Camp Programming and Risk Management

October 18, 2015

Having Fun is Being Safe

Zach Wood
School of Kinesiology
Louisiana State University

Matthew Boyer
Assistant Director, Sport & Camp Programs
LSU University Recreation (UREC)
Louisiana State University


Managing a camp is an intensive and highly nuanced experience that requires a great deal of careful planning and preparation. Ultimately, your goal is to keep campers engaged and safe for the duration of their time with you. With that in mind, everything you do in camp management has a risk management component. In this article, we will discuss some methods and strategies to assist in the preparation of your camp.
• Section One revolves around the development of a strong theoretical foundation for your camp, including the development of philosophy, mission, and values, and will also discuss methods for developing and training staff to best uphold these foundational elements.
• Section Two gives an overview of programming and activity development ideas and reviews the importance of schedule templates.
• Section Three discusses the necessity of external research and becoming comfortable with state, local, and university standards on childcare.
• Section Four illustrates principles of the shared responsibilities of risk management, including the crucial component of transparency and interaction with parents.

Section One: Camp Preparation & Staff Development

Before approaching questions surrounding the risk management practices of your camp program, it is imperative to develop (or review) the foundational elements of the program. Whether you are starting a program from nothing or looking to improve upon an existing one, spending time systematically evaluating your mission, vision, values, and philosophy for camp can give you a significant methodology for decision-making. It is during this process that you can begin to apply some tenets of successful risk management to the foundation of your program—namely, how central is camper safety and well-being in your mission, vision, and values?

In our experience in camp leadership, whenever we had a major question or decision, whether it was related to programming, staffing, procedures, or policy, we could comfortably reflect back to our foundational principles and ask the question: does this align with our pillar of providing safe, fun, and diverse experiences for our campers?

Of course, we are not the only ones who need to apply these principles in camp. Whether you have a staff of less than 10 or more than 100, the reality of a successful program is that you, as a director and leader, cannot physically be with all the campers all the time. Instead, your employees are often the ones who will be making the critical decisions in the daily operations of camp. This underscores the necessity of incorporating student development concepts into your camp program. Ultimately, you may develop an excellent operational and risk management plan for your camp, but without a strong staff to consistently apply it, you can be left with subpar results.

One strategy we found to be successful in developing a great staff is recognizing the strong employees we already had on staff in other areas of our department; these students and employees have valuable transferable skills for the camp setting—use these to your advantage! Additionally, actively devote time and resources to recruiting your staff members from the campus population (or community, if possible). Although you can always train a new employee, finding staff members with previous experience in childcare can significantly improve your program. In comparison to other areas of campus recreation, finding employees with previous experience is beneficial and perhaps even necessary. These individuals, however, often need to be found, and coordinated recruitment are impactful in hiring the right staff.

Speaking of training, once you have your personnel hired and ready to start working, they must be oriented and trained to the program. As simple as it sounds, actively look to build team and create bonds between your staff members—they must want to work with each other and understand as a group the significance of the shared responsibility of childcare. It is during this initial group development process that the foundational elements of your program, including your approach to camper safety and well-being, can be delivered.

Furthermore, in the training process, it is helpful to consider the different learning styles of your staff; trainings should be a mix of hands-on, lecture, testing, and reading, to name just a few styles. Concurrently, look to provide ongoing resources for your staff, especially regarding child behavior, risk management, and safety—what videos, books, handouts, and manuals are available to you? Training, especially regarding risk management, should be an ongoing focus for the duration of your program, implying the necessity to deliver materials that can facilitate this ongoing education.

Lastly, take advantage of the personnel resources on your campus; for example, are there experts in child behavior, pedagogy, or motor development at your university that can deliver information and resources to your employees?

Section Two: Activity Programming

As discussed in the introduction, your ultimate goal with a camp is to keep your campers safe and engaged for the entire duration of time they are in your care. We’ve all heard the saying “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”; in a camp setting, idle or bored campers have the potential to create serious distractions, which can lead to greater issues of safety for all campers. With that in mind, this section will discuss some strategies for developing a wide variety of safe and fun activities and programming for your camp, so that you may always avoid “idle hands.”

One tactic that can be used to your benefit in developing a variety of activities is to adopt a “campus is our playground” mentality. In other words, take advantage of existing resources on your campus, whether that is internal to your own department (such as adventure education) or external (such as on-campus research labs or museums.) Along with this, embrace diversity in activities—just because you may operate out of a recreation facility does not mean you have to play sports or be active 100% of the time. How can you be creative with the facility space you have at your disposal?
Logistically, look to develop a scheduling template for your camp program that gives you a consistent methodology and on a daily basis, can easily identify the open times you must fill with activities. Such a template can simplify the process of planning camp activities and shifts the focus to content and safety, away from things like timing. Our experience in developing strong camp activities was also aided by drawing from established curriculum models in physical education—as our camp is recreationally based, pulling ideas from successful PE curriculum gave us an immense amount of resources to plan our daily activities. For example, we were able to utilize information on lesson planning, which significantly impacted our approach to the timing and structure of activities, especially in working with campers in different age groups and at varying stages of physical and motor development. Two models that we found especially helpful were Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) (Bunker & Thorpe, 1982) and Sport Education (Siedentop, 1994), however there are many other models that could be used depending on your approach.

Regardless of where your activities may come from, it is highly recommended that you track all activities you offer, and save this in an activity database, while also assessing or evaluating their success in the camp setting. In this process, not only can you review whether an activity is enjoyable for campers, but you can also make note of any potential safety or risk management issues that may be occurring in your program. Creating an activity database will assist in future days (weeks, or summers) in developing strong activities that are interesting, diverse, and safe.

Section Three: External Research

Developing your program’s risk management safeguards is predicated on a great degree of external research, which should occur on an annual basis and is one of the first steps in planning a successful and safe camp operation. As discussed in the first section, it is imperative to consistently review your policies as they relate to risk management, both from a practical standpoint as well as to ensure your program is in accordance with state, local, and university guidelines.

Although guidelines and laws may vary from state to state, there is a wide variety of information that must be reviewed in advance of your program. For example, continually review childcare guidelines that can be found in your state’s Department of Child and Family Services (or comparable department), which can give insight into things like caregiver to camper ratio or guidelines for reporting abuse. Although your camp may not be exactly the same as a childcare facility, it is highly important to have a deeper sense of comparison and context of childcare regulations and expectations—many parents may look at your camp as “daycare” and as such, understanding their expectations is beneficial.

Beyond the state level, ensure that you are closely following expectations at the university level on things like child safety, appropriate facility usage for minors, and background checks. In light of the Freeh Report, released in 2012, many campuses have reviewed and changed procedures and policies with regards to the safety of minors on campus. In some cases, there may be required professional training seminars, documentation of practices, required criminal background checks of staff, and external review of your child safety procedures and policies.

As it has been less than three years since the Freeh report, it is vitally important to realize that we are still on the cusp of many changes in the area of campus safety and risk management. Continual evaluation and careful research can keep you abreast of these changes and position you to ensure the highest level safety for your campers.

Section Four: Whole Family Experience

In order to ensure a holistic focus on camper safety and well-being, consider taking the attitude with your camp to view each camper as a family and to have a significant emphasis of transparency with parent interactions. There are a multitude of methods for parents and other caregivers to learn about your camp programs. For example, parent orientations can be scheduled before camp starts and parent handbooks can be sent to all parents or posted on websites. These can function as an opportunity to clearly outline your camp policies and methods on important areas of camp, such as behavior management. Furthermore, as a camp administrator, it is significantly helpful to be open to different methods of communication with your camp parents, which increases the opportunity for dialogue and transparency.

This transparency is necessary regarding your risk management strategies, which also includes your approach to things like behavior management and camper discipline. With this transparency, parents can be included and hopefully be part of the solution to any issues you may have with their children. For example, , we utilize an Incident Report for staff to fill out whenever they encounter and manage disciplinary or behavior issues with a camper. Within this report, counselors are required to record in detail, the methods they use to work with the camper. The parent/caregiver, at pick-up, has the opportunity to read through the report, offer feedback, and sign off and acknowledge receipt of report. This example illustrates the depth and importance of incorporating “the whole family” into the camp experience.

It is also important to realize the significance of even the smallest factors of your camp risk management. For example, the process for checking campers in at drop-off and releasing them at pick-up may, on the surface, seem like a fairly simple policy and procedure. Considering the importance of documenting camper arrival and departure as well as ensuring that campers are released to approved individuals, it is necessary to systematically review this procedure as you would with other areas of risk management. Furthermore, education, transparency, and communication of the policy with parents can be helpful on a practical level in ensuring a smooth and comfortable experience for parents while they are around the program.


This article is guided by the concept that camp risk management and safety is found in all areas of camp management. We have highlighted as examples the importance of recruiting and developing staff, reviewing your program foundations, developing and improving activity offerings, conducting external research, and incorporating the whole family into the camp experience. As you plan and prepare for your camp, maintain the focus that even areas that may not directly imply risk management will need to be viewed with a camper safety emphasis. As we have seen, everything in camp management truly has a risk management component!

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