. 

The master-plan design focuses primarily on thematic and programmatic organization, and aims to support the staff’s program visions, celebrate the lake’s traditions, and maintain a wide variety of activities. As part of the master plan, five independent camp villages are strategically combined into four comprehensive camps. Described as individual “tent poles,” each camp incorporates the YMCA’s values through focused programming and intentional design.


1.       Youth Camp features multiple specialty programs based on camper interest, including skate, music, art, adventure, media, literacy, and photography.

  • Camp Tulequoia--non-summer seasonal camp
  • Camp Millwood—skate camp

2.       Family Camp is similar to youth camp in many ways, but focuses specifically on programs for all ages and the family unit, with family camps, parent-child weekends, and communication workshops.

  • Camp Gaines
  • Camp Sequoia

3.       Group Camp houses YMCA groups and outside organizations focused on day programming and corporate retreats.

  • Redwood Village

4.       Lake Central is the major entrance to Camp Sequoia Lake and administrative hub. This camp offers new, non-summer campsites for volunteers and staff.

A single primary-entrance drive circles the lake, winding through a heavy forest canopy, to create an intentional welcoming experience, leading to the Lake Central area camp offices, health center, and a new welcome center. As the main focal point upon arrival, this area acts as the camp “headquarters,” serving all five camps. In addition, an all-camp fire circle is centrally located, where multiple-camp villages can come together for announcements, chapel, and all-camp activities.

Operational components, such as dining halls and camp stores, will be reduced and shared across camp to create more centralized cores of activity. By combining resources and camp necessities, pedestrian and vehicular circulation can be streamlined and parking improved.

Camp accommodations are placed within the site in a way that considers the demographics and ideals of the individuals attending each camp. For example: youth cabins typically contain large groups of campers within a single or small grouping of sleeping quarters, while families are often housed in more private, individualized, remote cabins. The same flexibility can be achieved within the interior furnishings of these sleeping arrangements. These considerations can also be applied to the design of program buildings, operational facilities, and amenities.

Shared camp activities include a wide variety of amenities that inspire discovery, emphasize camp traditions, and encourage play. Adventure courses, mountain biking, rock climbing, archery, swimming, camping, fishing, crafts, soccer, skateboarding, and basketball are just a few of the numerous programs offered at Camp Sequoia Lake.

The Park Experience
Camp Sequoia Lake represents not only “the camp experience” but also shows how easily it can be translated to the public-park model when shaped by a clearly defined cultural paradigm. Across the country, parks have successfully integrated the basic camp-design principles used at Camp Sequoia Lake to bring this experience to their communities.

Common camp facilities, such as fire circles, picnic shelters, and amphitheaters, can be utilized at parks as a way of placemaking, an alternative to a “camp commons.” They can become the heart of the park. These elements may be composed of flexible pieces and parts to allow for multiple functions, both formal and informal, to take place. A picnic shelter can operate as the park movie theater or meeting space. An amphitheater can be composed of stumps, boulders, and felled trees to create not only a gathering circle, but also a scattering of natural play elements, designed as part of the landscape.

Sculptural installations double as pieces of art and play for all ages. From adult-friendly swings to colorful sculpture gardens, these pieces allow for a cultural connection to the community, and create an opportunity for adults to people-watch, experience nature, and see the world through an artist’s lens.

Action And Adventure
Adventure sports have been growing in popularity in park systems across the country. High-ropes courses and zip lines have been implemented at parks as pay-to-play elements, often through coordination with third-party vendors. These activities attract children, teens, and adults by offering not just somewhere to be, but something to do.

In addition to these components, splash grounds, “wet bubbles,” and inflatables have been used in coordination with public pools and lakes, as a lower-intensity method of unconventional fun!

Public parks have a unique opportunity to capture and recreate the experience of childhood that includes a love of outdoors that is not just screen-based. By simply incorporating ideas that have been shown to make youth and family camps great, parks too can offer experiences and memories that last a lifetime—a lesson that keeps the spirit of summer camp going year-round!

Katie Hartman is an intern architect and planner at Domokur Architects, a professional consulting firm based in Akron, Ohio. The company has worked with more than 500 recreational and camping facilities in 35 states, including local, state, and federal park services. Domokur Architects has been in business since 1975 and is nationally recognized for its planning and design of parks, youth/family camps, and retreat centers. For more information, visit or email us at