As parents, you’ve seen it and heard about it just about everywhere: “Summer camp is going to look a little different this year,” just like the upcoming school year, sports leagues and more, as cities and counties across the region have canceled in-person programs and moved their content online.
But Summer Cove, a Springfield-based middle school camp, hasn’t let news of the pandemic slow it down. Owned and operated by Megan Zinn, a middle school teacher in Prince William County, the camp dove head first into transforming the summer programs into virtual experiences, brainstorming ways to reach their kid-filled community as early as late March.
On June 22, the camp launched its first week of virtual summer camp, with Zoom calls and pre-planned hands-on activities, as well as continuing the camp’s tradition of all-camp trivia tournaments. So far, so good, says Zinn.
We caught up with the camp director to discuss just how different this year’s summer camp experience is, from what she misses most about the in-person experience to what a typical camp day looks like now. Highlights from our conversation below.
When you realized that the pandemic would be affecting summer camp this year, what were your original reactions and plans as the pandemic progressed?
This was our fifth year running, so we were kind of finally settled into getting our footing and becoming a pretty well-known name in the summer camp industry in this area. I work as a teacher, so as soon as Friday the 13th came and we were being told that we wouldn’t even be back in school, my heart was breaking because I knew that would mean that summer camps were going to be a big question mark for parents. We immediately saw a halt in registration and I had a lot of parents reaching out from both camps. We had parents who were like, “Please don’t have in-person camps and please refund us,” and then we had other parents who were like, “Please take my kid! They have to have something to do this summer.” So, the months leading up to the decision [to go entirely virtual this year], we were definitely heartbroken just because this is something that we’ve been building up for so long, having started from scratch as just a passion-project thing, and now we’ve developed this whole community. I was devastated and I know my staff was devastated when this whole thing started.
We made the choice to go virtual as soon as Fairfax County and Prince William County started announcing their plans, and then the governor made his announcement as well. I set up a staff meeting with my team members and basically said no decision has been ultimately made on summer camps and we’re going to wait until we hear what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends, and what the American Camp Association says. But I did say, “OK, if we have to run this in-person or virtually, rather than entirely in-person, what does that look like? How can we still keep the spirit alive? How do we give parents an outlet for their kids? How are we still engaging the campers? How are we making those connections that are the base of what we do?” By the end of March, we were already brainstorming and talking it out with my senior team members, including people who have been there a long time, as well as people who used to be campers who now work for me, so we got a lot of insight across the board. We also spoke with parents and reached out with a survey asking what their thoughts were. That was all really helpful in the beginning to just at least feel good about what virtual camps might look like.
How is virtual summer camp going so far and what makes this special for campers?
We just started on June 22, and we’ve already gotten great feedback from parents. With the virtual camps, the camps themselves are definitely inspired by a slew of things just like in previous years. I used to work at a summer camp prior to starting my own and I loved that their camps were very out of the box. They weren’t like your traditional summer camps with horse riding and archery, all of these things that you usually think about when you think of a summer camp. We definitely consider ourselves to be a non-traditional summer camp in the sense that it really is just based on things that are really interesting, things that kids like to watch or play at home and how we can turn that into a summer camp.
When we had our staff meeting discussing virtual camps, I asked the staff to think about the games and activities that could be played at home if we could just adapt them. For example, we have a Harry Potter camp coming up, and I was talking to the teacher who’s running that, and I said, “What if we made a Guess Who? board on Google Slides, but we just use Harry Potter characters instead?” It’s just a lot of creative thinking and trying to adapt activities that we already know are tried and true, or activities that sound interesting to us and then manipulating them so they can be done online at home, with people in different situations.
What does a typical virtual summer camp day look like at Summer Cove?
We have it set up so that the campers will individually go to their camps, starting at 9 a.m. with their Zoom meetings. Then they go from 9 a.m. to noon, and we give them just a really short break to grab a snack, grab something to eat or stretch, or whatever they need to do. And then we have them all come back for camp-wide trivia. That’s something we do with in-person camps and is a tradition of ours to do every single day, which is a Jeopardy-style trivia game with all of the campers. We’re still doing that virtually and it’s actually working out a lot better than I thought it would. We set the kids up in teams and tell them if they’re team is not going, they need to mute themselves, and the kids have been really good about that. We do that until about 1:15 p.m. and then we’re done for the day. All in all, the parents are getting about four-ish hours a day of activities for their kids.
What do you miss most about the atmosphere of in-person summer camp?
I just miss being in the facility itself. We rent from a private school and we have a really close relationship with them, so just being in the building itself feels good and comfortable. We do morning care in the summers, so I miss hanging out with a couple of kids just in the morning when we’re all super tired and waiting for the rest of the kids to get there. The same thing with after-care too; having those one-on-one experiences with campers is something I definitely miss.
But also, this is going to sound weird, I miss the noise. I just miss the excitement and the electrified air, like when the Survivor camp is outside having a water balloon fight, and the Harry Potter camp is making butterbeer. It’s just like a constant frenzy of all of these different things happening, and right now I’m just kind of sitting at home and watching it all happen. I miss the energy that the middle schoolers bring, since they bring such a fun energy and getting to know the kids one-on-one. Although it’s possible in a virtual camp, it’s definitely more difficult because with the setup we have now, three hours may seem like a lot of time but when you’re doing activities, it goes by so quickly and the set up doesn’t really allow for you to be like, “Oh well, this kid is doing his activity, so I’m going to go sit with him and talk to him about what he likes to do outside of school and what his hobbies are, and really get to know him as an individual.” We are just really missing that chunk of it because parents don’t want you to just pull one kid out of the Zoom meeting and have a chat with them. They really want those three hours or four hours to be active.
What are you looking forward to most about this summer, even though it’s different from years past?
We are trying our best to keep the summer camp experience very real and palpable. This Saturday we’re having a ice cream socially distant gathering, where we have an ice cream truck that is coming for about an hour in the parking lot of our facility, and we invited parents, kids and families, just to say thank you for trusting us with this virtual camp experience. But also it gives the parents the opportunity to be like, “Well my kid is signed up for animation in a couple of weeks, what does that look like?” and talk to some of the staff members as well. I’m really excited about some of those events that we’re trying to put together. It’s obviously very tricky to do a certain number of things because we’re trying to keep people safe and keep a distance between everybody. But I think that, again, my staff is really trying to go above and beyond, and they’re doing a great job with just keeping the same energy alive virtually, as best as we can.
What would you want readers to know about the importance of kids still doing virtual camp, even if they are doing it from home?
I work as a middle school teacher and teach seventh grade in Prince William County, and I can confidently say these middle schoolers are social creatures by default. Even the ones who are a bit on the quiet side or seem like they don’t want to talk to people. They truly thrive in a social environment. It’s the one thing I really stress when people are like, “Oh, you work with middle schoolers?” Because they are wonderful. They are figuring out who they are, they are testing waters and they are pushing boundaries. They’re not afraid to try something new because no one has really put them into a category yet. They have this really wonderful freedom where they’re still just exploring things. I think giving campers the opportunity to still have that social interaction piece, but also that thing that Summer Cove has really pushed for the last five years, is that we want to offer camps that kids walk away with an actual skill. So even if you are not the most social butterfly and you don’t want to do the Harry Potter camp, you can instead take digital photography, and guess what? You’re having a teacher who has been trained and works in the industry, who is able to teach you a skill that you can walk away with.
Also, I think giving the campers opportunities to have that exploration and try something new, and still have that social aspect. I think that’s so important during this time as we are all experiencing isolation. I think it’s especially hard for this age group [rising sixth graders through rising ninth graders] because they are already trying to figure things out and now they have this whole other level of ,“What do I do now?” It really is providing at least an outlet for them to be able to say, “Oh look, here’s a new face that knows me and has similar interests as me. I feel better now.”
Is there anything else you would want readers to know about Summer Cove’s virtual camps?
One thing I am really proud of is our staff for being able to accomplish pre-packaging all of the supplies and materials that are needed for the week of camp activities. We package it all ahead of time and parents come pick it up the Sunday prior to the start of camp. If it’s a baking camp, we get the eggs and all of the ingredients, we package it all ahead of time, so that it’s already portioned for them and it’s not a situation where we say, “Well, we’re out of flour, so I guess you can’t do your activity today.” We wanted to make it as simple for parents as possible so that nobody is feeling like, “Oh, well I don’t have a hot glue gun, so my kid can’t participate normally.” We provide all of those. That’s one thing we’re really proud of and something I think is unique to our camps this year.
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