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Recently, a new camp director asked me for some thoughts on marketing a shiny, new summer camp.  I started writing a paragraph and wound up with a novel.  So, I did what any self-respecting camp director and blogger would do – I broke it into 3 parts.  For you, dear reader, this means you can eat the elephant one bite at a time.  For me, it means I get three posts for the price of one!

Tomorrow we’ll begin the series with Part 1:  Marketing Summer Camp Without (a lot of) Money.  Before we launch, I wanted to share a few disclaimers.

Disclaimers:

  1. No amount of marketing can fix a broken program, run-down facility, or poor customer service.  Fix these things first.
  2. Use high touch as well as high tech.  Commit to getting out of camp and meeting people.  Whenever feasible, bring people to your site to interact with you and your staff.  Use high tech marketing to promote your appearances and camp events (e-blasts, FB Ads or Invites, online ads and listings).
  3. Know your camp’s strengths and what makes your program unique.  Being able to distinguish yourself from the pack is critical.
  4. Know your target market and the demographics of your current campers.  This will guide you as you decide how to spend your precious marketing dollars.
  5. Every camping guru will tell you that word of mouth is the holy grail of marketing.  Your task is to determine how to nurture and encourage this form of camper recruitment.  Again, knowing the demographics of your camper family populations is crucial.
  6. No one has ever decided to be a camping or recreation professional because they were great at marketing.  When you’re putting together your program’s marketing calendar, ask for a second opinion, and then get a third.  Make sure these opinions come from someone with some expertise in sales or marketing.
  7. I am not a marketing guru, graphic designer, web developer, or sales genius.  I am just a camp guy.  I’m not sayin’ – I’m just sayin’ . . . .

Don’t Gamble!  In my experience, marketing is both an art and a science.  More often than not, we lean on the art rather than the science.  As Jim Collins made clear in Great By Choice, great efforts in business were rarely a moment of pure insight or innovation.  Rather, successful enterprises used empirical research to guide them to that success.  Another good point by Mr. Collins involved the notion of firing bullets before cannonballs.  In marketing, this might mean you try a particular promotion in a limited launch to determine its efficacy before committing all your resources to it.  Move quickly.  Be innovative.  But more importantly, be smart.

Finally, I’d like to share my favorite quote of the week.  “Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.”  This advice comes from Franklin D. Roosevelt and it has served me well in marketing.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

For more information on Nathan’s programs, YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser and Bynden Wood, visit the South Mountain YMCA Camps’ website at www.smymca.org.

Unlike many of my posts, this one is not for parents – this one is for summer camp professionals.  If you are a camp professional (or just a parent who wants a look behind the curtain), read on!

Last week, I wrote about a balanced approach to summer camp recruitment.  This week we’re going to look at summer camper retention.  As such, it’s time to share my retention mantra with you –  in rank order of importance:

  • Run a good summer camp program, one that engages a camper’s interest and provides a progression he or she can build upon in future summers.
  • Hire a good summer camp staff with young people that campers can look up to and that parents hope their children grow up to be like.
  • Ensure that every camper leaves having formed at least 1 friendship.

“But wait!” you say, “Summer is over.  Do you mean we can’t do anything about retention until next year.”  Don’t fret.    I gave you the most important factors in summer camp retention first.  The list rolls on:

  • Make a pledge to contact every camp family at least once a month.  If you haven’t done it already, send out summer camp evaluations to kids and parents.  Send birthday and holiday cards.  Utilize an email service like Constant Contact each month to update campers and families about happenings at Camp.  Use Facebook.  Use Twitter.  Use the social networking sites and methods you and your organization are most comfortable with.
  • Run year-round programs intended to keep the camp community strong.  Hold a summer camp reunion – at your site or a location that is central for your campers.  If you’re a camp that utilizes campfairs throughout the winter for camper recruitment, combine those camp appearances with reunion events.  Do the same thing for your camp staff and alumni!
  • Personally call every camp family once during the winter.  I am willing to bet you think of your campers and their parents as family.  Well, treat them like family!  Drop them a line every once and while to see how things are going.  This is easily the most intimidating of the potential retention efforts you could employ – but it has the greatest potential pay-off.  Just like a donor begins to resent the fundraiser who only calls when they are asking for money, a camp family can begin to doubt the sincerity of your “camp family” if you only call them to remind them to register.
  • Develop a strategy for returning summer camp counselors to reach out to their campers and invite them to return.  Who is the best person to remind your campers about the fun they had last summer?  I am going to go out on a limb and say that it is the their camp counselors.  Have you summer camp counselors sign the holiday cards.  Have your summer camp counselors man the phones and encourage last year’s campers to re-register.

Conclusion

I hope I’ve given you something to think about as you plan your marketing efforts for next year.   Building the camp community doesn’t end on September 1st, it just changes the methods you use to build that community.

If you’re hungry for more, check out Dave Bell’s marketing article in Camp Business entitled “Small is the New Big.”  You can find it at http://www.camp-business.com/articles/cb/small-is-the-new-big.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

Unlike many of my posts, this one is not for parents – this one is for summer camp professionals.  If you are a camp professional (or just a parent who wants a look behind the curtain), read on!

Tis the season to start planning summer camper recruitment for next year.  As such, I want to share my recruitment mantra with you –  in rank order of importance:

  1. Bring Families to Camp (High Touch)
  2. Take Camp to Families (High Touch)
  3. Use the Vast Digital Billboard (High Tech)

Bring Families to Camp

I did not write “bring kids to camp” (they aren’t the decision-makers), and it is no accident I didn’t write “bring parents to camp,” (they won’t pay the deposit without knowing their child is very interested).  Bring Families to Camp!  I’ll bet it even fits your mission.  Throw free events like Spring and Fall Festivals!  Hold Community or Family Fun Days!  Heck, if you’re looking for revenue streams, run more Family Camp Weekends.  The point is, get families to camp.

Bringing a family to camp allows:

  • Parents to get comfortable with your facility – and the drive to reach it.
  • Parents see their kids interacting with your staff.
  • Parents interact with your staff

You can’t pay for this sort of promotion and recruitment – which is why these events should be free!  I want to stress, these are not Open Houses.  The traditional Open House Event is a tour of camp and a sales pitch.  I am suggesting you bring families to camp, let them play, and let camp sell itself.

Of course, some of our camps are too remote to make good use of all of these events, but don’t let your location be an excuse.

Take Camp to Families 

Many camps utilize Camp Fairs as their sole opportunity to personally interact with families interested in learning about summer programs.  If you have the budget to pay the registration fees, staff time, and travel – good for you.  But don’t let that be the full extent of your outreach efforts.

Where does your camp traditionally recruit well from?  Make a list of those locations.  Then, starting in September, attend “Back to School Nights,” community fairs and festivals, etc.  At each appearance, do something fun with kids – don’t just show up with brochures or dvds.

If you are an independent or private camp, you probably lack storefront locations.  So, identify places that can serve as your storefront.  Starting in December and January, ask libraries if you can hold camp information nights (and then promote those nights online).  Ask a restaurant.  Ask a  college.  Make sure there is adequate parking at whatever location you choose – and make sure families are comfortable going there.

Use the Vast Digital Billboard

If you’re reading this post, you are already using technology to better your camp and its recruitment efforts.  I bet you are placing Facebook or Google ads.  Well done.  If not, let me try and sell you on why you should be.

In the old days, we used newspaper/magazine ads, phone books, cable spots and billboards to raise the awareness of our programs.  The problem is, very few of these efforts were easily quantifiable.  Quite often, it felt like we were shelling out a lot of cash for very little return.  Online ads answer this particular concern.

With an online ad, a potential camp parent can click your ad and follow it to your website.  Try doing that with the Sunday paper.  Not only that, if you are cheap like me, you can choose to pay only when someone actually “clicks through” to your website.  A million people may see your ad before someone follows it to your site, but you only pay for that single referral.  There’s a lot to love about pay-per-click advertising.

If you’re watching your pennies, I recommend you put your money into search engine ads (ex. Google or Bing) before you invest in ads on social networking sites.  Your ad will be more effective if it is shown to people who are already searching for summer camp.

A final word about online ads.  Your first inclination will be to promote your summer camp program this way.  May I recommend using it year-round to promote your efforts to bring families to camp and to take camp to families?

Of course, all the online ads in the world will not make a difference it your website is awful or the person answering your phones is rude.  Make sure you are ready for the calls and web visits.

Conclusion

I hope I’ve given you something to think about as you plan your marketing efforts for next year.   As your looking at your calendar, give priority to those efforts that put you in front of both kids and parents.  Work to bring families to camp.  Use online marketing to promote your summer camp – but also to encourage families to come to your facility or other camp events in their region.

Stay tuned for thoughts on Camper Retention!

If you’re hungry for more, check out Dave Bell’s marketing article in Camp Business entitled “Small is the New Big.”  You can find it at http://www.camp-business.com/articles/cb/small-is-the-new-big.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

In preparing for summer camp, parents ask a lot of questions – as they should.  What happens when a child get homesick?  What kind of activities will my child be able to participate in?  How will your staff help my child make friends?

All of these are good, valid concerns.  But my favorite question, hands down, is “How far away is too far away to send a child to summer camp?”

How Far is Too Far for Summer Camp?

If you are a reader who likes his or her answer up front, let me satisfy your curiousity immediately with a 2 part response:

  1. It depends on the child attending camp.
  2. It depends on the parent who is sending the child to camp.

Now its perfectly clear, right?  Perhaps not.  But it was helpful, right?  Again, perhaps not.

This summer, I ran a poll on LinkedIn  and asked adults this very question (http://linkd.in/mMvo0b).  With a few votes shy of 200 responses, my results are less than definitive, but the comments were pure gold.  I simply asked, “If you were sending a 10 year-old to sleep-away camp, what is a comfortable distance?” 

When framing my responses, I used times (less than 1 hour away, 1-2 hours away, 2-4 hours away, anywhere in the country, and anywhere in the world), but I did not define how a camper might be travelling.  In my opinion, once campers are travelling more than 4 hours away (by car, boat, train, or plane), they are too far away for parents to rush to their aid in the same day.  When campers are 4 or more hours away, they are “beyond reach.”  Coincidentally, this is how I picked a college.  I wanted a school that my parents could not easily visit.  I chose Grinnell College in Iowa, a full 16 hour drive from my home in Pennsylvania. 

As you might expect, responses to this simple question were all over the map (pun intended).

  1. 21% of respondents felt comfortable with their child attending camp less than 1 hour from home.
  2. 34% of respondents were comfortable with their child attending camp 1-2 hours away.
  3. 27% of respondents felt comfortable with their child attending camp 2-4 hours from home.
  4. 9% of respondents were comfortable with their child attending camp anywhere in their home country.
  5. 9% of respondents felt comfortable with their child attending camp anywhere in the world.

If you take the time to review the results in more detail, you would find a trend towards older parents feeling more comfortable with their children traveling further from home than younger parents.  You wouldn’t see significant differences between men and women.

My Advice to ParentsThe perfect camp will be where you and your child’s comfort levels intersect.  Some kids are ready at 7 to fly across the country.  Some parents will never be ready for their children to be an hour away from them.  As my father is fond of saying, “moderation in all things.”  Look for the compromise. 

Look for the point at which your comfort and your child's comfort intersect.

Please keep this in mind:  Your goal should be to challenge your child and push her a step beyond her comfort level.  If you keep her too close, she may not feel challenged and/or independent.  If you push her too far out of her comfort zone, she may not benefit from the experience.  The same thing goes for you as a parent.  If you’re a parent who believes you can’t live without your child sleeping in the next room, look for the camp that is an hour away or less.  Don’t immediately send your camper across the country.  Moderation.

My Advice to Camp Directors:  “What?” you may wonder, “What does this post have to do with the art of camp management?”  Well, it should impact how you look at your marketing work.  Most parents responding to this poll, 55%, are comfortable sending their child to a camp less than 2 hours away.  82% of all parents who responded to the survey are looking for a camp that is less than 4 hours away from their home.  So, if you are on a limited marketing budget, focus on promotional events and ads that are within 2 hours drive of your camp.  Half of all parents looking for sleep-away camp next summer will be comfortable with your location.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp program (YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser and Bynden Wood), The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.

I believe in the power of summer camp.  There, I said it.  My name is Nathan Brant and I am a summer camp believer. 

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I may, however, be part of a dwindling number of believers.  In this era of specialization, the value of a traditional summer camp experience with archery, canoeing, campfires, nature walks, horseback rides and rock climbing is more difficult to explain to perspective families, foundations, and educators.  Traditional Day & Resident Camps are like liberal arts colleges.  We teach behavior before skill – we teach how learn and interact successfully in groups.  More and more, society seems to turn away from the notion of liberal arts and the well-rounded individual.  We are witnessing an unprecedented growth in technical or magnate schools at all levels, and the same thing is happening with summer camps.

Now everyone has gotten in on the Camp Game.  Museums, churches, schools, YMCAs, YWCAs, Scouts, community foundations, state parks, and conservancy groups are all running camps.  We have soccer camp, art camp, dance camp, eco-camp, robotics camp, swim camp, lacrosse camp, and many more.  Each of these programs teaches a skill.  They teach kids to be a better soccer player, a better inventor, a better artist, or a better swimmer.  Meanwhile, traditional summer camp programs continue with their less glamorous work – teaching kids how to be better people.

In my summer camps, Bynden Wood YMCA Day Camp & YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser (www.smymca.org), we strive to help our campers develop into successful adults.  Regardless of the camp activity, we teach our kids the lessons of leadership.  Whether on horseback, the archery ranges, or the climbing tower, we intentionally work to improve a young person’s communication skills, we focus on the development of interpersonal trust, and we provide opportunities for problem-solving.  When a young person leaves our program, we know he or she is better prepared to serve as a leader, or be a responsible member of a group being led.

Being a great soccer player may be important through high school or college.  Being a great leader is important for life

My name is Nathan Brant, and I am a summer camp believer.  Perhaps there is a support group for people like me . . . .

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

For more information on the relevance of summer camp, check out the American Camp Association’s article, “An American Tradition – Camp,” at http://www.campparents.org/American-Tradition.

I am such a fan of alliteration.  I really can’t help myself.

Yesterday I was part of a podcast run by Travis Allison at www.CampHacker.org.  There were a number of great topics, but one stuck out in my mind:  Camp Staff Attitude Toward Working With Parents

Here’s the thing:  Some camp directors and staff (mostly folks who have been doing this a while in remote locations), view parent calls, requests, and visits as intrusive.  For camp professionals, and most parents, part of the overnight camp experience is that children spend time away from their parents and siblings to discover who they are outside of the family bubble.  This opportunity for self-discovery is truly powerful – even life-changing – but that doesn’t mean parents don’t have a place in camp.

Of course Parents have a place in camp!

A good camp (in my opinion), will look for opportunities to partner with parents.  From a camp perspective, there is a lot parents can contribute to my program that I could not accomplish without them.  Let’s face it, who’s better recruiting new campers?  It’s not me.  Most research will tell you camp’s rely on word-of-mouth to grow their program.  Parents (and campers) recruit new families to our program every day.  Here’s my Top 5 List on Partnering with Parents (Camp Perspective):

  1. Marketing:  I said it at the top.  Camps know that their best marketing tool is word-of-mouth.  We count on families referring families.  I recommend that camps engage their families to actively help market their program. 
  2. Program Development:  Camps are constantly looking for ways to improve their program, their customer service, their marketing, or their registration process.  Why not ask parents?  After all, kids come to camp, but parents pay for it.  I recommend camps hold 2 focus groups each year to collect parent input.  There is no downside to hearing what your families think about your camp.
  3. Service Project Volunteers:  Like marketing, many camps already partner with families to complete service projects on their behalf.  Whether you are building a playground, raking leaves, recruiting board members, or raising funds for a capital campaign, call your families and ask them to help.  If you are a non-profit and rely on the generous contributions of donors to fulfill your charitable mission, there is good research that suggests that people who simply consider volunteering their time to your organization will increase their financial contribution (http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/marketing/faculty/MarketingCamp/aaker_jennifer.pdf).
  4. Camper Behavior Management:  When a camper has behavioral problems at camp, who are the best people to recommend strategies for that child?  The Parents!  I hope all camps utilize family input to help their campers have a successful session of camp.
  5. Marketing:  Yes.  It is so important I said it twice.

So what can parents get out of this partnership?  Good question – and I am prepared to answer.  Here’s my Top 3 List on Partnering with Parents (Parent Perspective):

  1. Camp Staff as a Resource:  Parents, you have a year-round resource when you partner with your summer camp.  Are you looking for a great game idea or your child’s next birthday parts?  Call Camp.  Have a question about your child’s participation/obsession with Facebook?  Call Camp.  Looking for a year-round leadership program that you child can participate in?  Call Camp.  Your camp staff know kids.  They know kids programs and how to find them.  Use their expertise!
  2. Camp Facility as a Resource:  Looking for an affordable location for your next family reunion, birthday party or corporate conference?  Call Camp!  Your camp probably has what you need, and if they don’t, I bet they can help you find a good alternative.
  3. Camp for Resume Building:  Need something new on your resume or just looking for a meaningful volunteer opportunity?  Ask Camp.  Most camps, private and non-profit, utilize volunteers for everything from improving their grounds and setting their policies.  Join the board of directors or plant flowers.  Either way, your camp will appreciate your service.

My Advice for Camps:  Determine what level of parent involvement would be beneficial to your program – and then solicit that involvement.  Family engagement in your program is a long-term investment – but it can pay long-term dividends, as well. 

My Advice for Parents:  Talk to your camp director before registering your child to attend camp.  Learn his or her attitude toward parent involvement in summer camp and select a camp program and leader that matches your needs.  If you’re looking for a camp you can be involved with – on any level – put your summer camp director on the spot and tell her how you can contribute.  Dare her to take you up on it.  The camp will be better for your input. 

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

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

FORGET PHONES – IT’S TIME TO TALK TABLETS

Yesterday afternoon I was talking to my Summer Camps Director about our upcoming season.  She recently attended a conference and was visibly relieved that a pair of speakers at the event spoke about society’s impending retreat from technology.  The speakers believed, as many camp professionals may hope, that our inexorable march toward increased connectivity and information technology would reverse.

My thought:  Dream on.

Since the invention of the printing press, society has walked a straight line toward a future of increased information sharing.  While there were detractors of the first telephones, every household in America eventually had a landline.  There were detractors of cell phones – still are, in fact – but society has embraced them.

Last year I wrote about the place cell phones have in summer camp.  For parents, I recommended they call the camp before sending their child to make sure they understood the organization’s cell phone policy.  For camps, I asked them to review their policies annually to know where they stand in relation to society.

But talking about cell phones was not looking forward; it was looking 10 years back and trying to catch up.  Today, I want to look to the future and a few short months away.

As I write this on Thanksgiving Eve, 2010, I know of 9 alternatives to the iPad device that Apple launched this year (http://mashable.com/2010/01/27/9-upcoming-tablet-alternatives-to-the-apple-ipad/).  These tablets are miraculous devices that allow a user to read a blog, watch a movie, surf the web, or read a book.  There are literally thousands of apps for each device, but I want to focus on just two – music and reading.

By next summer, campers will be asking their parents if they can take their tablet device to camp.  As a parent or camp professional, you should know how you will respond.  First imagine the device, due to a lack of 3G/4G coverage or WiFi, will be unable to surf the web.  Would you allow the device to be brought to camp so a child or teen can read their downloaded literary content?  Can a camper pack his or her iPad to listen to Taio Cruz while reading Moby Dick?

While we all discourage campers from packing expensive items that could be lost, broken or even stolen from a camp environment, most camps do allow kids to pack their MP-3 players and whatever book they may be reading at the moment.  So, will you deny them their iPad?

On principle, it would seem odd to deny them the device – at least for the reading or music functionality – simply because we, as adults, are not used to consuming our media in this fashion.  Despite my love of hardback books, I have to accept the fact that my children may never crack the spine of War and Peace.  Instead, my precious girls may read literary masterpieces on small, hand-held screens.

Take this a step further.  You’ve come this far with me; walk a little longer down this path to next summer.  Imagine your camp does have WiFi or 3G service.  What will you do about tablet devices in this scenario?  In such an environment, the full functionality of such a device would be brought to bear:  email, Facebook, Twitter, movies, tv, books, blogs, and much more.

This is the moment at which even the most tech savvy parents and camp professionals cringe.  We don’t want to picture our kids in the dining hall or walking down a mountain path reading about Katy Perry’s marriage to Russell Brand.

My Untested Advice?  1)  Don’t allow electronic devices in camp, OR  2)  If you don’t operate in the stone age and desire to stay relevant, allow the tablets in for music and books.  Make sure both parents and campers understand that these devices could be lost or broken and that the camp is not responsible, but allow them.  Draw up some clear guidelines about appropriate times for use and make sure these guidelines are shared with parents and campers.  Ask that all devices have their networked connections turned off and make it clear that staff may periodically check them.  If you are a camp professional, make sure your WiFi connections are password protected and that you do your best to keep kids off the internet during their camp experience (unless, of course, your camp is a computer/web/gaming camp).

I qualified the previous paragraph saying that it was untested advice.  Someone smarter than me will come up with better plans (please share them in the comments section of this blog), and ultimately the tech will continue to evolve.  We will continue to evolve in response to that tech.

There will be times next summer you will long for the days before all this tech, but let it go.  That ship has sailed. 

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

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

I was checking out some parent blogs last night on summer camp (I wanted to know what people were talking about), and was shocked to find that the most discussed topic was tipping.  Shocked.  I expected to find that it was a more contentious issue like “bullying,” “sunscreen application,” or “cellphones.”  Tipping.  I am a flexible person.  We’ll talk tipping.

My resume is heavily weighted towards YMCA Camping programs.  I have worked with Y Camps as a camp counselor, volunteer, and director in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin.  Looking at the list, certainly the regions I have served in have skewed towards a “Midwest Mentality.”  With that disclaimer, I can safely say that tipping was the last thing on our minds.

As a counselor (15-20 years ago), there were parents that tried to tip me.  I had parents bake me cookies, give me cards (and later gift cards), present me with clothing or care packages, and occasionally slip me a $20.  When I was 18, YMCA Camp Thompson’s policy was to thank the parent and decline cash gifts.  At YMCA Camp Y-Noah we trained staff to decline cash gifts, but redirect parent generosity to our “scholarship fund” or our “counselor appreciation fund.”  The latter served to pay for the staff banquet at the end of the summer.

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My Advice:

No two camping programs are identical – and tipping philosophies are very different from camp to camp.  In checking websites last night, I found that most private camps encourage tipping and take the time explain the practice in their parent information.  If your child is attending camp this summer, check the camp policies before tipping your counselor.  If you can’t find this information in your parent handbook, call the camp and ask.  This will save you an awkward good-bye on the last day of camp.

As far as non-cash gifts, I don’t know of a camp in the country that will instruct a counselor to decline a plate of cookies or a gift basket of sunscreen, frisbees, and silly string.  This is a safe way to show your gratitude.

Finally, if the camp has a scholarship fund or a counselor appreciation fund, consider showing your appreciation through a donation.  Obviously, I am a fan of sharing-the-gift-of-camp with deserving children who may not be able to afford it otherwise.  I hope you consider going that route.  However, camps do great things with counselor appreciation funds (CAF).  Camps use CAF donations to purchase tvs, dvd players, game systems, and computers for the counselors’ lounge.  Camps use CAF donations to pay for staff banquets and end-of-year gifts for counselors.  These are a good way to show your appreciation.    

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

For more information on the South Mountain YMCA Camps, visit www.smymca.org.

 

Things have changed since I was a kid – and I’m not that old!  Well, I don’t feel all that old.  I may only be 37, but I guess I did attend summer camp last century.  I hope that was easier for you to read than it was for me to write.  Here’s the thing, though, I don’t need a calendar to mark the passage of time.  I just need to think about how human interaction has evolved over the past three decades.

Whether you are aware of it or not, the way youth development professionals interact with the children they work with has changed dramatically.  If you are over 30, you may remember a soccer coach driving you home after practice.  You probably recall a favorite teacher or the director of your school play taking a little extra time after school to work with you one-on-one.  If you grew up going to camp, you may even remember reading a letter from your summer camp counselor during the winter.  If you are a child growing up in America today, chances are you will never experience any of these things.  Times have changed.

Every youth-serving agency in the country struggles to find the balance between appropriate child protection and delivering quality, impactful programs.  If you work for, or volunteer in, the YMCA, you have probably signed a code of conduct that prohibits you from transporting a minor to or from a program in your personal vehicle.  That same code would prohibit you from contacting a child or teen outside of the defined parameters of the program you are running.  It would ask that you agree to never babysit a child you meet through a YMCA program.  It would prohibit you from ever being alone with a child.  Not one of these statements should sound unreasonable – they are for the protection of the children with which we work.  Here, in America, we take the care of our children very seriously.  As a dad, I am grateful for that. 

In summer camp, one of the topics covered in a good staff training involves appropriate counselor/camper contact after the summer camp season ends.  Why is this a topic?  Quite honestly, if the camp and its counselors are good at what they do, your child will want to continue to interact with them throughout the year. 

There was a fad among YMCA camps several years ago.  Instead of giving staff a traditional “staff shirt,” YMCA directors were handing out “Professional Role Model” shirts.  While this may have become a cliché, it was a slogan for a reason.  As camp directors, we want our staff to be role models for the kids we work with.  Kids get attached to good, charismatic staff, and they want to keep the relationships going.  Thirty years ago, that wouldn’t have been a problem.

Through the 1980s the camping industry and society at large didn’t have a problem with kids reaching out to their summer camp counselors after the summer ended via the U.S. Postal Service.  At that time, the potential for contact between people not living in the same community was limited to snail mail and the phone.  Now when we think about camper/counselor contact, we have to consider cell phones, smart phones, texts, email, instant messages, Facebook, My Space, chat rooms, discussion groups, digital photos, video – and the U.S. Postal Service.  With increased opportunity for online interaction comes increased risk.  Camps have responded appropriately.

So what is “appropriate” contact between summer camp counselors and the children with which they work?  The short answer is (drumroll, please), whatever your camp says it is.

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My Advice for Parents:

Read your camp’s materials.  They should have a section on counselor/camper contact after the camp season.  Most camp’s prohibit phone calls, emails, and social networking site interaction between your child and camp staff.  That does become difficult to enforce since most camp staff are seasonal (they are only employeed by the camp for the summer).  This puts the onus back on parents to monitor who their kids are interacting with online.  Check out your child’s “friends” on Facebook and My Space.  Read the posts.  Stay involved.

Most camps have an “official” Facebook and/or My Space page.  These sites are generally monitored on a daily basis, but you will want to check with the camp.  Again, if your child is “friending” the camp, you may want to consider doing the same. 

Know that not all camps have identical counselor/camper contact policies.  Some programs encourage letter writing between staff and campers throughout the year.  Some camps publish yearbooks or calendars that print all the camper addresses.  Other camps have middle-of-the-road approaches that allow campers to mail letters to counselors via the camp address.  Likewise, when counselors write the camper back, the letter should pass through the camp office and then be forwarded on.  Some camps have strict “no contact” policies. 

If you suspect a former camp counselor is contacting your child inappropriately (innocently or not), contact the camp.  I have no doubt that the camp professionals will work with you to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. 

My Advice to Camp Professionals:

Know your policy.  Know why it was instituted.  Know what the intent of the policy was when it was written.  In a world where on-line interactions are evolving daily, the intent of your policy is probably more important than the actual language.

Educate your young, college-age staff.  They need to know the intent of your policy, as well, so they can make good decisions in ambiguous situations.  Also, educate them about privacy settings on social networking sites – as well as why that privacy is important for their future.

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The relationship between a counselor and her summer campers is paramount to the camp experience.  A good counselor can positively change the life of a child.  As parents, and camp professionals, we have to respect the power of that relationship while drawing clear boundaries that we can share with our children and our young staff.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

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

 

There are days when the best thing I can recommend is to read the writings of someone else.  Today is such a day.  When I got to the office this morning, I was alerted to a blog post entitled “Camp is for the Camper”, written by a family who had just picked their 9 year-old son up from his week at summer camp.

Take the time to read this:  http://ht.ly/2gxW7

This post is a nice complement to 2 previous posts I made earlier this summer.  Enjoy!

  1. Summer Camp:  The Practical Solution for Today’s Helicopter Parents  (https://nsbrant.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/summer-camp-the-practical-solution-for-todays-helicopter-parents/)
  2. Expect More From Your Summer Camp  (https://nsbrant.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/expect-more-from-your-summer-camp/)