How to Start a Neighborhood Camp with Kids as Counselors!

Hi etfbrnntya
Readers! This sounds so fun and do-able. Also sounds like it can really change a neighborhood and all the childhoods in it! A huge thanks to Diana and Jennifer for alerting us to their camp and providing all the info  — right down to waivers, flyers and a time sked — of how to get it off the ground.  Free! If you decide to try starting a camp in your neighborhood, please let us know how it goes! — L.
Dear Free-Range Kids: We thought you’d like an update on our neighborhood summer camp.  As you wrote about in your blog last year, we’re two moms from Palo Alto, CA who have created an old-school, low-key summer camp for our neighborhood.  Last year 43 kids attended.  It was so successful that this summer almost EVERY family with kids attended–a total of 72 kids!  We’ve attached a link to a local article about our camp – we think you’ll like the title!
The details for the camp include:

  • Five mornings for the first week of summer
  • Older kids serve as counselors and design the activities
  • A modest camp tuition gets divided up between the counselors
  • Younger kids (age 4 – 4th grade) are ‘campers’
  • Each day a different family or two adjacent neighbors ‘host’ (i.e., provide space and some adult supervision)
  • Different activities each day — crafts, games, snacks and free play (e.g., water balloons, obstacle courses, lawn bowling, jump rope, sidewalk chalk)
  • Great memories with neighborhood friends and the comfort level to inspire impromptu playdates the rest of the summer
For some neighborhoods, a camp like ours should be easy to implement.  We have a workplan and templates that we are happy to share.  For others, a full-fledged camp would not be practical. The good news is: it can be modified to one weekend day, or one “day off” for the neighborhood.  It could motivate kids to spend time outdoors playing with friends after dinner, for example.
We have several attorneys on our street who recommended we issue a basic waiver.  Every family signs it for their kids to participate and it protects everyone in the neighborhood.  We wish we could avoid it, but see it as a practical reality that everyone seems to understand.
The rest of the summer, some kids are home, but most go to organized camps for part of the day. Neighborhood play seems to resume mid-afternoon.
Last year, the street felt like a ghost town the week after camp.  We suspect the families on our street were so used to scheduling their kids for camps and activities that it didn’t occur to them to keep them home and just play in the neighborhood.  We toyed around with making it a two week commitment this year:  one week of camp and the other of NOTHING.  What would the kids do?  Would we all adjust to a non-scheduled lifestyle?
We haven’t done this as we feel it would be a lot to ask of households with two working parents who really rely on camps for childcare.  But we’re hopeful this summer, because of the number of kids that participated in our camp, the continued increase in comfort-level between the neighbors that lasted throughout the school year, and the enthusiasm from this year’s camp, that this summer will include a lot more neighborhood play.  We’re already seeing it with the four-square courts sprayed on the street!
Thanks for all your inspiration.  We’re having a blast! –Diana Nemet and Jennifer Antonow

26 Responses to How to Start a Neighborhood Camp with Kids as Counselors!

  1. gpo July 1, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    I am happy to report that play in my neighborhood has increased this Summer. Some of the younger kids are now older. We have a range of 11 years old to 5 years old in the group. Kids are out with less supervision. A group put on a dance production just two nights ago with another one planned in July. It actually got the parents out of the house as well.

    I think the camp is a great idea once we get some older kids.

  2. Jenny K July 1, 2011 at 11:48 pm #

    it’s really interesting that you mention the ghost town effect of overscheduled kids. I just got back from being a counselor for a week-long sleepaway summer camp for 4th and 5th graders (after a 4 year hiatus), and I was really surprised at how much the kids CRAVED their schedule.

    They were constantly pestering me: “what are we doing next? when are we done here? what are we doing later?” I kept telling them to just enjoy what they were doing and we’d worry about the next thing when it came.

    5 years ago the kids were totally content with scheduling on the fly, and now they can’t handle it. Weird!

  3. Brian July 1, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

    four square is the best. I think I learned more about debating from that game than from actual debate team.

    I suggest planning a neighborhood olympics or circus as a fun “camp” activity. You can find a week’s worth of activities if you let them plan it.

  4. Nicole July 2, 2011 at 12:14 am #

    When I was living overseas the Embassy had summer camps every year for the kids of the people who worked there. They hired two high school kids to be in charge of the two dozen or so kids and gave them craft supplies and toys, but they mostly just ran free, played in the playground, or swam in the pool. Within the boundaries of the complex, it was quite ‘free-range’. This sounds very similar to me.

  5. Robyn July 2, 2011 at 12:38 am #

    Very interesting as my sister in law and brother have done this for years with my niece and her friends. They call it Princess Camp (yes, it’s all or mostly girls) and was started because regular camp is so expensive.

    The parents each take a day or two to ‘host’ the ‘princesses’. They go to the zoo, the park, make crafts, just like camp!

    Nice to see it’s spreading!

  6. Let Your Child Fail July 2, 2011 at 1:19 am #

    Wow! 72 kids! Amazing program. This is the best way to keep children busy and empower them to be healthy and independent.

  7. Marie July 2, 2011 at 2:25 am #

    Nice! Kids here don’t play outside in the heat of the day. I’ll admit that high 90s-100 F is pretty hot, but kids adapt well if you let them. One of the moms here won’t let her daughter out, at a guess, in temperatures over the high 80s, or under 65. Hard to say exactly, just that we get a lot of “it’s too hot (or cold)” for her daughter to be out when my kids are playing outside.

    Too hot? That’s what sprinklers, cold drinks and frozen treats are for. I’d say shade trees too, but most of the trees here are just along the street, and are a bit young, one of the disadvantages of a fairly new neighborhood.

  8. Kara July 2, 2011 at 2:28 am #

    Great inspiration!

  9. Dolly July 2, 2011 at 3:42 am #

    Our street has a dead end where a bunch of houses and trailers are. It is actually people that are all related living in them. They host a cousin camp every summer in the biggest yard. I have seen the signs up and the activities etc. They actually have foster kids too. I guess some kids come in from other houses too. Those kids are very free range in that they are always outside alone and I think the littler ones have to stay in the dead end area but its several yards long and they roam around freely. We go play with them sometimes. We live further down the street.

  10. FrancesfromCanada July 2, 2011 at 4:10 am #

    What a good idea! There aren’t enough kids on our immediate street for this but I bet there are in the neighborhood, and we have a very active community association….I might have to look at adapting this.

    I think around here most parents work after the babies are a year old (love Canadian parental leave) and already have arrangements for the summer, but it would be a very cool thing to have in place for next year, or even for autumn weekends. The boy could be having fun while mom and dad get some big projects done around the house….imagine that.

  11. Cheryl W July 2, 2011 at 4:56 am #

    A bunch of my adult friends and I did something like this one year. (Then I moved.) A local artist person was having 1/2 day camp for a week for about $300 per kid. So we moms, and a couple of dads, got together and organized one thing each week. I did tie dye, the kids brought their own shirts and stuff to die. Another did God’s Eyes. We painted river rocks. We made Marshmallow shooters. Some weeks it was a day at the beach, or at house of the kid who had a bouncy house and inflatable water slide. We did everything that the other camp was doing except ceramics, and a lot of other fun things that the camp did not do. If something cost some money (like the marshmallow shooters) we brought a few dollars per kid to reimburse the parent. Overall, we mostly used up stuff that we had on hand and weren’t using anyhow. (Yes, I actually had a huge box of tie die that I had gotten at a yard sale many years before.) Some things we did at homes, other things we actually did at the local park and invited any kids there to join in.

    I am trying to get it going here, but the dynamics are a little different, and the distances longer for most of the families I know. It might informally take off this year – I did the 2nd annual tie dye party, another mom hosted a pool party, and well, maybe we can keep it going! Hmm. Maybe we should have rock painting at the beach…. I really like the idea of this person of having the older kids lead the younger ones in activities, crafts and games. Very cool. Very Free Range.

  12. Janelle KEnnedy July 2, 2011 at 7:13 am #

    What a wonderful idea! It almost (almost) makes me wish I had young children again so we could do this. Hopefully they do not have to implement ridiculous policies such as these:

  13. Nanci July 2, 2011 at 11:29 am #

    That is a great idea, I love it. I would totally have my kids go to it if we had something like that. We do have a messy day in our backyard every summer for all the neighborhood kids. They paint our wooden clubhouse (and each other), throw water balloons, have slime fights, and generally chase each other with the hose. We throw in some messy food games too, like eating jello and whip creme with no hands 🙂 The kids have a blast. Luckilly we have a lot of other stay at home moms around and almost all the kids are free range!

  14. Laura July 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    Now that our neighborhood swim team is over (the kids walked themselves to practice,) we are in a time of unsupervised play pretty much everyday. We push them outside in the morning until its too hot to stir and then they end up in one house or the other playing games that they organize…board games, toy star wars guys, legos, some computer games (everyone seems to just watch each other until they are all bored with this and it seems to end after about an 1/2 hour) Sometimes the neighbors are here, sometimes not. Nothing organized. They help each other with chores to get them done quicker and walked our neighborhood to deliver newsletters on different street together. They are like little rascals, coming up with lemonade stands and figuring out how to get people to buy. In the evening the adults head over to the pool with the kids for a little splash. We don’t always have to be the organizers. We can gain some rejuvenation, while our children learn to plan their own amusements.

  15. Jessica July 2, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Wow! Sounds truly excellent!
    I wish more would take after the example. Also, it might inspire the ideas and carry them further, that sometimes things come of their own. YOu don’t need alot of pre-planning around children and playing. It will attend to itself.

  16. hillary July 3, 2011 at 3:26 am #

    That’s so awesome! I love that the older kids are so involved in the planning. Maybe one of the high school counselors who goes off to college will come back and run the summer camp in the future! That would be a great way to keep the camp running.

  17. FrancesfromCanada July 3, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    @Janelle: the permission-to-apply-sunscreen thing is NOT ridiculous if you have skin allergies! I had to get quite strict with my boy’s otherwise excellent daycare as they kept applying cream to his nose when he had colds….then he’d get an awful rash from the cream, and because I didn’t know they were doing it, it took a while to figure out what was going on. He’s not old enough to understand what he can and can’t use. I solved it by putting together a little kit for them — right down to the bug dope — and insisting that they only use what I sent.

    Even if he were older, the ingredient he’s allergic to appears as several different chemical names on labels. Even once he can read, it will be awhile before he’ll be able to decide what’s ok on his own. These kind of allergies are not, in fact, unusual.

    Anyway, given what I’ve been hearing about the sex offender lists in the US, it strikes me that requiring permission for counselors to assist with applying sunscreen — which requires fairly intimate contact — is a fair policy to protect the counselors. Though I agree that is a sad state of affairs.

  18. Heather July 3, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    What a fantastic idea! Next year, I would love to start this type of camp in my neighborhood. It’s such a positive thing for the parents and the children too!

  19. Dolly July 3, 2011 at 11:14 am #

    The sunscreen thing is crazy. I have a redhead so of course his skin is incredibly sensitive to burning. He has to have sunscreen applied every hour or so or he will burn. So for any camp or school he goes to, the teachers are going to have to let him put sunscreen on and when he is too little to do it himself I expect the teachers to help with it. I don’t mind giving permission and I don’t mind them touching him. I am way more worried about skin cancer than I am molestations.

  20. Uly July 4, 2011 at 1:52 am #

    If the concern is molestation accusations, would spray-on sunscreen work? (Oh, darn, this all reminds me, I have to call a local day camp and tell them that their counselors rock. I’ll do it Tuesday.)

  21. Ben S July 7, 2011 at 5:00 am #

    I sure hope they ran background checks on all those teenage counselors. Just imagine how many of them bathed with siblings! -.-

  22. HSmom July 12, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    My daughter’s friend has run a summer camp for several years now– though she doesn’t call it camp, it’s “Museum Week.” This girl (she’s 17 now) has a nice little science museum in her garage– fully supported by her parents. She has a really wonderful collection. My daughter was a helper last year and my son was a camper. It was great fun. Lots of science activities and games.

  23. Jason September 14, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

    Good article. Here a good camp directory that also supports free online registrations. http://www.campnetwork

  24. Anne September 14, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

    We actually used Camp Network for our non-profit camp last year. It lets you accept forms online for free. Can even add payment processing for $7 a kid. Jason left out the link ending but it’s


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