PLEASE NOTE: The city’s biggest Camp Fairs are coming up on Saturday, March 28, and Sunday, March 29, in Manhattan. For families with children ages 3 to teen, the Camp Fairs are free, child-friendly, and feature both Day Camps (in and around the city) and Sleepaway Camps (all over the Northeast). CLICK HERE for details and to register.
Part of what makes camp such a special experience are the unique traditions that campers partake in every summer. Events like Color Wars, bonfires, and carnivals not only build community, but forever tie campers to the generations that have come before them and those that will follow. We asked a group of camp directors to share some favorite traditions that can make a summer at camp an unforgettable experience.
For the last 30 years, campers at the Nature Place Day Camp in Chestnut Ridge, NY, have looked especially forward to coming to camp on days that promised to be hot: 90 and above. For they knew that they would find, scattered around camp, 25-lb blocks of ice in strong net bags hanging from trees [and on the ground]. A group of campers some years ago calculated that if a camper lets 10 drops of the melting ice fall onto the back of his or her neck, that camper will feel cool for the next 44 minutes. Campers will stand under the bags letting the water drip onto their foreheads, into open mouths, on sweaty arms… Campers put food coloring, paint, and ink on the ice blocks’ surface, and watch with wonder as the colors gravitate down through air pockets and veins found within the ice… Sometimes we set up a long line of ice blocks, sort of like trail markers, from our main campus down to our swimming facility. On one particularly sweltering day, campers, especially the younger ones, sat on each block while heading to and from swim. At the end of that day the ice blocks, of course, had melted quite a bit, but we noticed on the top of each one a strange design. I guess child after child sitting in the same spot will leave an impression, especially on ice during a very hot day.
-Daniel Bieber, the Nature Place Day Camp
Digital Media Academy is a hands-on, project-based technology summer camp. Each week, Digital Media Academy hosts a Friday Open House to showcase what the students have been creating during the week. Families of student campers get to view a unique presentation on the class curriculum, the software and hardware the students used, and then see campers’ final projects. It is an exciting day for both our staff and students. Throughout the week, the camp course can present unique and fun challenges, and the Open House gives other students and parents a chance to see how campers overcame these challenges and how their projects came together. It’s a fulfilling and rewarding opportunity to share campers’ amazing tech creations.
-Vince Matthews, Digital Media Academy
My favorite tradition at Corbin’s Crusaders Day Camp is our Color War Break! Every year, no one knows when it will happen and each year it’s always exciting. This past summer…our swim director came up to me a little angry as I told him we should have an all-camp general swim when he had just closed the pools. The argument, unbeknownst to the campers, was of course not real, but continued to get heated. At the point where both the swim director and myself were shouting, he grabbed a hidden fire hose and completely soaked me head to foot. I grabbed a stash of water guns and asked the campers to help me get all the staff and a massive water fight broke out. The elation and surprise on the faces of the campers at that moment was incredible… Once all the hoopla calmed down and everyone was good and soaked, we made the official announcement that our color war had broken. For the next four days, every activity the campers participated in counted toward a cumulative Blue versus White score. This competition brings out the best in all of our campers; we see great sportsmanship, feats of strength, endurance, accuracy, and best of all—we often see a camper who is not always the most athletic become the hero!
-Peter Corbin, Corbin’s Crusaders Day Camp
Our favorite tradition at Campus Kids-NJ is an event that takes place the last afternoon and evening of the summer: Campstock. It’s a five hour music and arts festival that features non-stop live performance bands made up of our campers and staff in different combinations. We do this outside on a stage and set up booths with crafts and games. The best part of the day is that an amazing number of campers and staff perform for the first time ever in front of a live audience, showing us once again how magical the camp experience can be.
-Tom Riddleberger, CampusKids-NJ
Nothing makes me think of summer at Oasis more than Morning Rally. While admittedly lots of camps do cheers and songs, there is just something truly unique about the atmosphere and feeling you get when you’re in the middle of Rally at Oasis. While yes, there is cheering, and a lot of it, Rally is so much more than that. Rally is the chance for campers and staff alike to recognize each other, whether it be giving a fellow camper a “Starfish” bead for helping you out, or giving your counselor a “shout out” for just being awesome, Rally is where you really see the special feeling of community that transcends camps and becomes the Oasis family. Of course there are the divisional cheer-offs, the awarding of the Spirit Stick and the very special Oasis way to recognize birthdays and other special milestones with a big “Pizza Pizza Daddy-O,” but you really know you’ve just experienced Rally at Oasis when the clapping begins, the ground starts to rumble (literally!), and the “Hi Dee Hi’s” and “Hi Dee Ho’s” start to ring out, the question “Have you got that spirit?” is answered and it’s all capped off with a resounding “We must protect this house!” As one camper once told me: “It’s impossible to leave Rally in a bad mood.” And that’s what it’s all about, getting our day started on a high note and reaching and achieving even more from there.
-Luke Mohatt, Oasis in Central Park
It is hard to choose one thing to write about. Being in the camp business, we see so many things on a daily basis. But for me, it is not just one thing, it is everything. Seeing the campers arrive on opening day and make camp come to life is certainly one of my favorite days. Seeing the boys’ faces when they get given their tribes for the first time—not for the summer but for life! Our tribes started way back in the 1900s and they continue strong today. Seeing a young camper complete his half-mile swim and get high fives from everyone is heartwarming. Seeing a homesick camper come through and learn to love camp is so rewarding. Friendship, independence, choices, fun, freedom, fresh air, silly jokes, and fits of uncontrollable laughter is what we see the boys doing for eight weeks each summer. Camp is truly a gift that every child should be able to experience.
-Pauline Jepson, Awosting & Chinqueka
One of my favorite current camp traditions is “S’Mores with Sam and Ice Cream with Ilisha.” As the owners and directors of camp, it’s important for Ilisha and I to really get to connect with each camper. Once during the summer each group gets a specially scheduled time to have s’mores with me and an ice cream party with Ilisha. It’s during these times that we can really get to see the dynamics in the group, spend time with the counselors and learn about what’s really working at camp. Kids have unbelievable insight and are happy to tell us which lunch is the best, which activities are really working, and which ones could use some assistance. Ilisha and I cherish these moments during the summer. You can blink once and the camp day is ending, so coordinating this time with each individual group allows us to slow the day down and really capture what makes camp so special.
-Sam Borek, Woodmont Day Camp
After each campfire, I collect some of the ashes and then add them to the next campfire we have. I’ve been doing this since the beginning of Greenwood Trails, so that every campfire we have has a part of every campfire that has ever taken place in the history of the camp. It connects everyone to the larger tradition of the camp community and helps make the campfires that much more special.
-Owen Langbart, Greenwood Trails Summer Camp
Campfire starts each Saturday night with a silent walk around camp, where each bunk falls in line behind Sandy and I as we hike up to the site. Two or three of the music staff are waiting silently for us with acoustic guitars. The fire has been built by campers and one or two counselors earlier in the day, but is not yet lit. While campers and staff find a familiar spot to sit, or try a new one, Sandy or I stand up. We then share a story, a thought or an idea to set the tone for what follows. After Sandy or I sit down, the guitarists play the greatest hits of the 60s through the 2000s. Campers and staff sing along if they choose, stare at the fire, and reflect on their week at camp. Following several songs, a different staff member comes up to read a short story by O. Henry, Kurt Vonnegut or Ray Bradbury. When that is over, the entire camp stands up and forms a circle, and we all sing “We Shall Overcome” and “The Camp Song.” Then there are hugs all around, and campers and staff walk back to their bunks for a good night’s sleep. While it’s easier to experience then describe, I look forward to every campfire.
-Will Rubenstein, Camp Wingate Kirkland
Saturday mornings at Berkshire Hills are special. We sleep an hour later, and after breakfast, instead of heading off into normal camp activities, every camper and every staff member takes part in a community service project. There is great energy having everyone in camp focused on doing something to make the world a better place. On a given Saturday, older campers might head out to a special needs camp down the road to assist their campers or help with trail clearing at a local state park. Younger campers might be planting flowers in camp, visiting with senior citizens, or writing cards and making bracelets for a patient at a local hospital. By the afternoon, campers are back to zip-lining across the lake, making movies, and climbing on the waterfront inflatables, but the morning thinking about others frames the upcoming week in a way that helps everyone appreciate how lucky they are to be together, having a summer of fun in a beautiful space.
-Adam Weinstein, Berkshire Hills Eisenberg Camp
The “Burning of the Year,” is an annual spectacle that has taken place at Camp Schodack for 57 years. The “burning” [of that year’s numerals] always occurs on the last night of the camp season and is the concluding activity of the summer; it’s a final moment of reflection before the camp community separates and returns to their winter homes… Having experienced this event nearly every summer of my life, I have come to recognize the deeply meaningful place this ritual holds in the lives of our camp community. First, this event acknowledges the importance of taking time to appreciate endings: A calendar season, a session at camp, a developmental phase of childhood… Knowing that numbers have been burned for decades before and will continue to be burned for decades after provides campers with an important communal tie to their past and an awareness beyond themselves. At the same time, knowing that this year’s numbers will only be burned once reinforces campers’ sense of the uniqueness of their own experiences… With the numbers ablaze, campers from each age division stand up and speak to the group… It’s wonderful to hear campers describe their summer experience in their own words. Each summer I also stand before the camp on this night and say a few words. With the fire going strong behind my back and the faces of all our campers in front of me, it’s a Schodack tradition that is burned in all our memories forever.
-Dr. Matt Krouner, Camp Schodack
The naming of groups is always a significant part of a camp’s culture. At Skylake Yosemite Camp where I grew up, the boys’ cabins were named after tribes of Native Americans from the West Coast; the girls’ cabins were all trees native to the area. I remember fondly my years as a Miwok, Yurok, Chumash, etc., and the anticipation I’d feel getting off the bus on day one to learn my new cabin. At Léman, our groups are named after animals, and these are fixed to an age group. So, campers return year after year looking forward to moving through the ranks from Dolphin to Duck to Frog to Monkey to Bear. The depth of meaning of this has been fortified by my daughter (a proud Bear last summer)! Every time we talk about Camp Léman, her questions and thoughts involve these group identities. “Daddy, do the Ducks swim every day?” (answer: Yes!) “Do the Frogs do woodworking?” (Also yes.) Our campers strongly identify with their animal name by creating cheers, songs, art projects, and more connecting them to their animal.
-Steve Levin, Camp Léman
The YMCA of Greater New York camp tradition that most amplifies the feeling of wonder and excitement is our camp themes. Our branches and camp sites choose a theme to dive into each summer. Y summer camp themes have included: “Time Travelers,” “Backpacking Around the World,” “Stemology,” “Exploring the Islands,” “Hero’s Quest,” “I Can Make a Difference,” and “Imaginarium.” Each week, songs, activities, books, science projects, fitness activities, performances and trips are designed to explore and embody the camp theme. Camp staff dress in character, school buildings and camp sites are decorated, and each detail is centered around creating a themed experience for each one of our campers. Through these camp themes our goal is to transform a gym space into an Olympic stadium, a table into a gourmet kitchen, a multipurpose room into a Broadway stage; and to transform a summer camp into a place of discovery, friendship, and joy. This tradition has enabled the campers…to explore the best people and places that New York has to offer, and hopefully be forever impacted by the deep passion, kindness, wonder, thoughtfulness, and connection that they experience as a result of their time with the Y.
-Jacqueline Misla, Y After School, Camps & Education Services
One of our greatest camp traditions at Asphalt Green is a week-long fundraiser called Coins for Campers. As a non-profit organization, we are proud to offer scholarships to our fee-based programs, including Summer Day Camp. For five days in mid-July, campers bring in coins for our Camp Scholarship Fund. The coins for each group are tallied several times throughout the week and the group that raises the most money celebrates with a special off-site party. It’s incredible to see how enthusiastic our campers, counselors, managers, and parents become about this event that raises approximately $10,000 each year. Some of our campers have even taken the initiative to set up lemonade stands outside of the camp day to contribute. It’s a great exercise in philanthropy for campers and a tradition that is unique to Asphalt Green.
-Katie Duffy, Asphalt Green
Every day at Camp Yomi starts on the bus! We want campers to be excited from the get-go, and to bring out the best in them we have a tradition called “Bus of the Week.” 15 coach buses (with lavatories and air conditioning!) pick up Yomi campers from various locations in Manhattan and drive out to our campgrounds in the bucolic setting of Rockland County. Every bus has a name—usually a color or shape, and its own culture, with cheers, songs, games, and traditions. Each bus strives to be the most spirited—that’s what we’re looking for. On Fridays, at the end of the camp week, we have a special ceremony. Our beloved mascot, Yomi Bear, comes out of his summer house (a camper-decorated shed) and onto the main field. He makes an important decision—which bus will win Bus of the Week. Acting as Yomi Bear’s proxy, I get to announce which bus had the most spirit that week. Once the winner is announced, each camper on the winning bus gets a “Bus of the Week winner” sticker that is custom-colored to their bus’s color or shape. The bus counselor gets a winning t-shirt that he or she can wear proudly for the duration of the summer. When campers find out each week who wins Bus of the Week, they go crazy with excitement—as though they had won the lottery. It’s quite a scene, and it’s rewarding for me, as director, having witnessed the campers’ enthusiasm throughout the week on the bus rides, knowing that they’ve worked toward a common goal. The most amazing part is, somehow, Yomi Bear manages to pick every bus by the end of the summer. Not only that, he caps it all off by picking the “Bus of the Summer”—which he announces on the very last day of camp, in front of all of the campers.
-Lauren Wexler, 92Y Camp Yomi
The Deer Mountain tradition that stands out most in my mind and one that makes us feel very proud is one that combines history, fun, sharing as well as giving back: Carnival. Deer Mountain will celebrate its 59th birthday this summer, and as far back as I can remember, our Carnival has always been amazing. When I was little, close to 40 years ago, each camper group would think of a game booth to design and construct to contribute to the day’s event… The greatest part of Carnival, however, was that we shared the day with Venture and Jawonio, camps that serve children with developmental disabilities. Carnival was not only a fundraiser (camper families contributed and then we matched all of the funds raised), but it was also a day when we all had fun together. Today, our Carnival is quite over-the-top as our main three ball fields are filled with huge rides and inflatables. We have so many amusements that they overflow onto our office lawn. Each division still contributes a game, which is still one of my favorite parts of the day as well. Nothing creates a bigger “wow,” however, than the sight of our campers having fun alongside campers from Venture and Jawonio. Everyone loves it—but most all, of course, the campers themselves.
-Roberta Katz, Deer Mountain Day Camp
One of our favorite camp traditions involves the kickoff to Carnival. Back in the mid-1960s, my father “Big Chief” Steve wanted to build excitement for the festivities. His answer? Create a contest amongst various characters for the “control” of Carnival. With much melodrama, eventually Steve was given three glasses of camp bug juice called Kickapoo, and he became Mohawkman, wearing red long johns and a white cape. Mohawkman has been saving Carnival for nearly 50 years! Alumni invariably recount their memories of cheering on Mohawkman. I took over the job as the second generation Mohawkman, but it wasn’t easy. Our campers were not ready to have anyone but Big Chief Steve wear the red suit. I had to arrive at camp in the Batmobile to win them over to the idea of a new Mohawkman! So the tradition continues…
-Ken Schainman, Mohawk Day Camp
One camp tradition that ranks among my favorites is color war. A time-honored and universal tradition, color war just says “camp!” It’s a great way to end the summer on a high note, and provides campers with the opportunity to use the skills they’ve learned or honed over the preceding weeks. I am reminded how far campers can come by one in particular, who was afraid of the water at the beginning of the summer. By the time color war came around, she jumped into the pool and completed the challenge with a huge smile on her face. We’ve started a fun, new tradition called “Sundaes on Mondays.” We kick off the week with build-your-own ice cream sundaes, which kids love to create as much as eat!
-Chiarna Morton, Dwight Summer Camp
One of the traditions unique to Mount Tom is a special event called the “Group Leaders’ Mad Dash.” For a few days prior to the event, clues are given out to the Group Leaders on what this year’s magical, mysterious creature is, because on the day of the event they’re going to have to search the campgrounds to find it. That day, there’s a ceremony in our amphitheater at the conclusion of which all the Group Leaders race out (with the kids cheering wildly) and have to return and explain to the camp why, what they brought back, is the creature. Each year the creature has a different crazy name, like “shmageggy” or “ishkabibble,” relating to what it is and tied in to the clues. The kids love it and go crazy seeing what each Group Leader brings back. It’s one of the traditions I remember from when I was a camper 35 years ago.
-Doug Volan, Mount Tom Day Camp
At Gate Hill, the whole camp community comes together every morning at “The Gathering” to introduce the day, celebrate our camper’s achievements, and share some whacky experiences. Birthdays are cheered, silly games are played, and good deeds are recognized. Anyone in our community can talk about what happened at the Gathering that morning, and that keeps our family of campers and counselors connected. Whether it’s a ridiculous counselor dress-up race, or cheering on how someone was a good friend, what’s important is that we did it together.
-Josh Male, Gate Hill Day Camp