Thinking About Thunderdome - Rainy Days at Summer Camp
WHAT IS THUNDERDOME?
I have been to many camp conferences and heard about some great rainy day activities and some that, to be honest, don’t sound like fun. Most of the time when people talk about rainy day activities, it is in the context of what we can do during thunderstorms. At the camp where I grew up, Camp Stella Maris, and also the one I helped start, Stomping Ground, we called these times Thunderdome.
Thunderdome is different from just rainy days. Like Andy Pritikin says at Liberty Lake, rain is just liquid sunshine. We can do most of our activities in the rain. Thunderdome is when there is thunder and we have to move inside to keep everyone safe.
BUILDING A SUCCESSFUL THUNDERDOME
I want to zoom out. The key to a successful Thunderdome isn’t just swapping an outdoor activity for an indoor one. It is looking at the program and seeing what kinds of moving pieces we have to set ourselves up for success.
If I see that storms are in the forecast tomorrow, I think about three things before I go to sleep:
The weather could change. What can I do to delay having to change the program as long as possible?
How can I change the program to give me the most flexibility with the least possible work?
What is the first “big” indoor program change we will make if needed?
I write down the answers to these three questions for the different aspects of camp so that when I am stressed tomorrow, I will have the beginnings of a plan.
HOW DOES THUNDERDOME IMPACT DIFFERENT PARTS OF CAMP?
For the main camp program at Stomping Ground, we have five different types of programming, and when Thunderdome happens during each time, I want to have a varied approach.
Meals— We tend to eat most meals in the dining hall as a big group and don’t need to adjust much for Thunderdome except to potentially push up or delay traveling to the meal to avoid the worst of the storm.
Cabin times— We are in our cabins in the morning, after lunch, before dinner, and before bed. Cabins are great places for a relatively short Thunderdome, but they don’t have bathrooms. If we send kids to cabins, we try to have them pee first and not keep them in the cabins for more than an hour or so.
Options— The bulk of a standard day is spent in free choice options. In Thunderdome, our first choice is to situate these options in one or two buildings. This can get us through the first hour of T-Dome almost every time.
Waterfront/Ballfield— These are all camp outdoor times where everyone is either down at the waterfront or playing on the ballfield. If we have Thunderdome during these times, they tend to be where we will make our first big program change to run an indoor activity.
Evening Program— Evening programs or night games at Stomping Ground are the best part of the day for most kids. Kids look forward to them, and night games tend to be a big production. Finding ways to have awesome rainy day options is hard and important. Before totally committing to an indoor night game, we first want to see if we can plan for something that is outside and easy to set up so we can delay making the decision as long as possible. We delay making the decision because one of the worst situations is when we move the program inside and it gets sunny outside. The kids hate that. Fortress is a good example.
THE BIG CAMP ACTIVITIES
Let’s talk about these big camp activities a little more.
We don’t run anything too wild but always do try to give activities a little flair. They are things like...
This or That
Make the Directors Laugh
They can be really fun. Some of our best programs end up being these rainy day options, but we try hard not to have them on the schedule early in a session so we can move them around. If we run a casino night when it is nice out and then we get three days of rain, we are down our best option for those three days.
Thought from Mike O: I really like your distinction about keeping indoor-centric large camp activities for rainy days.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
In the end, the key to Thunderdome is playing the game a little wider than just what to do when it rains. It is about expecting that Thunderdome will come, saving a few programs just for that, and staying as flexible as possible until you have to make a decision.
An old president said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” This couldn’t be more true for rainy day programming.
TRAININGS WITH JACK
I will be on the road most of May and June doing staff trainings all over the US and I would love to work with you. If you are interested shoot me an email/text and let’s make summer 2024 the best one yet!
I thought I was done writing this article, but then Paige asked this brilliant question.
Question from Paige: What are the guardrails around what you can and cannot run if it’s rainy and not T-Dome?
The question is really around, what is safe and fun, both in the moment and won’t be awful after the fact? Getting really specific, we likely won’t run capture the flag on a super wet field because where we play CTF has hills and is asking for rolled ankles on slippery ground. If it is sprinkling or just wet we might run something like Clue because up until the last minute we can move it inside or keep it outside. The way we run Clue has different characters all over camp and groups of kids travel with a staff member to different characters to interrogate them and it ends with a “trial”. If Clue is indoor, typically the kids can move without having to stay with a counselor but have to stay in a designated space.
One of the hardest decisions for us is looking at the forecast and seeing storm clouds on the horizon for 30 minutes after we start a big activity like a night game, but it is nice out for the beginning. This is can be a really challenging decision: do I risk it or play it safe? I tend to play it safe, but sometimes there is a middle ground. Back to Clue. Can we condense the boundaries of Clue to be outside but mostly around an indoor space that when the weather changes we can all move inside. Clue works great for this because moving inside can be the start of the trial, which can be dragged out with different theatrics to fill the right amount of time.
The key again is building flexibility into the programming and have a good plan for how changes will be communicated.