Being a nanny when I first moved to San Francisco was a great job, and it helped me pour the foundation of what would become my party business. One of the amazing connections I made at that time was with with a mom, Willa, whose daughter Kendall was friends with my little charge Hanna. (And now, Kendall actually works for me as one of my fabulous party assistants!)
Young Kendall (above), and Kendall working a craft table as an assistant (below)
Willa is an amazing mom who is incredibly talented (she dances, knows music, is a great artist, and also teaches science) and loves to share that with kids. She and I worked together to form this really fun little workshop called the Kid’s Fun Factory way back in the 90’s. It was a little camp that met on Saturdays, and eventually blossomed into a full-out backyard, summer camp. I was going through some photos the other day, and realized just how fun that camp was, not only for the kids, but for me... It got me thinking: wouldn’t it be fun to share the ideas on how to run your own low-key, summer camp with the neighborhood kids? Here are my favorite tips and tricks for a fun, easy camp!
SETTING UP YOUR CAMP
1. The space: You need to make sure you have a place that is comfortable for the kids, so take into account where you live and what the weather is like, whether it's hot, foggy, rainy, or mild. Don't try and throw a camp in your 110 degree backyard! (Unless you want to do a "water world" camp!) You also want to make sure you use a space that can get messy. Garages and basements are great, as are outdoor carports. Backyards with lots of shade are ideal, and nearby parks or woods are wonderful too! The main thing to consider is having enough room for the size of your group. Another great tip is rotating to a new house each day with the other parents in order to reduce the workload; an added bonus is you get to choose activities that really fit each house's strength.
2. Timing: Don't bite off more than you can chew! It's a good idea to test out your camp ideas first and see if they work. Maybe just start with a "family camp" with your own kids to see if it's manageable. Then decide just how much time you're willing to devote. Is it just a morning camp, say 9 a.m. to noon (meaning you can send them home for lunch)? Or is it an afternoon camp from 1 to 4 p.m.? Do you want to commit to an entire day? If you do, you'll have to include lunch and snacks! You'll also need to decide if you want to have camp every day, every other day, or maybe just once a week. It's up to you and what your schedule can handle!
3. Campers: You’ll need to decide if this is something you want to open up to a select group of friends, neighborhood, or community. Again, only take on what you think you can handle. You may want to set an age bracket, say 7 to 11 years old.
4. Helpers: You don’t want to do this on your own! Get a friend or an equally excited parent/guardian to help you out. Enlist some neighborhood teens who are in need of jobs and experience. Whatever you do, you’ll want extra hands.
5. Liability: Make sure that everyone knows this is a “home-based,” informal camp. This is not a professional camp, and injuries can always happen whenever kids are involved. Although you should always take every precaution when holding activities, sometimes you can’t help a scraped knee or bonked head. It happens. Make sure other parents are aware of this, and discuss with them any of their concerns. This also means you should take every precaution necessary. Find out about any allergies, have a “greasing zone” for sunscreening the kids when they arrive, lock up any family pets during the camp, and mark all off limits areas.
For the camp itself, you should play to your strengths and what your kids love to do. It’s more fun to create a camp around the activities you like, than forcing yourself to work outside your comfort zone.
Here are 10 fun camp themes for you to try!
1. Science Camp: Use some of our science videos on YouTube to get started, or check out sites like Steve Spangler or Bill Nye’s kids and teacher link for cool ideas. You’ll always want to test the experiments ahead of time to make sure you understand how they work!
2. Theatre or Movie Camp: Put on a play! Spend a week taking a favorite short story or book into a little play or movie. Have the kids help in every aspect: writing, staging, costuming, creating the props and scenery, maybe even add music. Hang up sheets in the backyard or garage and have the other parents join you for the last day. Present the play and then have a picnic or barbecue with all the parents and talent.
3. Game Camp: Try out new games either physical or brain-oriented. Start the day with some brain twisters, then board games, then move into the creative/physical realm and have kids make their own games. We have a ton of games on our site, and Amazon also has an amazing selection of game books that are sure to inspire. My favorite activity is to give kids a mishmash bag of items like a ball, a book, a scarf, and a Dixie cup, then have them create a game using those items. It’s amazing to see the results.
4. Water Camp: Is it hot where you live? Then celebrate it with water (unless your area is suffering a drought, of course). Let kids create their own water theme park, play water games, make coffee can ice cream or snow cones, play sponge and water balloon games, do activities with ice cubes. Who can resist something wet and wild?
5. Arts & Craft Camp: Have at it with everything from tie-dye t-shirts to basket weaving. There are so many kits and supplies out there nowadays that you can put together a camp with one trip to Michaels! This can get costly though, so try and stay away from kit crafts and focus more on things like recycled crafts. Our website has literally hundreds of step-by-step crafts for you to choose from. You can even theme each day: painting and printing projects, recycle crafts, yarn and string crafts, etc.
6. Circus Camp: Know someone who can teach kids how to juggle? Stand on a ball? Do basic gymnastics or walk a tightrope? Kids love exploring what their body can do, and the circus arts are an amazing way to teach such skills as balance and coordination.
7. Sports Camp: Get your kids physically fit and teach teamwork at the same time. Group sports are such a great way to build a sense of community, work on individual skills, and strengthen bodies and minds. Just remember to keep things light and fun, so they don’t get super-competitive. Make it about fun and bettering yourself, not becoming a draft pick for the NBA.
8. Nature Camp: Build tents and lean-tos, and even each kids how to build a real fire (under close supervision, of course!). Make s’mores, take hikes, start a leaf rubbing book. Explore your outdoor surroundings by identifying local plants and flowers, or making plaster casts of footprints. Make one night an overnight and sleep out under the stars. What better way to experience the great outdoors than to cook your dinner over an open fire and tell ghost stories?
9. Cooking Camp: Turn your kitchen into a classroom and camp. Teach kids the basics of cooking and baking by starting with small things, like fun kid-friendly food: celery and cream cheese or peanut butter "cars", "catapults," and "logs," then work your way into things like pizzas and cookies. Spatula.com is a great website with kids teaching kids how to cook. Maybe have the campers set up a little restaurant and invite the parents for a camp-cooked meal!
10. Spy Camp: Learn fingerprinting, code-breaking, and secret spying techniques. Figure out how to keep your bedroom protected from unwanted invasions by coming up with booby traps (not the kind that might hurt anyone, of course, but enough to deter your annoying little brother!).
These are only a few suggestions, but you can make up any kind of camp you and your kids want! Have a Rock Star Camp, a Super Hero Camp, a Beauty Camp, a Princess Camp, or Pirate Camp. Pick your theme and go to it with gusto! My suggestion would be to use the camp to create all the elements necessary to "become" each theme, so let the kids make their own suits of armor and figure out how to pool noodle joust in order to become medieval knights. Let them create their own environment and build their own fantasy land.
If you want to do more than one theme, mix it all up and call it "Camp Camp!" Pick your favorite activities and mix them into your camp. You can theme each day or plan hourly activities. You can create an schedule like…
First hour - games
Second hour - nature
Third hour - crafts
Fourth hour - sports
Fifth hour - theatre
Sixth hour - snack and cooking
Whatever you choose to do for your camp, the main thing is for you and your kids to have fun with friends and neighbors. Camp is one of those special places where friendships are born and creativity explored. It’s a great way to build a sense of community and allow kids to connect both with adults and peers. It’s a win-win situation, and a great way to fill some of those school free summer days.