While schools all across the country have been working over the summer to find the best ways to pivot their education online, summer camps have been attempting to offer virtual options for campers stuck in lockdowns. For some camps, such as children’s oncology camps, the threat of the virus to an already vulnerable population made virtual camp all but a certainty. But the prospect of quickly putting together a virtual camp with a team made up of mostly volunteers can be quite daunting. This is the story of how one camp successfully turned a week of summer camp into an engaging virtual experience.
Arizona Camp Sunrise and Sidekicks is a children’s oncology camp, serving campers ages 8-18 who have/had cancer and their siblings. I have been volunteering for this camp for the past 17 years and my experience told me that cancelling camp would be devastating for the kids. When the quarantine first started, we knew we would have to make a decision on the status of our three-week-long camp to be held in July. Thankfully, camp leadership decided early that it was in the best interest of the campers and their families to hold camp online. Our camp is staffed by volunteers, and fundraising and grants make it free for the families. Planning this experience meant we had to rely on staff who were dealing with uncertainty in their jobs, figuring out how to homeschool children of their own, and varied in levels of technology skills. But one thing we did have was a desire to make this feel as close to a typical camp experience as possible.
The planning process required an open-minded team, as none of us had done anything like this before. Fortunately, I attended OLC Ideate, and was able to convey how a virtual experience could be delivered. I was inspired by what I saw at OLC Ideate and felt like we could utilize some of the same approaches for camp. For example, having a password protected website would protect the privacy of our campers. And releasing each day’s activities one day at a time would help with organization and make access easier for campers and staff. These ideas were widely accepted in weekly planning meetings, and soon enough, we were able to move forward.
Suddenly, the world of online learning was at our fingertips like never before, which required a team effort. Our tech team (volunteer counselors who help maintain the website) started working on a password protected portion of our main website, and the other volunteers started brainstorming how to transform our traditional camp activities into virtual options. Thankfully, we have an immensely creative group of volunteers consisting of teachers, engineers, nurses and others dedicated to providing an amazing camp experience. We settled on a plan to have a mix of live and recorded activities each day, something OLC Innovate did quite well in the form of live sessions and the Innovation Lab. Two other ideas I put in place from Ideate and Innovate were having a welcome announcement each morning to show campers what to expect throughout the day, and hosting a virtual escape room. Soon counselors were signing up to put on arts and crafts, hiking, archery, yoga and a variety of other accessible offerings online.
With a plan in place and only a short time until we welcomed campers to our virtual space, we were all committed to our various parts. For example, counselors made pre-recorded videos to advertise their classes and to provide instructions for the asynchronous pieces. We recorded bedtime stories for the campers to watch at the end of each night. I coordinated with the counselors to record segments of the announcements which I later edited together for each day. Campers and Counselors shared a positive reaction to hearing from a variety of voices because they could see familiar faces every morning and every evening.
Live offerings included Yoga, Brain Games, a card game called Mafia, and the Escape Room. We also offered live evening events including trivia, bingo, campfire and even a dance party. The website presented families with the schedule for the day, links to videos and Zoom rooms, and asynchronous engagement pieces such as a Padlet for campers to participate in a question of the day and a place for families to submit photos of the campers engaging in various camp activities. In lieu of being able to share on social media due to privacy concerns, this feature proved invaluable as a way to stay connected and to be able to create a yearbook at the end of the week.
After a week of camp we learned some valuable lessons for creating and hosting an engaging virtual experience. Here are a few takeaways that can be applied not only to camps, but classrooms, conferences, retreats, etc.
- Set the expectations upfront: Provide clear directions for how to engage with the planned activities.
We emailed a 100 page guidebook to all the families with detailed instructions for how to participate in the live events and how to engage with the pre-recorded classes. The guidebook also included necessary materials the campers might need for certain activities as well as a schedule of events. This really helped make sure everyone was prepared on day one and cut down on many questions and technical issues.
- Moderate: Have people in place to engage with participants both live and asynchronously.
We made sure to have multiple moderators (counselors) in each session. Each moderator had a specific role, too, whether it was monitoring the chat or taking the lead in a breakout room. With upwards of 150 campers in attendance it was crucial to have enough moderation to make sure everyone’s voice was heard and that they were all conducting themselves appropriately. One unique addition we made for camp was requiring all staff to rename themselves on Zoom to “Counselor + First Name.” This was helpful to campers because they were able to quickly identify which staff members were available to them throughout the activity.
- Plan for all levels: Provide a diverse set of activities that appeal to a wide range of participants.
The challenge of an oncology camp is meeting campers where they are in terms of activities and skill levels. It is important to consider virtual sessions that meet the needs of all participants. For example, with the card game Mafia, counselors used breakout rooms to divide campers by skill level to better serve campers who were newer to the game so they could learn together.
- Provide opportunities for asynchronous engagement: Not everyone can participate live online all day everyday, nor should anyone.
Asynchronous engagement allowed for engaged participation. One of the biggest successes of our program was the feature for families to submit photos. We received hundreds of submissions throughout the week and shared the photos on the website the next day for everyone to see. We also had campers submit videos for our talent show and then edited them all into one long video to show during our live Talent Show. This helped facilitate key aspects of the event. First, it enabled us to moderate the acts beforehand and make sure everyone’s talents were appropriate. Second, it allowed us to use our time more effectively. Unlike past experience with the talent show, we didn’t have to worry about campers feeling embarrassed when things didn’t go as planned because they could just re-record.
- Be positive: What we didn’t expect is that virtual camp exceeded expectations.
We knew going into this that everyone would be hard pressed to meet the high expectations of campers that had years of traditions in mind. However, we brought positive energy into every activity and reframed camp to meeting campers where they were. Although the campers were sad to not be able to connect in person, the virtual experience gave them what they needed: a chance to see friends, play games and connect. On our last live event of the week one camper said, “I don’t want to click Leave Meeting because I know it will be over.” While a virtual camp may not be ideal, being positive meant being there for children who needed it.
- Harness your creativity: Try new things, play with new ideas, look at everything from a new perspective and let that guide you.
Be inspired by what you’ve seen others do and adapt it for your needs. Trying to recreate a week long sleepaway camp online was a challenge, but it was also an exercise in creativity training. Coming up with new ways to reimagine established activities breathed new life into our experience.
This entire experience was eye opening because it showed that we can have an impactful summer camp experience in an online environment. It also opens up new possibilities that we might not have thought of before, and proved that online engagement can be just as rewarding as in-person engagement.
Adam Davi is a Senior Instructional Designer for Digital Learning. He is an alum of the University of Arizona, where he earned his B.A. in English Education and his M.S. in Educational Technology. He also has an M.A. in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University. Prior to joining Digital Learning, he worked as a Digital Content Specialist for the Thrive Center. In addition, he spent seven years teaching middle school Language Arts.
Outside of work, Adam volunteers his time for Arizona Camp Sunrise and Sidekicks, a children’s oncology camp, and is attempting to start a blog to help people plan trips to Disney parks. He also enjoys going to the movies, watching baseball, and playing board games.