Run a Neighborhood Summer Camp!

Here are my son Marco and a friend inside a Slotwood house they made at my neighborhood summer camp last year.

Last summer, I ran a neighborhood summer camp for my two older boys and for other kids in my neighborhood every morning for two weeks. It was a great success.

This year, I’m doing it again, and my story from last year has inspired at least one other neighborhood in Palo Alto, CA to do the same. Maybe we’re starting a trend. I certainly hope so… ({encode=”mike@playborhood.com” title=”Email me”} if you want help running your own!)

The idea is to introduce to parents and kids the idea that they can stay in their neighborhoods in the summer and have fun. These days, neighborhoods are as dead in the summer as they are during the school year before school lets out.

My hope is that, by attending a fun neighborhood summer camp, kids in a neighborhood will get more comfortable with each other and with the place. Maybe they’ll start knocking on each other’s doors and playing with each other on their own. Maybe they’ll be able to have fun with each other for hours at a time or a whole day on their own.

In this article, I’d like to share some of the wisdom I got from running my summer camp last year. In future articles, I’ll share my plans and the plans of that Palo Alto neighborhood for our respective summer camps.
Plan and Announce it Months in Advance
Boyyy, do I hate the fact that parents scramble in January and February to schedule every week of their kids’ summers because summer camp slots fill up then. That’s so wrong to me on so many levels. However, that’s the world we’re bringing our children up in. So, if you want a bunch of kids to show up for an event in the summer, you need to plan and announce it when parents are making decisions about their kids’ summers – i.e. in January or February.

A related point is that you should all it something that sounds like a structured program, no matter how structured it is in reality, because everything else on kids’ summer calendars is structured. So, I call what I might otherwise call a “neighborhood fun week” a “neighborhood summer camp.”

Kids Will Start Taking Initiative Eventually
In the first couple of days, kids will be a bit tentative. They’ll either stand around waiting for adults to tell them what to do or they’ll “tune out.” In other words, they won’t feel like they’re part of a cohesive group at the camp right away. So, the first day or two need to be fairly well-structured.

If things go well that first day or two, though, kids will be able and willing to take more initiative on their own. Of course, to fully realize this potential, you need to provide kids with the opportunity to take some control of things. My approach last year was to quickly back off any time I saw kids working well on their own to see what would happen. Often, especially in the earlier days, they would look to me to assert my control again, but sometimes they would just keep going on their own.

In one particular case on the last day of my camp last year, I was busy editing a video on my computer outside on a picnic table, so I couldn’t pay full attention to the kids. They got into making a playhouse out of Slotwood pretty much on their own. I was amazed. The oldest kid there was 5. Many of the pieces were too big for one kid to carry, so they had to cooperate closely. Every kid was engaged and working together. I was pretty proud and amazed that they designed and built a pretty sophisticated playhouse entirely on their own.

It’s Hard Work
I ran a two-week camp last year all by myself except for two days. It was the first time I had ever run a kids’ summer camp. That would be a very tall order in and of itself, but I had the added complication that our third son was born a month early during the first week of camp.

This experience was very draining for me. I would definitely recommend to anyone running a camp like this for the first time that you limit it to one week. You need to have an overall plan at the beginning to set parents’ and kids’ expectations, and you really need to be very prepared each day. A “we’ll wing it today” plan is doomed to failure, at least for a camp for little kids.

Adults Have Fun, Too
I focused so much on kids in my preparations that I didn’t think about adults’ experience. In fact, adults had a great time playing with the kids. At times, it seemed like we were experiencing things all together as a group.

For instance, we all enjoyed our trek up the San Francisquito Creek bed immensely. It was an adventure for all of us.

It Gets Better Every Year
I haven’t run my camp for the second year yet, but I can already see that it will have more positive results and be more fun than last year. Don’t get me wrong, last year was totally worthwhile, but I just think we can achieve more of my goals this year and have more fun doing it. In the last year since our first camp, kids have continued relationships to some degree, so we’ll be able to hit the ground running.

I really think they might come out of this camp starting to be able to organize, play, and finish games all by themselves. Also, I know more about what works and what doesn’t, so I the events I’m planning have a higher probability of success this year.

For Mixed Ages, You Need Props
Neighborhood camps are by their very nature mixed age. Geography is more important than age. So, it’s nearly impossible to always have activities that engage all kids at the same time.

All the play features of my front and back yards proved to be invaluable in this regard. So, for instance, it’s great to have a sandbox around for a three-year-old when he or she tunes out of an art session that is more appropriate for five year-olds. Or, when we’re fingerpainting, it’s nice to have a basketball hoop around for the six and seven year-olds.

If you don’t have these features built into your yard like I do, you should at least bring and lay out toys that kids of different ages can pick up on their own if they want to.

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2 Responses to Run a Neighborhood Summer Camp!

  1. Andrew_Yee_FB says:

    fun, i miss being a kid!

  2. Stephanie_Stinson_FB says:

    I was thinking of doing something similar, though for kids in my apartment complex. How did you get word out for your camp?