Program

Five Simple Ways to Make Carnivals More Fun

I love carnivals at camp. We call them open camps or station games because they tend to be more than just carnivals, but the games we are talking about have a bunch of stations that individual campers can walk around and go play.

Below are five simple ways to add some more juice to these types of games. If you love this kinda stuff we have a few all camp games in the Free Stuff section of the website and I am leading an online All Camp Games Workshop in February. Check em out.

Let’s get into it!

1) Add Money

Money is fun to play with. Monopoly is a terrible game, but wildly popular. Why? Because you get to play with fake money. Adding some form of currency to games is pretty easy.

Idea: Kids earn between 1 and 5 dollars for every station they complete. With the money, they can buy starbursts or access to another area like the inside of the rec hall for a dance party.

Sheets of Fake Money We Have Used. Use them or make your own.
Tower MoneyCastle MoneyLaura Money (Might be weird if you use this one…)

2) Design Stations for Different Avatars

Making up stations for games is all about thinking about who is going to play them. You know your camp better than anyone. When we design for Stomping Ground we think of about 4-7 real-life kids in the offseason, then as we get to see the kids that are at camp each week we adjust for the different personalities each week.

Some Potential Avatars

  1. Johnny - Rambunctious 8-year-old, high energy, low attention span, loves running around

  2. Teagan - Kinda too cool for school 13-year-old, doesn’t tend to love our games, but does care about younger kids, no sports, creating things is fun, very concerned about their social standing

  3. Gary - 11-year-old, loves pushing people’s buttons, loves RPG style video games, favorite games involve some form of leveling up with friends he can choose

  4. Sarah - 9-year-old, loves the counselors, loves pop music, happy with pretty much anything where she can be silly and interact with staff

You get the idea. How can you design stations that are for the people playing not just for some nebulous group? Johnny will love if there is some form of dodgeball. Teagan will be hesitant to join. How can we make a station that involves just sitting and chilling with their friends?

Here is a quick avatar creation handout we made for a camp training a couple years ago.

3) Create an Unfolding Narrative

Gary, above, will be fine playing most station games but would love if there was something more going on. Think of the Stranger Things kids at a carnival. They aren’t just playing games, they are trying to unearth clues in a much larger story. This is the world we can create for an hour with Gary.

Example: When you get to the fortuneteller’s tent, the fortune teller breaks character to tell kids that the whole carnival has been taken over by aliens. You can tell who the aliens are by looking closely at their left ears. Sure enough, half the staff leading stations have green paint dripping out of their ears. The fortune teller explains that we need to get rid of the aliens and to go see the “maintenance guy” who has been going around picking up trash. Hijinx ensues. Maybe they need to get into the rec hall from above to learn more about the aliens. Maybe there are two ways in. They can pay to get in like everyone else or there is a secret entrance that they can have the maintenance guy’s assistant help them get in if they do a task for him.

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4) Costumes - For Kids

Kids love costumes. Have a station where kids can get in costume and take pictures. Maybe they stay in costume. MAYBE! With money earned from above they can buy costumes. MAYBE! You need a costume to enter the rec hall so you have to buy a costume to get in.

OH ALSO! I read this again after I wrote it and realized this made an assumption that the staff were already in costume. If we don’t have your staff get dressed up for these kinds of things please do. They love it and it adds such a layer of depth to all games and is so fun.

5) Epic Music

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This is a super simple one. Set up speakers and play music the whole time. Whatever the theme is just download a corresponding movie’s soundtrack from Spotify.

  1. Having a Ren Faire? Lord of the Rings

  2. Space? Star Wars

  3. Disney? OK just tons of Disney Songs

Awesome composers have already done the work for us. Music adds an enormous level of immersion just by being on we are having a shared experience.

Let’s Make Awesome Stuff Together

Stations during these events are really fun, and for some number of kids that’s all they need to make friends and build memories. But we have an opportunity each time we run something like this to make it the best moment of camp for some kids let’s take it. What are some of your favorite additions to open camps? Comment below.

Looking to take your all camp games to the next level? Love talking about these kinds of things? Join Our All Camp Games Workshop this February.

ALL CAMP GAMES WORKSHOP

Make up a new game for yourself. Get access to the rest of the cohorts new games. But most of all start to think differently about game creation.

Schott Jack.jpg

JACK SCHOTT
DIRECTOR CAMP STOMPING GROUND
CO-FOUNDER THE SUMMER CAMP SOCIETY
JACK@THESUMMERCAMPSOCIETY.COM
STOMPING GROUND ORIGIN STORY

Opening Day Sucks

Let’s think about opening day. I wrote a little questioning our campfire last year, but now I want think a little broader.

We, at Stomping Ground the camp I help run, start each session on Sunday afternoon, one week sessions, and about half the kids stay over the weekend. Quick schedule below.

3:00 - 4:00 - Arrival Window
4:00 - 5:45 - In villages, get to know you games, tours, etc
5:45 - 6:30 - Dinner
6:30 - 7:30 - Village Pump Up Meeting
7:30 - 8:15 - Opening Campfire
8:15 - Back to villages, get ready for bed, village agreements, embers, hangout, bed

First- What is the point of opening day?

To get through it…

But for real, it often seems like the goal of the first day of camp is just to get through it so we can get to the good stuff when camp really starts Monday morning.

Maybe we should just start Monday morning… OR maybe we should just make Sunday more like the rest of the week. That is what we do at Tall Tree, a camp for kids with autism that Sylvia runs. Sylvia is also running an Inclusion Specialist Training for us. It is also what we did the first summer of Stomping Ground. Just start activities basically as soon as kids arrive.

Ok wait!

What is the point of opening day?

Logistically

  1. Actually get the kids to camp

  2. Welcome parents

  3. Welcome kids

  4. Collect meds

  5. Lice Checks

  6. See where they will sleep/poop/shower

  7. Learn the rules

  8. Meet their counselors

  9. Meet the kids in their cabin

  10. Get a glimpse of the culture

  11. Eat

  12. Sign up for Monday’s activities (might be cool to do the swim check?)

  13. See what camp looks like

  14. Opening Campfire? → back to this again…

Those are the tangible things, but the crux of what we want is for kids to feel comfortable and excited about being at camp and start getting to know each other. What would it look like to do that differently?

Let’s ignore some logistical problems for now and just try a different schedule for after kids arrive….

3-4:30 pm - Normal check-in process and some initial get to know you games in cabins
4:30-5:30 pm - Free Choice Option (include an option for a tour or something similar)
5:30-6:15 pm - Dinner
6:30-7:00 pm - Campfire
7:00-8:15 pm - Cabin Time
8:15 pm - Bedtime stuff ← need to look closer at all of this later too.

What are the problems?

  • No time for village cheers. Do we care?

  • What happens when kids arrive late? ← some always do.

  • What happens at Bed Time?

  • What is “Cabin Time”?

Cabin Time…

The goal is…  

  • To make a little memory with the kids in your cabin.

  • Build a bond between the campers and the staff.

  • Do something fun to get buy in

What if we make up 20 mini adventures that cabins could go on? Then from the campfire each cabin goes on their adventure and meets back up in the village for night time stuff after their adventure ends.

Then each staff could easily make their own cabin time up, but having an easy choice for folks would lower the difficulty to get started and raise the floor for the activity.

The big problem I see is around the lack of choice here. For all our other activity times there is a huge amount of choice. Kids can go to Downtown Stomping Ground or pick different options.

Where would this be the biggest problem? Older kids. Ok, ok, ok.

We don’t typically have age segregated programming except for sleeping, but if we are going to have them stay in their cabins anyway what if we do things a little differently based on village? We have four villages based loosely by age. From youngest to oldest, Explorer, Viking, Robinhood, and Pioneer. What if Pioneer always went somewhere for a village event that had some built-in choice, hangout time, and maybe a conversation about how they are leaders at camp?

How would that play out in Robinhood? This is hard to say because we are expanding capacity in Viking and Explorer and I am not sure what the age breakdowns will be, but I think it could work pretty well.

One of the keys I think would be that it was a small group on the adventure so getting out of the main field would be important for most groups.

What could some of the options be?

  • Pioneer goes to… The Lava Lounge for something similar to the After Party from ArtsFest

  • Smores in Mountaineer

  • Ice cream in boats

  • Bake a cake in the staff kitchen (wait these are all just food… Maybe that is the key? Just a snack party for each cabin?)

  • Fire tower

  • Archery… boring

  • Outpost cookout

  • Newt catching

  • Explorer creek walk

  • Fort building by Viking

  • Some kind of dodgeball type game (maybe the game assault?) Could be 2 cabins

  • What could people do in the dining hall?

  • These still need a lot of work, but I bet we could just ask some of the staff to make some up this offseason.

To simplify, we make a signup list for staff that gets passed around during the Sunday big staff meeting with supplies that we order for each week. We always order ice cream, cake making stuff, whatever to be used on the first night. Plus snacks for Pio in the Lava Lounge. This way it gets systematized and if people want to do special stuff that is awesome, but at least we have a base.

The new setup would be a pretty simple change. More choice before dinner and a fun cabin activity with a lot of snacks likely after dinner and village meetings moved to Monday.

WHAT DO YOU DO FOR OPENING DAY?! WHAT HAS BEEN AWESOME?

Did you know Kurtz and I put up a bunch of free staff training sessions, all camp games, and more? Check em out.

Schott Jack.jpg

JACK SCHOTT
DIRECTOR CAMP STOMPING GROUND
CO-FOUNDER THE SUMMER CAMP SOCIETY
JACK@THESUMMERCAMPSOCIETY.COM
STOMPING GROUND ORIGIN STORY

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