Camp: A Day in the Life
How do campers spend their day?
If you’re new to the summer camp experience, you may wonder how campers spend their days. In fact, around this time every year, camp directors busily field tons of parent questions about schedules, activities, rain contingencies, friends, cabin groups. . .
The truth is, no two camp days are ever quite the same. But despite rotating activity schedules, “camper choice” electives and enticing special events, each day has a rhythm that builds familiarity and community.
First things first . . . morning assembly
Before anything can happen at day camp, kids have to get there. Many camps accommodate parents’ work schedules with extended hours for early drop-off and late pickup. At Willow Grove Day Camp in Willow Grove, PA, campers can arrive as early as 7am; by 9:25 everyone is present and ready for assembly, where campers review their daily schedules, says owner/director Larry Zeitz.
Camp days at both overnight and day programs typically begin — and often end — with a similar all-camp assembly. This mass meetup goes by many names, but the message is always the same: Underlying daily announcements, lost-and-found alerts, silly games and award presentations, this is when the camp builds a sense of unity.
“Circle Time,” for example, kicks off every session of the full- and half-day camps Delaware’s New Castle County (NCC) hosts at seven locations. During this time, says camp supervisor Heather
Mergenthaler, the community reviews safety and camp rules, known as “fun”-damentals, as well as field trips, swimming or special-guest visits. “We also discuss the ‘Word of the Week,’ which
encourages confidence, sharing and stewardship,” she says.
Camp activities throughout the day
From this point, every camp has a different approach to how the day flows. At NCC camps, Mergenthaler says days are divided into periods that balance outdoorsy physical fun like nature walks with inside activities that allow for cool-down time, such as art and reading club. Campers’ choice periods allow each child to choose what he’d like to do from a preset list of activities.
At Willow Grove, children 3 to 15 are divided into five groups by age. The youngest follows a “fixed schedule, with no electives and more rest time built in,” explains Zeitz. “Older campers progressively have more options to create their own schedule with favorite activities or by trying something new.” All have instructional swim in the morning and recreational swim in the afternoon, plus a daily snack and lunch. Kids with special needs get an individualized, supervised roster.
Campers’ choice is emphasized at YMCA Camp Mason, an overnight camp in Hardwick, NJ, with an associated day option, YMCA Day Camp Shannon. Campers select a weekly program that incorporates three individual electives per day. Rounding things out, a daily group-choice “cabin activity” and two “village activities” ensure that campers compromise and find common ground, explains camp director Jackson Patterson. Swimming, boating and off-site adventure trips are also part of the mix.
No matter the menu of activities, there are times when kids aren’t in the mood for a scheduled game or a taste of a new activity. When this happens, Zeitz says, “We are flexible. No one is forced to participate in anything she hates,” though Willow Grove counselors do try to encourage swimming.
At NCC’s programs, campers who don’t want to play team sports are asked to get involved in other ways: “help coach, keep score, retrieve balls or just cheer on their friends,” says Mergenthaler.
Boys & girls together?
Team sports at coed camps raise another participation question: Do boys and girls do activities separately or together? Answers vary, of course, but good camps have good reasons to support how they operate.
For instance, all Camp Mason activities are coed. Says Patterson, “We believe that without interacting with both boys and girls, a child's development cannot be complete.”
At Willow Grove, age is the factor: Younger campers have gender-separate activities. For older kids, “Group rosters today are more similar than different, regardless of gender,” explains Zeitz. “Our sports leagues used to be gender-separate, but they are now coed, with more girls than ever before.” Similarly, he reports that boys are now equally taking part in certain activities once considered girl territory, like cooking and ceramics.
Whatever the program, often the most memorable camp days occur when the weather necessitates an impromptu change in schedule — spurring indoor tournaments, say, or outdoor mud-
sliding. “We always make sure to have popcorn and an approved movie on hand,” says Mergenthaler. “Some of our best days have been rainy kickball games and nature hikes.”
Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association (ACA) Keystone Region serving Pennsylvania and Delaware. Learn more at Campparents.org.