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Family camping: building a community at warp speed the special case of family camping.

Children are part of families, and families are diverse--in their structure, in the way they function, and in the ways they relate to one another. There can be strength in such diversity, but there can also be associated challenges. Diversity may come in the form of differences in culture, primary language spoken, socioeconomic resources, levels of ability, religious background, life experiences, and even in comfort levels when participating in camp activities.

When trying to bring families together in the camp setting, it is important to celebrate their diversity, while also focusing on ways in which they may be united. Taking this opportunity to build community within the camp setting can help serve as a model for strengthening and uniting diverse people in the community at large, and family camps offer a unique opportunity to do this. You as a camp professional can help facilitate the process, thereby building stronger communities both within and outside of the camp setting.

Consider the Challenges

Before beginning your community-building project, however, it is important to consider what challenges you may face in the building process. By doing this, you can plan ahead to prevent problems whenever possible, or to at least have a "rain plan" in place when prevention is impossible.

Addressing Cliques

One challenge often faced by programs in which some participants are returning and others are new is the formation of cliques. This isn't always intentional, but people who "know the ropes" and have been around before often seek out the friends they remember from past camp sessions. This is natural behavior and, in and of itself, not a bad thing--to reunite with old friends. However, you have to be careful that this does not happen to the exclusion of new children and families. One solution is a "mentoring program" that pairs new families with returning families. Camp staff do not always have to be the only ones who welcome and facilitate the adjustment of new families into the camp environment. Empowering families to work with and serve one another allows them to be active participants in helping build the community you are seeking. You should have a rain plan in place in case one or more families cancel at the last minute, so that no families are left hanging. One way of doing this is to make mentoring assignments once everyone has arrived--thus ensuring that everyone gets matched appropriately, and no one gets left out.

Sensitivity to Diversity

Another challenge camp programs sometimes face is ensuring sensitivity to the diversity of their participants. Being sensitive to diversity issues does not mean ignoring them, minimizing them, or trying to eliminate them. It means celebrating them and creating an environment in which people can simply feel comfortable being who they are. It means thinking creatively to include people in activities even when there may be something that limits them from participating in traditional ways.

It is important that you not become mired in trying to place everyone into a certain mold as your ideal of a "camp person." Even those who may not be able to communicate as fully because of language or disability issues--those who prefer to watch from the sidelines rather than actively participate--those who come to camp via public transportation rather than by their own car--or those who get around in a wheelchair rather than by walking--ultimately it doesn't matter what differences people bring with them to camp; everyone has something unique to contribute and something special to gain by becoming part of the community. The challenge is to help facilitate building that community regardless of who comes through the front gates of your camps and asks to join the festivities.

Tackling Apprehensions

A final challenge to consider is that some children and families are apprehensive about "going away to camp." This can be true of children and families from any subgroup of the population--but may be even more common among certain subgroups. For example, families who come from cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds where they don't often have access to programs like camp, and where other members of their communities don't frequently participate in these programs, are more likely to feel uncomfortable about sending their kids away to camp. These families are experiencing a "fear of the unknown." Camp programs may simply not be a part of their culture. In fact, the children themselves may be less likely to want to participate since they may not have peers with whom they can identify who have gone away to camp.

Children with chronic illnesses form another subgroup of the population in which "fear of the unknown" sometimes applies. Attending camp may be more common among some of the peers of these children, but there can still be a great deal of apprehension involved for both the children and their families. For families with a child who has a serious medical condition that requires frequent monitoring and care, it is often very difficult to trust that monitoring and care to someone else. Still, offering these children opportunities for independence and to experience "normal kid" activities can be so vital to their growth and development.

Family camp programs help to address the apprehensions felt by all of these groups by allowing the whole family to come to camp together--to more or less "take it for a test drive," and to become more comfortable with what the programs (and medical support staff) have to offer their children. Of course, in this type of program the whole family gets to come out and have a great time too, so it becomes a win-win situation for everyone! Again, our challenge is to start building a community that everyone feels a part of, and feels drawn to, long before they arrive at camp for the first time.

Building the Community

Now that we've thought about some ways to prevent problems from occurring and about rain plans to use when they do occur, we're ready to start building. Of course, in order to build anything you have to start with a few basics. At the minimum, these will include some building materials and some basic tools. If "community" is the final product you're trying to build, then some of the tools and materials you'll need will include themes and opportunities for interaction. Let's consider both of these more fully.


Themes can be very useful in helping to lay the foundation for your community-building project. Themes provide a lowest common denominator around which everyone can feel connected. Themes can be simple--or elaborate. They can be used to motivate, infuse cultural awareness, or simply to create fun. It all starts with some creative brainstorming. A little forethought goes a long way, especially when you want to use your themes to their fullest potential in the community-building process.

Here are a few ideas that you can use to get those creative juices flowing. Keep in mind that this list is meant simply to inspire your own creative thought, and in no way is it to be considered exhaustive. Also keep in mind that these theme ideas can be used both in weekend and week-long camp settings with a little bit of modification. We'll revisit some of these themes a little later as illustrations for specific points, but this list will at least help give you a springboard to start your own creative brainstorming for laying the foundation with a theme.

* A Year in the Life

* Around the World in Three Days

* Beach Party/Fun in the Sun

* Bedrock Weekend

* Camp Hollywood

* Family Fiesta

* Jungle Groove

* Pajama Party

* Saturday Morning Cartoons

* Space Jam/Out of this World Weekend

* Western Weekend

It is generally a good idea to start planning your theme(s) early, because if you truly want to use the theme as a way to create community at your camp, getting the word out to people early goes a long way. Getting the word out early helps give all those who will be involved--families, camp staff, volunteers, etc.--an opportunity to gather costumes and props that they can bring with them to camp.

Families can even be assigned a theme-related task to complete as a family before coming to camp. An example of such a task might be to create a "Family Crest" that ties in with the chosen theme. A "Family Crest Kit" could be sent to each family well in advance (if timing allows), and each family member could be asked to create a portion of the crest and to bring the finished product with them to camp. For the "A Year in the Life" theme example, each family member creates a portion of the crest to tell about his or her favorite holiday or time of year. Once families arrive at camp, they pair with one or more other families and share their crests with one another--with each family member given the opportunity to tell his or her own story about what each created.

A task like this allows a family to feel invested in the camp experience even before they arrive at camp, and it gives them something unique to share with those they will meet. It is also often much easier for people to talk about and describe something they have created, rather than just talking about themselves without a "prop" to serve as a facilitation tool.

In order to use themes to their fullest potential, make an effort to weave them throughout your camp sessions. Using an activity like the one described above can help ignite the theme long before that opening campfire is ever lit, but then you have to find ways to keep that thematic fire burning throughout your camp sessions.

Opportunities for Interaction

With the thematic foundation in place, you can use activities like the one described earlier as building blocks while you further work towards creating a community spirit at your camp. You can begin forming building blocks to community by providing opportunities for interaction, including activities, cheers, food, music, skits, and stories--all centered around your chosen theme. Let's visit each of these areas in greater detail.


Let's consider another theme from the list, "Jungle Groove." Activities could include "Tarzan's Tree Swing" (i.e., high ropes); "Swamp Hunt and Jungle Cruises" (i.e., boating and fishing); "Animal Safari" (i.e., horses and nature); or "Wilderness Woodcrafts" (i.e., woodshop)--to name a few. An all-camp dance could go with the overall theme of "Jungle Groove" or vary slightly to be referred to as "Jungle Jam." There are so many creative ways to use themes within your own program's existing activities.


Cheers can be used to build energy, foster camp spirit, and create unity. When they incorporate the session's theme, they also help to keep that unifying theme alive throughout the session. Having some cheers preplanned and on hand can be useful in getting things started, but having families or groups of families work together in creating a family or team cheer can be instrumental in truly empowering children and their families--by giving them a feeling of ownership and offering them tools they can use to build community. Consider the example of "Saturday Morning Cartoons" as a theme, and consider how that theme could be used in creating family or team cheers--each family or team could represent a different cartoon or group of cartoon characters, and their cheers could reflect that. The possibilities are endless.


Yes, themes can even be used in planning meals and snacks at camp! Consider, for example, the theme "Around the World in Three Days." As your journey begins, you might start with an opening buffet meal, or smorgasbord, and for that meal you could have a Swiss theme to your tasty treats. Perhaps as the journey continues, you can serve French toast for breakfast the next morning. Maybe lunch takes you to Italy where you dine on pizza and pasta. Dinner can take place in the Far East with something like sweet and sour chicken as the entree--and, of course, it wouldn't be complete without fortune cookies for dessert! The next morning breakfast might lead you to merry old England where you have toast, marmalade, bacon (or what we would generally call "ham"), and eggs. As you send families off on their homeward journeys, you might prepare an airline meal for them to eat en route (or what we might generally call a "sack lunch"). Again, these are just ideas related to one particular theme.


Music will also unite and enliven people. Songs around the campfire are a good way to get people involved, and you can use music requiring varying levels of involvement to help people ease into things and become more comfortable as they go along. For example, "repeat-after-me" songs can help people get involved even if they didn't previously know the song. You can also use songs that are well-known, but remember you may have families coming from diverse backgrounds--and even those "well-known" songs may not be so well-known to everyone. As people start to warm up, songs with motions help people get moving--and help them interact with one another a little more. Since people are all doing the same thing in situations like this, it is a little less threatening because everyone looks silly--not just them! Once people are comfortable, songs that involve full interaction with other people are useful in adding more bricks to your wall of community.

Considering the "Western Weekend" theme, you can sing a song in which you pause throughout and give commands like, "Give a high five to your partner's next to you ...." Don't be afraid of writing new songs to fit your themes or rewriting lyrics to old songs to better fit your theme. These are strategies that work!


Skits work well for a variety of reasons during camp--to help introduce the theme (e.g., for "Bedrock Weekend," a skit about cavemen could be used to kickoff the opening campfire), to help explain camp expectations (a.k.a. "camp rules" for the uninitiated), or simply to entertain. Skits can also be used to involve family members as active participants in what is going on--giving them an opportunity to "find their voice" and to make an important contribution to the camp program and to the community.


Stories build community by explaining camp traditions that may be well-known to some, but brand new to others. Explaining these stories and traditions to everyone--in a group setting--once again helps to create that lowest common denominator so everyone is on the same page. Returning campers and families can also be empowered to tell these stories to those who are new--and in doing so help reinforce a mentoring relationship. Camp stories and traditions should always be meant to facilitate building community--never to isolate people or to form an "exclusive club." It is critical that we are always mindful that this can happen all too easily if we forget to share our stories and traditions with those members of our camp families who are new.

Building Community One Brick at a Time

A final set of recommendations as you set out to build your communities is to strive to use all of these tools and materials already discussed at the most appropriate times and in the most appropriate ways. As families are first gathering and becoming acquainted with the camp setting, they may not feel completely comfortable with being open and sharing with one another. Offering activities that allow them to interact--but that do not put anyone "on the spot"--can help ease this early transition. It is also easier for people to interact early on through more structured activities that are more active and less verbal. Even though people may feel a bit uncomfortable doing silly things at first, if everyone is doing it, it takes the pressure off. It teaches people that it is okay for them to be silly and laugh at themselves in this setting. It is also okay to push people outside their comfort zones, because that provides opportunities for growth.

As the camp program continues--as the community becomes more solidly built and people become more comfortable with one another--it is beneficial to allow more opportunities for unstructured time or activities and interactions that are more verbally based. At this point the foundation has been laid, the framework is complete, and people can be offered the opportunity to use the tools they brought in their own tool kits to do the finishing work. This is the point at which networks can be built that begin within--yet extend beyond--the gates of camp and provide a foundation on which an even stronger global community can be built.

Brandon G. Briery, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine's Mailman Center for Child Development in Miami, Florida. Dr. Briery has been associated with camps in various roles for nearly twenty years. He has conducted empirical research on the benefits of camps for children with chronic illnesses and continues to pursue that line of research. He also enjoys consulting with camp programs on programmatic, training, and psychosocial issues. He can be reached at 305-243-2245 or by e-mail at
COPYRIGHT 2004 American Camping Association
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Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Briery, Brandon G.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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