Here at Camp Conrad Weiser and the Bynden Wood Day Camp (South Mountain YMCA, www.smymca.org), we have crossed the halfway point and are staring down the end of our summer season.  Campers have gained independence, developed positive self-esteem, made friends, and even learned a few new skills along the way.  They have also ruined at least one t-shirt climbing the high ropes course or mountain biking through the mud.  The 18-22 year-old counselors have all decided there is no better summer job.  By this point, they have also realized they can wait a few more years until they become parents.  And we all need a new pair of sneakers or sandals. 

By any measure of success, it has been a good summer so far with many good times yet to come. 

Is every moment perfect?  Absolutely not.  As in parenting, we have highs and lows.  We can look at conversations we’ve had with kids and identify better ways to frame things.  We have examined games from the first half of the summer and made adjustments for the second half of the summer that improve them (safety, timing, fun, etc.).  Running a summer camp, like parenting, is a process of constant improvement. 

YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser

 

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More than a decade ago, I was approached by a parent at the end of a day camp day.  We had been enjoying a successful, safe summer and I was proud of our accomplishments.  I was bullet-proof, impervious to criticism, and ready for anything – except for a parent with a legitimate point.  Imagine a day camp at your local park.  The program runs from 9 am-4 pm.  You can drop your kids off as early as 8:30 and can pick them up as late as 4:30.  But the camp day is 9-4.  What happens for that first and last half hour?  When I was in my early 20s, long before I dreamed of becoming a parent myself, I looked at moments like this in a camp day differently than I do now.  That first half hour seemed an impossibility to program.  Counselor groups couldn’t function because kids were coming or going.  Games like soccer would completely break down because the camper population was in flux.  Instead, I treated those first or last 30 minutes of the day as “free time.” 

And then a mother, with a mother’s eye, called out the weakness of my camp’s design.  She wrote me a letter about the lack of program in the closing 30 minutes.  She noted that kids were sitting in the shade, not engaged by staff, simply waiting.  She saw counselors circling up around the picnic table with their clip boards.  In short, she saw the worst part of our day.  Every parent that encountered us saw us at our worst.  And I did this by design. 

At first, I tried to explain it away.  In my ridiculous 22 year-old pride, I tried to tell this mother that the campers were active all day.  My campers spent hours swimming, playing, creating, and teambuilding – sometimes kids just needed time to be – not do.  I’m not exaggerating.  I actually wrote that to a mom.  It’s embarrassing.  

The truth is, and was, that those two, half-hour periods in my day were weak.  Terrifyingly, these were the two times of the day that parents were able to see our program.  Parents did not experience our teambuilding sessions.  They did not see our crafts class.  They did not take our nature walks.  They did not watch our talent show.  Parents saw us at our worst.  It was a summer camp slip.  The mom who brought it to my attention was correct.  I needed to make a change. 

That summer, back in 1997, we did change our program.  It was humbling.  We ensured that there were structured activitiess during the 30 minutes of parent sign-in.  We designed 4 structured programs our campers could choose from each afternoon during sign-out.  We began to invite parents to our our talent shows (which we transformed into Parent Shows) each Friday at 4 p.m. – immediately before sign-out.  We got better.  

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Every summer camp will slip this season.  Sometimes we slip when parents can see it, sometimes not.  The true mark of a great summer camp and a capable director is the ability to admit the error and address it.  When you, as a parent, see something “not right” in your child’s camp this summer, bring it to the director.  Be patient, you may have to explain it to us twice.  If we respond, make adjustments, and follow-up with you – you’ve found a good program.  

We’ll see you at Camp! 

Nathan

Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp, The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.

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