Start Your Own Summer Camp!




Introduction: Start Your Own Summer Camp!

About: It's me, Prince Nagle Nagle!

This instructable is the story of the creation of a summer camp called Camp Kaleidoscope, in Cambridge, MA. I created this in 2006 and ran until 2008. It is a program that focused on giving children the opportunity to choose what they did during the day -- even nothing -- and guiding them through creative art and science projects. Our projects varied from taking machines apart to making video games, and our aim was to provide children with opportunities that would ignite and continue to sustain their curiousity. 

The Parts and Crafts community and summer camp has since grown out of Camp Kaleidoscope, starting in 2009. If you are eager to learn more about how to start your own camp, please contact them at !

Step 1: Overview: Logistics

Here are the key hurdles you need to clear in order to start a camp:

  • Figuring out what's going to happen at your camp
  • Finding a place to have the camp
  • Advertising
  • Licensing
  • Liability and medical insurance
  • Staffing (which is very related to the first step!)
  • Getting a simple business set-up

Let's proceed!

Step 2: Figuring Out What's Going to Happen at Your Camp

The first step is to figure out some idea of what you want to do at your camp. This is a little tricky, because you probably won't really know what you're doing at your camp until the second to last week of your first summer or so, but you need to have something to say to people in order to get started.

Here's what we did:

We knew that camp would have two main components:

1. hands-on activities: all the activities that we were going to do were going to be hands-on.

2. freedom: kids were going to have the freedom to do whatever they wanted to at camp (as long as they didn't infringe on other people's freedom) -- our projects, their own projects, or just play.

Then you have to flesh out that theory enough to be able to describe how one single day will run. In our case, that meant thinking of a handful of cool projects for kids to do and make (robots! kites! make computer games! build robots!) and then explaining that we were going to offer campers these sorts of activities throughout the day. The kicker to the spiel was explaining that we were in effect providing kids with an initial spark of inspiration, and once they fell in love with an activity, we would give them the room to do it all day if they wanted and take off with it.

This last paragraph is part of a spiel I've given hundreds of times now. Practice your spiel with your friends and colleagues in planning the camp. It will get clearer and clearer the more you give it. There's going to be a slight wariness from parents when they consider sending their kids to a camp running in its first year: it's best if you can capture the magic of your future summner camp in your spiel to offset that worry.

You'll find, as you talk about your project, that you'll use the same words over and over again.  Our words were/are "discovery", "inquiry", "inspiration", "creativity".  Turn these words into a sentence.  Make a list of what you think would be the coolest things to do each day and call it an 'activities list'.  Now you have a plan.  And most of a brochure.

This plan can, should, and will change.  "Freedom" sounds nice.  What about when a kids wants to watch anime music videos of pop songs on youTube all day?  We had our answers, you'll have yours.  But it's good to start with something.

Step 3: Finding a Place to Have Camp

Once you've got an idea of how your camp is going to run, you're going to want to start getting kids on board. Before you can do that though, you're going to have a place to have it, so that parents can figure out whether or not they can bring their kids to your site.

Churches are an excellent resource (as are synagogues, temples, and other religious centers used primarily on weekends.) We found space our first two summers by calling up a ridiculous number of churches and asking around until we found a space that was free for the summer. Incidentally, this turns out to be a great to chance to refine your spiel about camp before giving it to families who might attend.

Small churches are more likely to be helpful than big ones.  Religious organizations are almost always looking for ways to get involved in helping out the community, and bigger institutions are more likely to already be well connected, and, consequently, booked up, than small ones.  In college towns like Boston, places that cater to the college community are going to be almost empty during the summer and are likely to be pretty enthusiastic about someone using their space for something cool.

Some religious sects have more hierarchy and bureaucracy than others.  Unaffiliated churches are great.  The fewer levels of bureaucracy that have to approve your use of the church, the faster you're going to get answers and the more likely you are to get good answers.

Schools are another possibility -- many are unused during the summer. Calling up the local school board or schools themselfves has never gotten me anywhere. Due to liability issues, only a few people in the school system actually have the authority to let a school be used by another organization. The easiest way to get school space is to either utilize or make a personal connection, who can then navigate the hierarchies of power to get your space use approved. I've heard some people recommend calling principals directly, though this hasn't really worked for us. 

Getting cooperation from the local school system is probably something that you can get after you've done camp for a year or two and have some established credibility.  We were eventually given space to use for Camp K one summer by the local school system and spent that summer in a school building.  The next year we went right back to a synagogue -- there was too much arbitrary oversight, hierarchy, and bureaucracy for us to be entirely comfortable in their space. 

Features to look for in a space include:

Being near a park or other play areas. If you're giving kids' freedom, you'll want to give them ample space to run around and play.

Being near public transportation. This opens the world up to field trips and the exciting adventures of taking kids on busses and subways!

Having parking nearby. Last summer we were in the heart of urban congestion -- Harvard Square, and there was no parking less than a 10 minute walk away. Whoever owned the street we were on (and how someone can own a street is beyond me) had hired a towing company to send a tow truck up and down the street we were on 24 HOURS A DAY. Counselors had to race outside out to fend off the tow trucks when a parent parked for three minutes to pick up their kid -- it was like playing Choplifter.

Having more than one room to use. This isn't necessary -- we did without it our first year, but it can be really nice to have separate spaces to run activities with a small subgroup. We've tended towards labelling one area as the soft/quiet area, full of pillows, quiet voices, and chill activities, so that kids can escape the high-energy parts of camp when they need to.

And, lastly, people in charge who are excited about what you're doing.  I can't stress this enough.  If you don't think it's a problem for kids to run down the empty hallway on the way to the gym, but the people who own the space do, you're going to find yourself constantly having to enforce rules that you don't believe in.  This slowly saps your credibility as well as your enthusiasm.  If someone in a position of authority is going to periodically poke their head into the electronics take-apart area and tell you warningly that it's very messy, you're going to have a lot less fun, and be a lot less creative, than you would be if you felt able to use your own judgments.

Additionally, the site coordinator will want to know that you are going to be licensed, provide liability and accident insurance for the site, and are doing background checks on your staff. Licensing and insurance are contingent on having a site, but in my experience all the coordinators want to know is that you will get those things done and provide them with copies of the relevant paperwork once you have them.

Step 4: Pricing

The trickiest fact you'll need before working on getting the word out is figuring out how much camp will cost. I found two things helpful in setting a price -- looking at other camps in the area and seeing what prices were viable, and establishing a policy where we took anyone interested, regardless of income. The second policy is both personally important to me and also helped me feel better about setting a price ($250/week) that is out of reach for a lot of families.

An interesting aside about having a sliding scale policy: I've found that very few people have asked to pay less than half of our stated weekly price. Even though we say "We work with all families regardless of their ability to pay" in our brochures, only about 1-2% of all people interested in camp have asked to pay less than half our listed price. My interpretation is that families that can only afford $0 - 50 /week don't expect our price to come down enough, and would rather ask for financial assistance from a camp with a lower full price. This has meant that we end up getting most of our families in this price range through direct outreach, where we have control over how much outreach we do. The upshot of this is that we haven't been flooded by requests to come to camp for free (we hardly get any), and so having this policy didn't put us under any unexpectedly large financial strain.  Or, really, under any strain at all.

It also means that we have to work harder to actually attract an economically diverse population.  There are lots of pretty friendly organizations in any city that can help you get in contact with families outside of the middle-class that typically looks for (and can afford) "enrichment" programs.

In Boston/Cambridge, we found that parents could get childcare vouchers from the city.  Getting on the list of organizations that could accept these vouchers was incredibly helpful.  In Cambridge the people to talk to for this are the Childcare Resource Center.  Other cities and states probably have similar organizations.

Step 5: Advertising and Propaganda

Now that you know what camp is about, where and when it is, and how much it costs, you've got the basics down for creating a brochure and getting the word out.

When I've passed out brochures in fairs and events, I've seen parents scan the brochure for 4 facts: how old are the kids, what kind of camp is it, where is it, and how much does it cost. These should be prominent and easy to find on your brochure.

You'll also need a few more facts, like:

How do people sign up or get more information? We listed contact information (email, phone, web site) where people could ask questions and find a pdf of our enrollment form online. We later created an online form , which cut down on a tremendous amount of paperwork.

Pictures are really nice, but if it's your first year, you won't have any pictures of kids rocking out at camp yet! You can still use pictures of the projects you're going to do, pictures of staff, or pictures of the site. (We dealt with this our first year by finding pictures of children on the Internet and then turning them into silhouettes and putting them over our logo, so that we'd have some sort of depiction of our kids on our site.)

Information or short biographies of the staff are helpful. Including experience, education, and skills and interests suffices.

You may need a blurb saying your licensed that is required by the state department of public health. Like -- we're required to say "This camp must comply with regulations of the Massachusetts Department of Health and be licensed by the Somerville Board of Health." I wouldn't worry about it if you're not licensed yet: as you go through the licensing process and you find out what the required legal fine print is, include it in all future brochures.

A copy of our current brochure is attached.

But what do you do after you've made your brochure and your website?

-If you're doing a maker-style camp like we've done, contact local maker organizations -- some of these people have kids and/or know people who do!  Dorkbot, local hackerspaces, Make chapters, etc.

-Flyers can be useful but they can also be a huge sink of time and energy.  We've had pretty good luck posting flyers in libraries

-Private schools are likely to let you hang a flyer/brochure on their messageboard, and if you talk to the principle they might be willing to distribute information more widely for you.  In Boston and Cambridge, and I imagine many other places, people in public schools can't distribute information about programs without the explicit permission of the superintendent's office.  Whenever I've talked to people in power in the school system about getting word out about camp programs, they've said "sorry, we run our own programs," and quickly ended the conversation.

-PTA organizations, on the other hand, are a good and unmediated link with parents.  Most schools have contact info for PTA heads posted on their websites.  Give these people a call and tell them about your project as enthusiastically as possible!

-Childcare organizations at local universities can be knowledgable and helpful.  Because we had some MIT affiliation, it was a small matter for us to get listed on the MIT childcare website, and we got a lot of referrals from them.

-Email lists.  These are like flyers, but better.  There are lots of parenting email lists in cities.  Homeschoolers/unschoolers are particularly well-networked.  They're also used to sharing information among themselves and passing good ideas along -- I've found that one enthusiastic homeschooling parent very quickly turns into a small group of homeschoolers who want to be a part of what you're doing.  If you have any close relationships with parents in your area, have them write an email recommending your program to the local parenting lists.  This will be a lot more convincing than you writing something about how great you are.  And make yourself an announcement mailing list and get folks at events and visitors to your website to join it.

-Word of mouth.  This is the most effective publicity that we've ever been able to come up with.  Run events whenever you can, wherever you can.  Ideally for free.  Talk to all of the parents and kids who come.  Make sure they have a good time and that they know about summer camp. 

During the year before camp, as we were starting to grow it, we ran monthly "family building nights" at a few different places in Cambridge.  We started out having 1 or 2 kids show up each night, and ended up with 30 kids or more.  And had to move to a bigger space.  In my experience, it's easier to get kids to come to something on a weekday that fits into traditional after-school time slots (3:30-5:30), than it is to get them to come to something in the evening after parents are off of work.  Weekends are best -- parents are always looking for cool things to do with their kids on the weekends.  Some people will have religious problems with coming to events on saturdays, other with events on sundays.  Mix it up!

It doesn't take very many enthusiastic parents to turn into a community.  Most kids want to come to camp with a friend.  Start publicizing early enough to capitalize on slow, organic growth.  Many parents have signed up for summer camps by February.

That said, many parents _haven't_ signed up for summer camps in May, and being the cool camp that still has open slots isn't a bad selling point.  We didn't start advertising for our first year of Camp K or Parts and Crafts until May, and it turned out okay.

The "market" for interesting child care options during winter and spring vacation weeks seems to be less full than for the summer, so running something during these weeks can be a good way to get to know some parents and kids and starting building a network.

Step 6: Getting Your License

This step specifically pertains to getting a license to run a camp in Massachusetts, but I'd expect it to be generally applicable.

Before you look into getting a license, though, you should make sure that you need one.  It turns out that one of the main requirements for needing a summer camp license in Massachusetts is calling yourself a "summer camp".  If you call yourself a "summer program", don't go hiking, horseback-riding, don't do archery, or swimming, you can get away without needing a license.

Look into your local city requirements, as well as the possible consequences of running an unlicensed camp.  It is quite possibly not worth your time and effort.   Especially during your first year.

Assuming, though, that you've decided to get a license (potentially a wise decision):

To start the process off, you contact the Department of Health and ask for the summer camp inspectors. You tell them that you are starting a summer camp and ask about how to get licensed -- they'll give you an application for a recreational summer camp license. The application primarily consists of writing up lots of plans as to what you'll do in the event of various potential emergnencies, like if a child gets lost or injured.

You'll need to find a medical advisor for the camp. Your camp will need a nurse, pediatrician, or doctor to approve any medical plans you submit as part of your license, and to be available to field questions over the summer. We have found this by asking the parents in our camp's extended community to recommend their child's doctors, and also by asking the city inspectors for what doctors other local camps have used. We've never had to pay the doctor for this -- they've been willing to do it for free or in exchange for a discount for their child to come to camp.

You'll also have to develop a fire evacuation plan and submit a copy to your local fire chief. The inspectors will tell you who specifically to submit this to.

All in all, it's pretty straightforward. I found Cambridge's health inspectors to be incredibly helpful when I was unclear about a particular plan, and they would often make recommendations or provide examples from previous license applications.

You'll generally have two site inspections -- one before camp starts and one during camp. The one beforehand makes sure that the space your is in good physical shape and is a chance for you to go over the background checks and medical records of your staff (see next step.) The second inspection makes sure that everything is running smoothly at camp, and the inspectors will also check that you have all of the necesarry medical information for your campers (your camp's health form and general physical information from their doctors.)

A helpful recommendation the inspectors have made is to have all medical information on note cards for field trips. The note card would be something simple: child's name, medications approved by parents, any special information (allergies, prescriptions, unusual medical conditions), and emergency contact numbers.

A copy of our first license application is attached here.

Step 7: Staffing

For staffing in your first year, I advocate working with people you can communicate well with. Namely -- your friends. So much will be changing on the fly in your first summer (especially during your first week!) that you'll want people to work with people that you feel comfortable spending a ton of time with and problem-solving with during and after camp.
talks about the 2+2 design pattern for starting a hackerspace, and I think it applies to summer camp as well.  2 people who have initial enthusiasm for the project can go out and find 2 more, and from there things can really start getting done easily.

Making camp work can take all of your waking hours when you're just starting out.  Our first year that we had a sizable group of campers three of us spent essentially all of our time together, working at camp, cleaning up, planning activities, and talking about what went wrong and what went right.  The closer-knit the initial group is, the less work you will find falling on your shoulders by default.  It's really important for the initial "leader" not to overwork him or her self.

I am a big advocate of worker's co-operatives, and having people share power and profit equally. I believe that the closer our camp runs to this model (we're not there yet), the smoother things run for the adults, the less they worry about whether they're allowed to do or buy something and instead just do what they think is right, and ultimately the better everyone can think about how to make camp amazing.

Here's the legal things you have to do for staffing a summer camp:

Background Checks -- In MA, you need to file CORIs (criminal checks) and SORIs (sex offender checks) for each person you hire. SORIs are free and have a quick turn-around (within 2 weeks.)

CORIs can take quite a while. You first need to become certified to access CORIs . I think it's safe to allot 4 - 6 weeks for this (this tends towards 6 weeks when it's near summertime and the board gets lots and lots of requests.) Once authorized, you can then fill out individual CORI requests for anyone you want to hire (this has a 2 week turnaround by mail.) CORIs can now be processed online, which are easier to file.

You will also need basic medical information for your staff too (basic physical info and immunization history, or a written personal exemption from immunizations.)

Finallly, you need to pay them and report this payment to the IRS somehow. The easiest way to do this is to hire people as subcontractors, and give them 1099s. Someone recommended to me, which lets you file 1099s for $3.50 each. It's supposed to be easy; I'm going to try it this summer.

I have yet to figure out what the tax-minimizing option is of how to hire people, but subontracting has the benefit that instead of the employer withholding taxes, the employee receives everything and then pays taxes at the end of the year, which is a lot simpler for the business.

Step 8: Legal Matters: Medical and Liability Insurance.

You'll need to get medical and liability insurance to run your camp. It's good to have in case of an accident, and no site will rent to you unless you have insurance and have named the site as a secondary policy holder on the liability insurance.

You can get insurance specifically for summer camp. We get our insurance from Maryann Mueller at Schirick and Associates. I've never had to file a claim with them, so I can't say how well that works. They are dear to me because in the first summer we ran, when I blissfully knew nothing about liability, I found out four days before we were slated to open that our site wouldn't rent to us if we didn't have liability insurance. This company processed our application within a day and was very affordable.

We also have a clause in our health form that we ask parents to sign, saying essentially that the family understands that we do our best and that we can't guarante an accident-free, injury-free experience.

It's been suggested that in addition to this, we require an arbitration to clause to be signed -- requiring that a family enter arbitration with camp before suing us. Apparently waivers are worthless if claims of negligence are made, but arbitation can help diffuse legal tensions. We have yet to try it, but it's something I consider.

Step 9: Business Matters

The details for running the financial end of camp are no different than starting up another business. However, as this was my first time starting a business, I figure it's worthwhile sharing the details I found out.

I figured that it was important to set up a business checking account so that people could write checks to "Camp Kaleidoscope" and not me, Michael Nagle. I figured things would seem less sketchy that way.

To do this, I went to City Hall in Boston and got a "doing business as" license (normally referred to as a dba license.) Basically, this mean that for $40, I (the legal entity Michael Nagle) could do business as Camp Kaleidoscope. The form was a page or two and straightforward -- I think I probably had to bring an ID and it took me 10 minutes to fill out the form and get the license.

I then took that to a bank account (the Cambridge Trust Company) and got a business checking account. Problem solved!

We're now, in our 3rd year, in the process of becoming a non-profit corporation. To do this you have to....

First become a corporation (and in MA, a specific kind of corporation called a non-profit corporation.)

Then file with the IRS for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Though I shared the dread everyone does when thinking about filling out Form 1023, the form to file for non-profit status, it really wasn't that bad when I sat down to do it.

Instructions for Form 1023 was an incrediby helpful document. It answers all of the questions that come up when filling out Form 1023, very thoroughly. I found this document invaluable in filing our non-profit status application.

There's also a good document released by the IRS on the distinctions of a public charity vs. a private foundation. You have to decide which one of these you are when applying for non-profit status. I've unfortunately lost track of it, but if I come across it, I'll link to it here.

Step 10: Overview: Running Camp!

We've now walked through all of the legal and administrative steps involved in getting your camp set-up. Now comes the fun stuff: running the actual camp!

Our camp runs in a very simple, straight-forward style: every day, we hold a morning meeting, and tell our campers what kinds of cool activities we'll be doing throughout the day. Activities have included projects like: learning how to solder and making flashlights, programming video games, making rockets, making puppets, learning how to make cheese, kite-making, liquid nitrogen ice cream, and so-on. You, being on this website, get the idea. It's a freaking DIY extravaganza and it is amazing.

The real trick is that kids don't have to do our activities. Kids can move freely throughout our space, check out different activities, make use of all the different tools and materials we have out (like electronics, LEGOs and other construction toys, tools for taking things apart, art supplies, games, and so on) or just go play. We provide kids with inspiration and a place to get started making stuff -- and then when they fall in love with something, they've got all day to take off with it.

In the next few steps, I'm going to go over the following things that come up when running camp like...

When does camp work?
and Getting kids to teach themselves.

Step 11: Projects!

The role of projects at camp is to get kids started. The most exciting times at camp are when kids take their own ideas for projects and spend all day hacking away at them. We see projects as ways for us to display and transfer simple skills like soldering or hand-tool use, that kids can then absorb into their own creative endeavors.

One of the fanatastic things about making stuff with kids is that there are so many things you can do. Once you've done done a few projects with kids, pretty much anything that's interesting can somehow be turned into a great building or science project. Asking kids for ideas is great too -- whenever I'm stuck for ideas, I'll ask kids what they want to do, and without fail we'll come to something we're all excited about doing.

Some great resources include:

Instructables. Whenever I want to make something with kids and I don't know how, I often go to Instructables to see if there are any plans there.
Science Toys is a really fantastic project site. The Gonzo Gizmos book is excellent.
Scratch is a great, kid-friendly introduction to programming.

Our staple activities include:

Taking stuff apart: Computers and VCRs are great. We don't do televisions or CRT monitors because of the high-voltage capacitors, but we ask families to bring in anything else they've got.

Making slime/oobleck. Mixing corn starch and water together. There're instructables on it.

Soda bottle rockets! Originally inspired by [ Howtoons]. I like to use corks for the stoppers -- take a cork, puff it up in the microwave by heating it for a minute or so, fit it to the soda bottle while it's still hot and squishy, and then drill a hole in the cork and stick an innter tube valve in the hole. It's a good basic project with lots of potential modifications.

Basic electronics -- we have two stock activities here. One is showing kids how to solder by making a simple flashlight (soldering together a switch, 2 AA battery pack, and a blue or white LED.) The other is using a breadboard to show kids how to turn on things like LEDs, motors, or 7-segment displays, and showing them how to use switches. I really like to make simple switches with just two wires before moving onto switches where you can't see the internal mechanism.

Dry ice -- we always do this with adult supervision, who starts with a spiel about how to handle dry ice safely (in a cup and not with your hands, pretty much. We also emphasize that unlike ice, in can no way go in your mouth and usually say something like "it'll burn your tongue for a week!" to drive the point home.) You put the dry ice in a plastic cup, add water, or water and soap, or put it in ziploc bags and add water, or .... (there's tons of fun with dry ice!) Clear cups are particularly cool because then you can see what's happening inside.

Baking soda and vinegar rockets -- by mixing baking soda and vinegar in a film canister, putting the lid on, and turning it upside down, you get a very satisfying miniature rocket. This can also be done with dry ice and water.

Making snacks -- we've shown kids how to make pizza, cheese, crackers, and cookies.

Making airplanes -- we use balsa wood, and have kids freehand drawings on the wood, and then someone, usually an adult, will cut out the drawing with a utility knife and we'll hot glue the plane together.

I've found that between running a constant stream of fun things to do, like these activities, and emphasizing that kids are free to do what they want to, kids quickly come to camp bright-eyed and full of their own ideas for what they want to make and how. To me, this is the real goal of camp -- to empower kids to do their own thing!

Step 12: Rules!

Last summer we had three rules:

  • Don't hurt anybody
  • If you make a mess, clean it up
  • Don't go to parts of the church you're not allowed to go to.

It was really simple. I liked to call them "The Rules of Reality" -- these are the basic rules that are expected of you as an adult in the real world.

Another variation on rule-making I like is making group contracts with kids, where everyone works out the rules together. The down-side is you won't get something as clean and mantra-like as the first two rules above, but the benefit is that you start a dialogue with the kids about what rules they want in a space that can be really helpful if problems come up.

We also held a morning meeting every day, which was a way for us to tell kids what was happening during the day (we had a morning and afternoon block of activities) and announce things like when we were going swimming or figure out where we going on field trips.

To figure out where'd we go for our weekly Friday field trips, we'd start by taking suggestions from the kids for places to go (with the bounds that we could get there on public transportation and the cost was no more than roughly $10 / kid) and then everyone voted on where we would go that week. We used approval voting: kids could vote for as many options as they wanted to. That method of voting has worked really well (taking the strain off of each child to figure out where their *favorite* place is, and instead asking the simple question of which places sound fun.)

Step 13: Trouble!

What did we do when kids didn't follow our rules?

Since we didn't have many, camp had the aura of being a very relaxed and co-operative place. That said, there were still times when the rules needed some follow-up.

We decided not to punish kids in traditional ways, and so that leaves the open question of what do you do when there's trouble?

My first strategy when kids are fighting (verbally or physically) is the conflict resolution tool that I like to call the "long, slow discussion." You sit down with the kids (together or one by one, depending on the situation), and you start talking to the kids about what happened. Kids often have a freak-out response to talking to adults when in trouble, a sort of hysterical, gibbering "I didn't do it I didn't do it I didn't do it!" defense mechanism. The goal is to first get past to this by stating clearly that the goal isn't punishment for what just happened, but rather to figure out what we're going to do so that this doesn't happen again.

Usually, once you introduce the idea of thinking forward (figuring out what rule to put in place so that we don't have the same problem again), kids will slow down. You can then ask them to relate what happened step by step, and it's important to hear everyone on this. Many times, the situation will turn from murky (a la the great mystery of "Who started it?") to crystal clear. When it does, you can ask the kids to agree on a rule -- usually temporary and low-key -- in order to prevent the situation from repeating itself.

This isn't fool-proof, but it's an excellent way of disarming the hysterics that are often a child's first line of defense to being in trouble, and actually figuring out what happened and what to do.

It's also helpful to switch off with another counselor when you're getting frustrated by the kids you're working with. Ultimately, the big punishment we had was that if a kid was being unsafe at camp and we couldn't work things out, they'd have to go home for the day or stop coming to camp. This was something we hardly ever had to use or even mention, but this was the thing giving our rules weight.

For cleaning, we had a clean-up time at the end of every day. This was our one requirement of our kids, and we generally required the place get put back to as clean as it was in the morning. This is helped by us asking that all projects get cleaned up when they're done, but it's really clean-up time that makes this work. Our control here was making clean-up time shorter or longer, depending on how productive (chaotic) the day had been. On an average day clean-up time was 20 minutes long. We've at times used job charts to make the quell the "I don't know what to do!" complaints, though this hasn't been perfect (kids would be confused that they had to keep cleaning for the duration of 20 minutes when they'd done their assigned job.) With great freedom comes great responsibility!

Step 14: When Doesn't Camp Work?

For most kids (about 80 - 90%), they take to camp like water. They wake up, excited, full of ideas, eager to come, and spent the day doing what they want to.

Even so, it's really useful to start the camp week by talking about what makes the camp environment different from other places they might be used to.  There's something really charming about seeing  the moment of recognition that kids had during the first couple of years of Camp K when, midway through the week, they'd say something like "so we can build whatever we want?", but really you want them to know this from the get-go. 

Some kids need some help getting used to camp. The biggest categories I've seen are kids that are really shy, and kids that are socially awkward in some way.

For kids that are really shy, we usually have a number of counselors not doing activities at any given time, and one of their tasks is to look out for anyone who looks a little bit lonely in a corner, and help find find an activity for them and fold them into the group. We often have an opening activity for kids arriving Monday morning to go, so that if kids want to, they can meet a few kids and counselors in a small group and gradually orient themselves.

There are some particularly good activities to start the week out with.  In the first few days of camp you want to introduce kids to each other, to the adults, and to all of the tools that they can freely use. 

Some activities are really good for promoting social interaction.  I love to start monday morning off with candle-making because it involves a small group of kids (usually mixed-gender!) sitting around in a circle, working on a calm project, and talking for a few hours.  They get to know each other and they get to know you.  As an added bonus, I found that girls who I met while leading candle-making would frequently follow me to the electronics-room when I led an activity there.

Other activities are great because they introduce kids to tools that they can work with independently for the rest of the week.  A counselor-led take-apart activity, and introduction to circuits with LEDs, motors, and breadboards, and an introduction to Scratch are all really powerful.  Ideally by wednesday all of the kids are pretty much doing their own stuff and you're just wandering from place to place offering advice, inspiration, and safety.

For kids that are socially awkward (for example, if they have trouble sharing, or if they yell at other children when not included), we've found the best thing is to assign a few counselors to the child and have them work closely with the child. The counselors can check in with the child, and the child can trust that they can go find these certain adults if they're having trouble and talk to them about what's going on. Often the problem is a matter of the child not knowing how to communicate something important to them (how to ask for an object or for inclusion in a game), and we've found that these problems can fester if left to their own devices (a child who's not good at sharing will quickly be faced with the bigger problem of not having any friends and not being able to share!) While some may argue that these natural consequences are best, in a short-term environment like camp, I feel that providing what help we can with children's communication is the best way to go (though it sure can be tough at times!)

Make do with what you have, and remember that all of the counselors are around to help each other!  I remember one day at cleanup time when a kid was totally freaking out about the day ending, and not being done with his project, and having to clean.  I was working on something else at the time, but I saw another counselor really struggling with this -- the kid was getting angrier and angrier at him and there didn't seem to be anything that was going to break this loop.  I happened to have a dead battery in my pocket and happened to need batteries for wahtever I was doing.  I went up to the kid and said "Hey, listen, sorry to interrupt -- I need two of these batteries and I think this one's dead -- can you test this battery and find me a few more that aren't dead?  The multi-meter should be on the workbench."

And off he went.  The problem didn't entirely go away, but it was defused, and the child and I had a conversation while he helped me out.

Sometimes everything works great with the kids, but there are problems between adults.  Most of these problems end up coming from some people feeling overworked and other people feeling underrespected.  Try to avoid both of these things.  After doing Camp Kaleidoscope with 60 kids per week one summer, we started Parts and Crafts and initially had between 2 and 8 kids weekly.  Working with 8 kids was effortless!  When you scale up to 60 kids, I highly recommend that you do everything that you can to make it resemble 10 groups of 6 more than 1 group of 60.

The most important thing, I think, is for adults to work together closely and talk about their days together, that way, whatever goes right, and whatever goes wrong, everyone is learning, and things will definitely improve!

Step 15: Kids Teaching Themselves!

We ran a workshop on making electromagnets and motors at the MIT Museum last January, and were swamped with way more kids than we were expecting or had the staff for. On the spot, I came up with the following three rules, inspired by the need to reduce the pressure on our staff and encouraging kids to teach themselves.

If you don't know what to do you should....

1. First, look around and see if you can figure out what to do.
2. If you can't, look around, and either ask a friend or ask another person who looks like they know what they're doing.
3. And if you can't find anyone who looks like they can help, ask an expert (in this case, ask an adult.)

This was shockingly helpful. Lots of requests kids had were simple questions, often as easy "what materials do I need to start/next" -- which they could easily figure out by observing what was going on or asking another kid to help them. It redirected the various cries of "I'm confused: help!" from the person running the project to everyone present at the activity -- kids got into the swing of teaching other and things went really well. While it's often not what they're used to (the norm in most schools being stay quiet and wait for the teach to give instructions), kids take to this decentralized style of doing activities really quickly.

We also found it incredibly useful to put as much information about how to do things in the environment as possible.  The electronics room became a significantly more awesome places on the day that I got fed up with teaching kids how to wire LEDs to switches, and made large posters diagramming these circuits in a kid-friendly way.  In an ideal world I would have lots of documentation of different good projects lying around in the appropriate places where kids could stumble on them and get excited.  A computer devoted to browsing wouldn't be a bad addition to an building space...

I'm going to end my instructable here. There's lots and lots more to say, and if anyone's got any questions, I'm happy to write more! There are more pieces about camp at  and and we will hopefully post instructables of cool camp projects as time goes on.  Have fun, and good luck!

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    Question 3 years ago on Step 9

    Thanks for the info. It was very useful. I am looking to start a summer camp, but wanted to know what type of business structure did you originally use when you first started out. Did you do the LLC route then go for the non profit? Also, what made you decide to go the non profit route when you did?


    Question 4 years ago on Step 1

    Hi! im from viet nam. this summer i gonna make a summer camp. but now i am confusing about money. im studying high school but this summer i would be graduated. and now i dont know how much money do we need for first step? bc i think i will have money from tuition. can u suggest for me some ideas?


    6 years ago

    Summer camp by NHTPL


    6 years ago

    Hi, I was just browsing around in google search and found this website. I'm planning a youth camp for 2 years later. I just saw something like Liability & medical insurance. My question is how can i get that, because the camp I'm planning is for DEAF middle/high schools. They are attending to deaf school. Let me know, THANKS!


    6 years ago

    I am a teacher and have created several summer camps for my kids and their friends, as well as for schools. I had an idea that it might be fun to have a camp based on the book (or something similar) The Daring Book for Girls or 100 things all girls should know. Anyone out there already invent this wheel? :)


    6 years ago

    Hello Mr Nagle,

    Thank you very much for this piece as i find it very helpful and Important.

    I am from Nigeria, and i started had started a summer-camp here in my city about August of 2013.

    I thereby follow I full course all of your guidelines in that write as accurate.

    Our camp centers as a purpose driven entertainment and leadership camp event, which will also be having certain celebrities from various industries such as: music, art, fashion, Movies and the rest, visit and enlighten them about life realities in practical terms. We believe edutainment is a truthful way of encouraging our teenagers for the reality of the future. It's for ages 13-19.

    The camp also has other features such as the sports, dinner, awards, Entrepreneurship build-up, Career talks, orphanage visit and more.

    I am a young graduate, and I'm growing.

    I have been able to secure all the necessaries including the location, registration(licence), dedicated team members & staff and stated camp activities for the week.

    Where I have challenge now is about getting campers...

    Yea!!! Publicity, and the rest. Does require quite some fund.

    I need a website, designed brochure and many other certain materials..

    I couldn't raise money for publicity anymore. What can I do please. Do get campers


    Lagos, Nigeria


    Reply 6 years ago

    Hi Opeyemi,

    Thanks for writing! How is your project going? How has finding people gone?

    I'd suggest two things:

    1. You can make a website with tools on the web, like Weebly or perhaps Wordpress. I would put something up to start. You can refine it and improve its look as you go.

    2. The real way we got momentum was by running free workshops on weekends -- about an afternoon long. This was a form of getting the word out that showed children and family what it would be like to come to our program. Maybe something like this would work for you.

    Let me know how your program is going!



    7 years ago on Introduction

    Hey guys,

    So me and my friends want to make a summer camp but we are not sure if we need licensing since we are only 15 years old. Can someone reply if you have and answer? It would be greatly appreciated. Thank you


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction


    If you're doing something beyond just you and your friends and kids you already know, you'd need a license. If it's informal and it's just you and younger kids you know getting together for a few weeks then I think you can just work out that with the relevant families.

    You should get in touch with your city hall to find the licensing rules, but I can 99% guarantee you'll need to find an 18+-year-old to sponsor your project. Why don't you check it out and check back in here as it develops?


    Reply 6 years ago

    Hello Nagle

    I'm going to start a summer program. How do I come up with a name that evolves around children k-5. _______ summer program.


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Hey :)

    Well, what do you want the kids to do at your summer camp?

    Sara in MA
    Sara in MA

    7 years ago on Introduction


    So cool to find this instructable written by you! My kids were at Camp K. early on and my son is at P&C this summer. So just a plug that the camps Nagle created were/are great and well received.

    Any advice on promoting a new camp? I have a meetup that teaches women technology (front-end development) and I am considering creating a similar camp for girls summer 2016. I have sponsorship from two local high tech firms, one of which may be open to sponsoring the camp/providing a location.

    Best, Sara


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Hi Sara!

    That's cool that we get a chance to re-connect here.

    I'm happy to brainstorm with you or think more about what this would look like. My email is mpnagle atsign gmail dot com. One thought is if you would want to do something on your own or partner with the Cambridge non-profit Science Club for Girls. Maybe check out their web site -- I could make an introduction if helpful.


    7 years ago

    Any thoughts about opening a camp kids stay at (sleep)? Specifically in regards to cost. Also what are the laws, for any camp, about running it on your own property? I'm from MA.


    7 years ago

    Great article. A friend and i have the idea of starting our own inner city sports camp in Brooklyn nyc. We know that we will have access to use a church and we know itll be 8 weeks long, starting july 6th which gives us just under two months to get it off the ground. My question to you is do you think 2 months is enough time to completely create and launch the camp successfully? Was your experience worth it? Or are we in way over our heads... Thanks!


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    You can do it put your back into it!

    Yes, totally possible. I launched Camp K. with less lead time. Finding kids will be tough. You may settle on a low cap like 10. Or trying to do weeks like first / last week of summer when camps often don't run. That will be your main concern, but it's totally doable, and you'll have something to reflect on in the fall for next time. I feel like it's worth getting the ball rolling. You should post here if you do keep going and keep us posted :)

    hey guys, I am an Elementary Education Major in my final semester, and my friend and I are thinking of opening up a tiny summer camp in 6 weeks. We want a maximum of 10 children per week. I have a few questions I was hoping you guys could help me with!

    1) can I run this camp out of my house? If not, I can rent a space, but would I have to have insurance for this?

    2) do I need insurance for the camp? if so how much would it cost?

    3) what type of documents do I need to have the parents sign in order to release liability for driving and such?

    Please help!


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction


    that's great! i hope you make it happen!

    your answers are going to be specific to your state and city. you should get in touch with someone at probably your city hall, and they will be able to answer these questions for you. there should be a safety office that does licensing for educational programs and specifically camps that you can talk to.

    why don't you start there and write back as that evolves?


    8 years ago

    At my summer camp if we get in trouble they just tell your parents


    10 years ago on Introduction