June 28, 2011 Kerala Taylor

Bright ideas: Six steps to starting your own neighborhood summer camp

Don't feel like driving your kids to summer camp? Start your own camp, then—on your own street. That's exactly what neighbors Jennifer Antonow and Diana Nemet decided to do last summer, and they insist that getting a neighborhood camp up and running is not nearly as daunting as it may sound.

Inspired by Playborhood founder Mike Lanza's Camp Yale, Jennifer and Diana kicked off Camp Iris Way in Palo Alto, Calif. last summer and returned this summer for a second round. This year's session, in early June, attracted a whopping 72 children and teens—more than 90 percent of the youth in their neighborhood!

The model is flexible and virtually free. All it takes is the collective effort of dedicated community members like you. Here, Jennifer and Diana draw from their own experience to share six steps for getting started:

  1. Round up your neighborhood
    Whether via an email listserv, a community meeting, or door-to-door visits, determine who wants to get their kids involved and who wants to help you organize the camp. You're likely to get a positive response—all parents are looking for something for their kids to do during the summer, and the closer to home, the better. Gather a preliminary list of children's names and set up a planning committee.
  2. Determine the location(s) and set-up
    All neighborhoods are different. Do you live in a housing development with a communal space? Do the houses in your street have front yards? Backyards? None of the above? Jennifer and Diana were actually successful in petitioning the city to close their street between 8:30 a.m. and noon each day (see this report from Transportation Alternatives for more guidance on closing your street for play). Whatever the set-up, they recommend rotating the camp to be in front of (or behind) different houses each day—that way, the campers become familiar with one another's houses and may feel more comfortable paying a visit after the camp is over.
  3. Train teen counselors
    Summer is a time of notorious restlessness and boredom for teens. A neighborhood camp gives them something to do and helps connect them to their immediate community. Jennifer and Diana want their teen counselors to take ownership of camp activities, and even put them in charge of “counselors in training”—fifth and sixth graders who will assume counselor roles in the coming years. The camp fee—$110 per week—helps to cover the teen counselors' hourly wages.
  4. Create a rough schedule
    Jennifer and Diana actively involve the teen counselors in planning each day's activities, which they keep track of in a simple Google doc. Their largest fear starting out was that they didn't have enough for the kids to do, but it didn't take long to realize, “Hey, kids can entertain themselves!" Jennifer points out, "Kids' lives are really structured these days," and in creating their camp schedule, they purposefully keep the agenda light and flexible. Each morning consists of a warm-up, an art project, a team activity, and a large-group activity, but some of their favorite activities have emerged organically from free play—like a spontaneous hula hoop train.
  5. Draw from community assets
    There's no need to drop hundreds of dollars on camp materials—instead, call on your neighbors to donate play equipment and art supplies. You'll likely be amazed by how much you have to draw from when you pool your resources. If you still fall short, see if your town has a local scrap store (like this one in San Francisco) where tons of recycled and reused materials can be bought for cheap. A neighborhood camp also offers a wonderful opportunity for businesses to give back to the community. Jennifer and Diana partnered with Klutz, an activity book company, which donated art supplies. You can also scout out delis or corner markets, which may be willing to donate snacks or lunch.
  6. Go play!
    Don't forget the most important part of a neighborhood summer camp—play! And what's even better, the play continues all year long. Jennifer and Diana say their inaugural camp last year has had a lasting ripple effect on the community. Because everyone contributes to the camp in some form or fashion, everyone feels both connected and invested. Even after the last session drew to a close, neighbors were ringing doorbells, borrowing eggs, and hanging out on the street to socialize.

There you have it—six steps to getting kids outside, empowering local teens, pooling community assets, and in the process, transforming your neighborhood. Don't just shake your head and lament that your neighborhood has no camp of its own—get out there and start one!

Photo credit: Aaron Selverston, Palo Alto Patch.

Check out this slideshow to see photos from Camp Iris Way and learn more on the Palo Alto Patch:

bright ideas, play street, play outdoors, palo alto, summer, playborhood, california