Why Bother With Opening Campfires?

I am in a contemplative mood as we approach the holidays….

I don’t love our opening day at Stomping Ground and the opening campfire is a big part of that day. We have a relatively standard opening day with welcoming counselors, name tags, name games, great pizza, tours, agreements, orientation, and a campfire. The campfire is the culmination of the day. During that time most other days at camp, we play an epic game where kids battle dragons, catch dinosaurs, or something similar. But on opening day, kids mostly sit and watch or stand and sing. This article is mostly a trip inside my brain as I try to wrestle with the why and how of campfires at Stomping Ground. I hope it is informative or at least entertaining. Also, at the end I am going to try to explain/sell/convince you that The Summer Camp Society is worth looking into. It is!

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At every sleepaway camp I have worked at, and most I have been to, we start each session with some form of opening campfire or ceremony. One of the most commonly spouted pieces of advice for day camp is to create that resident camp feel. A lot of times that starts with a big ceremony with camp songs and classic skits. Why? What is the magic of campfires?

When I say campfire I mean some combination of songs, stories, and skits as a big group. Often no actual fire is present. When I am talking about campfires this is what I am talking about. These gatherings, these songs, this experience.

Why We Need Summer Camp from Camp Tecumseh

Awesome video from Camp Tecumseh YMCA by the way. If you don’t follow them check them out. Their content marketing is some of the best in the business.

We Can’t Win on Fun

But why campfires? Why are we bothering? If like Joel says in the video above camp isn’t just about fun. That “We can’t win on fun.” What else is happening at a campfire? Maybe an even better question. What else could we do that would be better than a campfire? Also! Couldn’t we be more fun than a campfire?

I was the program director at Camp Stella Maris for the last two of the eight years I worked there. I ran an opening campfire every week, but got rid of closing campfires every other week. Kate, the program director at Stella Maris after me and the program director at Stomping Ground now, took it one step further. She got rid of opening campfires all together. Kate is a badass, but was she right? Was it better? She did this because she noticed the time when kids were the most bored and homesick at Stella Maris was during opening campfires. She added a simple evening program to the first night of camp and bailed on campfires almost all together.

At Stomping Ground, Kate runs opening campfires and closing campfires every week. Our camp has a lot more new kids than Stella Maris did. The opening campfire is mostly high energy and silly. All the villages, campers and staff, do a skit or cheer. We do a few songs and a few skits. Then we end with a little more heartfelt closing ceremony. It is a fairly standard opening campfire. The closing campfire is all low energy. It happens after a night game on the last night. Laura and I say some words and kids are given a chance to reflect on the week. We sing a song and kids head back to their villages, also fairly standard for sleepaway camps.

The closing of the campfire looks something like this Facebook Live video we did for our fundraising campaign last year. Skit ahead about 2 minutes.

What I love about opening campfire?

  • I know everyone hears the same message from Laura and I about the community we are creating.

  • New kids get to see everyone

  • Often the skits and songs are fun and silly which creates a shared experience for all kids to talk about. Similar to gathering around the water cooler and talking football.

  • These inside jokes can facilitate quick friendship making.

  • It has a low barrier to entry. We don’t ask much from kids. It is easy first night for mostkids.

  • When we sing the songs are easy so most kids sing along which is easy and gives them a sense that they can participate going forward.

  • It is easy to plan.

  • Staff love campfires.

  • Everyone has a chance to be on stage.

  • People have been gathering around fires for ever so there might just be something to that.

I struggle with about opening campfires…

  • There aren’t any options. It is the only evening program that there isn’t a clear alternative.

  • The space we sit is fairly uncomfortable which makes extended or damp sitting pretty rough.

  • Lots of kids don’t like to be on stage.

  • Lots of kids don’t really like the skits or songs.

  • Lots of kids don’t actually listen while Laura and I explain things.

  • Opening campfire is dramatically less fun and structurally different from the rest of the program we run.

Kids seem to like about campfire...

  • When there are really funny skits, ok mostly when Brian, one of our staff, does skits.

  • Mostly younger, mostly girls, tend to quite like the repeat after me songs.

  • Almost everyone seems to like when we sing the camp song. (Classic acoustic guitar folky type song)

  • Kids like to get in on repeating nonsensical jokes. Ok mostly when George, another staff, does them.

Some ideas…

Without getting too into the details about our constraints at Stomping Ground that is a glimpse into how I like to think about different areas at camp.

  • Get rid of opening campfire entirely and run a night camp the first night.

  • Have a short night game, maybe by village, and then a short campfire.

  • Make sure the campfire skits are funnier.

  • Get benches for the campfire pit

Why The Summer Camp Society

Each week I get a chance to meet with The Summer Camp Society cohorts and dig into tons of different areas of camp, just like this. We dream big, ask why, and try to find specific takeaways for each of us. I try to keep a short list running of ideas for Stomping Ground next summer, but there are a dozen more I have already implemented that have come from conversations in our groups.

If you are looking for a community of driven, intentional, like minded young-ish camp professionals examining the why behind camp, looking for quick wins and low hanging fruit, and other folks to bounce ideas off of, I hope you will check out The Summer Camp Society. It might be the best value you can get for professional development in camping. $599 for a conference, 10 weeks of weekly discussions, ongoing chat about real topics, and most importantly an authentic community of camp pros you can call for the rest of your career.  

KURTZ!

PLUS! You get to hangout with Kurtz every week. I mean me too, but Kurtz every week. MBA, was youngest Y exec in the country at 23, filled camp, incredible facilitator, easily one of the best staff training consultants. Ok ok ok. You are done listening to me about The Summer Camp Society.

Check it out.

Stomping Ground Campfires 2018

Right now what I am leaning toward from campfires at Stomping Ground in 2018…

  • Let’s keep em!

  • Figure out how to drive the price of crazy creeks down so everyone could have one.

  • Get Brian and George on stage more.

  • Shorten the campfire.

  • Create a system where I can know for sure that kids are hearing what Laura and I have to say before campfire. We made this last year but need to do better.

  • Up the fun in each village before or after. Maybe snacks. Maybe village specific games. Like night games but for just the village.

  • Maybe just a bigger actual fire. That can change the whole experience?

  • More importantly… JUST ASK THE KIDS NEXT SUMMER JACK!

Jack Schott
Co-Founder/Director Camp Stomping Ground
Facilitator The Summer Camp Society
Jack@campstompingground.org