14 Tips to Ensure Happy After-School and Day Campers
By Jessica Royer Ocken
Wendy Sue Newman, supervisor of youth programming at The Summit Medical Fitness Center in Kalispell, Mont., can't say enough about the positive features of their programs in these categories: "The children have a safe place to be after school [or on summer days], which is a huge concern for parents. It allows children to have an opportunity to be fit through having fun with their peers, which is significant due to the childhood obesity epidemic. It also allows parents an opportunity to exercise and stay healthy themselves. Our after-school program runs until 6:30 p.m., which gives many working parents an opportunity to squeeze in a quick workout before picking up their child.
"Our programs are also a 'feeder' into an adult membership," she continued. "Many of the children who have been in our programs will continue to stay on a family membership or become an adult member themselves once they age out of our programs."
And Kalispell, Mont., is not the only place this sort of synergy can happen. Day camps are a growing trend (they've grown by 90 percent in the past 20 years to a current total of about 5,000 across the United States), and from California to New York City, program directors report similar glowing results in terms of positive feedback from parents, plus increased revenue from the camps themselves and from the camps' ability to introduce new users to the facilities' other offerings.
Of course anything that involves children—especially in large-ish groups—is bound to be more complicated than it appears. This is where our carefully compiled tip list comes in. These nuggets of wisdom will help you get inspired, get organized and get started on the right track when it comes to creating a day camp or after-school program of your own.
1. IS THERE A NEED?
Although not everyone goes away to camp these days, the rise of the working parent (or just the parent who would prefer their child not play video games eight hours a day) has made day camps and after-school programs popular options. So popular, in fact, that if there isn't one already in your area, the people are probably crying out for it. Newman reports that Summit's thriving S.P.A.R.K. (Sports, Physical Activity and Recreation for Kids) programming began as an after-school program in response to parent requests. Once its popularity was established, it blossomed into a summer day camp—and several days of "No School Fun Camp" as well.
If there are existing camps in your neck of the woods, you may need to get creative to make a name for yourself. The Marin YMCA has offered day camps for probably 60 years, said Nick Stone, youth sports and camp director at this YMCA in San Rafael, Calif., but over the past 10 years they've introduced an assortment of "specialty camps" that focus on everything from babysitting to cheerleading to skateboarding to sailing to cooking. "We're trying to keep up with what's going on in Marin County," said Stone. "There are a million things for kids to do here."
2. WHAT FACILITIES CAN YOU OFFER?
Several of the pros consulted for this story reported that top-of-the-line facilities are a big help in creating successful camp-style programs. "We're five-and-a-half acres on the Upper East Side of Manhattan," said Mike Bailey, youth sports education director at Asphalt Green, a sports and fitness center in New York City. This green space sets them apart in their urban setting, and their complex includes an Olympic-size indoor pool, a complete soccer/football artificial turf field, a gymnasium, gymnastics room and multipurpose theater facility with fold-out bleachers—all things that demand to be enjoyed by kids!
"Our facility in itself stipulates that this is what we should be doing," Bailey said. After 20 years, they have almost 700 4-to-12-year-olds in summer day camp each season.
If your facilities are a little less lavish, don't despair. The Marin YMCA's Stone said there are really just a few essentials: "some indoor facilities for really hot days, arts and crafts, which are nice for a break, open fields... In the past we have run day camps out of a college campus with hiking trails. Those are great to take a break during the day. It changes the scenery."
So what makes your park district or YMCA or fitness center stand out? How can you create programming for kids that will maximize these resources?
3. DON'T SKIMP ON STAFF.
"Passionate front-line staff are essential for any program to be successful," Newman said.
Asphalt Green's Bailey agreed. "I can't give enough credit to what [Camp Director David Knapp] does in hiring and educating staff," he said. "David treats these kids like they're his own."
Stone said that when he thinks back over the good and not-so-good summers the Y's day camps have had, it's the staff that makes the difference. So these days, rather than just seeing what sorts of applications come in for the counselor jobs, Stone gets out and recruits people he feels would be good with the kids.
If you're planning to offer both after-school and summer programs, you can aim to hire year-round rather than seasonal staff, which increases your opportunities for training and continuity in your programs.
"The only real difference in staff is during the summer camp season we need a lot more," Newman said. "During a typical after-school week, we offer 15 hours of programming, and during the summer we have 50 hours of programming we need to cover."
4. PROMOTE FROM WITHIN.
Another great way to find devoted staff who are sure to understand the inner workings of your programs is to recruit previous campers and after-school participants.
"I currently have two S.P.A.R.K. assistants that attended the after-school program in their earlier years," Newman said.
Stone likes to start previous campers as junior counselors when they're 16 to 18 years old. "I have them grow up with the curriculum, and then when they're 18 they're ready to go with little supervision from me," he said.
5. PAY ATTENTION.
Once you have this fantastic workforce in place, be sure you listen to what they have to say.
"Staff are in the trenches and know what is working and what doesn't work," Newman said. "I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to encourage feedback from your staff and really listen to what they are saying. The same goes for feedback from parents, but I think you have to know where the parent is coming from and carefully balance their input with the other knowledge you have before rushing in to making changes."
6. KEEP KIDS BUSY.
Make sure your day camp or after-school offerings are more than just childcare by planning plenty of activities to keep kids engaged.
"I like to have them always active," Stone said. "Free play is only for pre- and post-camp [when the Y offers optional extended care for children of working parents]. Camp is very structured. Swimming, arts and crafts, and games take up most of the day."
Stone and the other camp directors also note that dividing kids into age groups helps them stay interested. Older children can get bored if all the activities have to be tailored to younger kids too. "One thing we've evolved into this year will be a senior camp that's geared for 9- to 12-year-old kids," Bailey said. "They'll do things that really have nothing to do with the younger age group, and vice versa."
The Summit's S.P.A.R.K. program has a similar activity focus. There's a bit of snacking and game or homework time while they're waiting for all the buses to arrive, but once everyone is there, children are broken into groups based on age, everyone heads to the gym for a group warm-up, and then the activities begin: yoga, swimming lessons, tennis, climbing wall and sports skills in the gym.
"We have five different age groups, so in a week they all will rotate through the different activities," Newman said. Groups also rotate through board games, and kids can sign up for an optional homework group, too.
"Activity time lasts about 45 minutes, then all the groups gather back in the gym and we play a large group game—this is the highlight of the day for many," she said.
"What we offer during camp is very similar to after school, just a lot more of it," Newman added. Campers also frequently walk to a nearby park for outdoor activities and enjoy arts and crafts as part of their week.
7. ADAPT TO THE ABILITIES OF YOUR GROUP.
Although over the years Asphalt Green has developed a sports-based day camp formula that works, they've also learned to be flexible.
"For us [the question is] what level of expertise are we going to present to the kids," Knapp said. "Some years it's more recreational, some years more skills-based." That is determined from year to year "depending on the skill level and age group" of the campers, Bailey explained.
8. USE PARTNERSHIPS.
The Summit taps into the medical professionals in their building to enhance their programming. "One of the best partnerships we have is with our registered dietician who presents healthy eating lessons during our camp programs," Newman said. "We also have wellness mentors who have talked with our older age groups about tobacco use and other lifestyle choices."
Stone draws on the skills and interests of his counselors to staff the YMCA's specialty camps. One older counselor who likes to skateboard is heading up the skate camp this year. And the Y also partners with other organizations in the community. They use a neighboring city's skatepark and join forces with a local stable for their horse camp.
"For cooking camp last year we partnered with a youth center in the city of San Rafael that has a state-of-the-art kitchen and full-time chef," Stone said.
And don't forget to look for potential leaders among your current staff or volunteers. Is there someone who could offer an arts and crafts lesson? A storytelling session? Yoga classes or swim lessons?
9. TAKE A TRIP.
Getting out to see something new is another excellent way to enhance your day camp or after-school program. But plan ahead to ensure a safe and smooth experience.
"We spend six months budgeting and reviewing trips," said Asphalt Green's Knapp. "We go over the trips in detail in pre-camp training, and every morning there's a pre-trip meeting with all the groups that are going. Like anything else a camp would do, the more planning, the better the product."
Asphalt Green is also careful to choose trips that will be interesting and exciting for the various age groups—and that are different from the field trips students take with their schools. Younger kids may visit the Bronx Zoo on a non-crowded day, while older kids may go whitewater rafting or take a tour of Madison Square Garden.
10. CREATE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT.
"Safety, safety, safety always has to be your first priority," Newman said. "You cannot teach healthy habits, exercise, and having fun if children or staff are getting injured."
Safety is also a major factor parents evaluate when considering your program, noted Asphalt Green's Knapp: "Especially in New York City, we have to have a good plan and the trust of the parents. They need to know we're prepared to deal with emergencies."
11. TRAIN STAFF TO BE PREPARED.
Each of the camps consulted for this story has taken special pains to ensure their staff members are educated and ready to react. Asphalt Green takes extra precautions in following the Board of Health's guidelines for field trip travel and keeps their student-to-counselor ratio lower than required.
"Our trip coordinator was an EMT last year," Bailey said. "So if there are any accidents we have coverage there. We do our homework when we do the trip schedule: What are the facilities like? What medical issues could arise? How close is a medical facility?"
The YMCA uses the American Camp Association guidelines (see sidebar for details) to keep their programs on track. "We're accredited by them to run day camps, and there are a ton of regulations to follow," Stone said. All Y camp counselors have first aid and CPR training, as well as risk management training, he noted. And everyone goes through training at the beginning of the season—even those who have worked before.
The Summit's camp staff also has CPR/AED certification, and they're offered a free first aid class. When in The Summit building, nurses and doctors from onsite employee health services can be called in the event of an emergency.
"Children are unpredictable, so I think that always raises the potential for safety issues," Newman said. "Staff are trained to think about four principles: Am I in the right place? At the right time? With the right people? And the right equipment? If they answer no to any of these questions, they need to consider how the activity can be adapted to make the situation safe, or they need to choose something altogether different."
12. CONSIDER TRANSPORTATION NEEDS.
Newman cites transportation as something to consider before launching an after-school or day camp program. How will the kids get to you?
"The numbers in our program were erratic and pretty minimal until we were able to work with a local nonprofit transportation service to provide busing from the area schools," she said.
13. TEST IT OUT.
Consider your camp or after school program a chance to try some new activities that may eventually evolve into full-fledged programs.
"We use summer camp to try out things and see if they'll work," Bailey said. "We experiment a little bit."
14. GET STARTED NOW.
"See what the market is, and get as much professional help as you can," Knapp said.
Be sure to explore local laws and requirements, and check in with the ACA for guidance, whether or not you decide to go for accreditation.
"It's a big undertaking, so give yourself enough time from when you start thinking about it to when you want to open," Knapp added. "You may need a year to plan and get things going."
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