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A while back I got some words of advice about programming that has stuck with me. To this day, it is one of the best pieces of programming advice I’ve ever received.

One summer I had sent out surveys for one of my camps and what came back was a SHOCK!

More than a couple of the parents mentioned in the survey that their kids were NOT thrilled with the first day of camp and unenthused about returning the next day. What?! I had campers that didn’t like camp SO much that they didn’t want to return the next day? Fortunately, these same parents mentioned that by the end of the week their kids were excited about camp and didn’t want it to end.

I always used to build my programs up into a crescendo. It was all about creating a week of camp that got better and better as it went along. The last day was always the most memorable part. Once I started surveying parents and campers I saw that the way I planned my camps was flawed. I needed advice, as I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

I went to someone I admired in the recreation industry, my director at the time. She asked me, “What is one of your favorite movies.”

“There are so many. I really liked The Matrix”, I said.

“Describe the opening scene.”

trinity-jumpI told her, “It starts with 4 or 5 policemen breaking down a door in some low rent hotel and pointing their guns at Trinity, one of the movie’s main characters. She then defies gravity and knocks them all out (or kills them) with her fists and feet. Then a chase ensues with other police officers and “an agent” pursuing Trinity. At one point she makes an impossible jump from one roof to the next with the “agent” making the same leap. The gap is larger than any normal human could possibly jump and the police officers are unable to pursue her. She then runs down to the street and to a phone booth, puts the phone to her ear and disappears right before a dump truck slams into the phone booth, which would have certainly killed her. All the time you aren’t sure what these two “super” humans really are, why they are able to do the things they do.”

“How did that opening scene make you feel?”, my director asked.

“It was exciting. I was on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next”, I replied.

I wasn’t sure why I was retelling the opening scene of Matrix but I was sure she was about to make a point. She told me that the opening scene of a movie was meant to capture the attention of its audience. A boring scene (whether action or dialogue) was what screenwriters and directors wanted to avoid. Filmmakers have to convince the audience in the first few minutes that their film is worth sitting through. If the audiences are captured by the first scene, enjoy the ending, and are entertained by the film as a whole then they will tell others about how great it was. This in turn brings more people to the theater, makes the production companies more money, and makes the writers, directors and actors more desirable for future projects. While everything in the middle, the meat and potatoes of the film, is extremely important, (after all, it’s everything in the middle, the story as whole, that is the heart of the movie) it’s the beginning that will draw the audience in, and it is the ending that will, hopefully, wrap it all up nicely.

The same goes for camp programs. It is up to you, the program director, to convince your campers that they made the right choice in choosing your camp above all others. It is up to you to make sure they know, through your programming, that they are going to enjoy their camp experience. After all, they are investing their precious school vacation time on it. If all goes well the first day of camp will capture their interest. They’ll be excited about what’s coming next.

The last day is your chance to wrap up the session nicely and to leave campers and parents with a super memorable experience. As long as the campers enjoyed the rest of camp as well (camp doesn’t need to be filled with constant eye-popping excitement, but it does need to be engaging and enjoyable – even a rest hour, if timed right, can be an enjoyable part of a day at camp) then campers and their parents will enthusiastically talk about the experience to their friends, co-workers and family, which will in turn bring more word-of-mouth business in the future.

pbjtime2Think of a sandwich. The beginning and ending of your camp program are the slices of bread. If you have moldy bread or bread that is unappealing it ruins the whole sandwich. Right? The middle of the sandwich, the turkey and lettuce, or the peanut butter and jelly, represents the camp experience minus the beginning and end, all the middle programming. Now, if the beginning and end of your camp session is just like the middle (nothing exciting and different) then you have no bread. Instead you have more peanut butter and jelly. As good as peanut butter and jelly are on their own many people would rather have it between two slices of bread – maybe toasted. With a banana instead of jelly? That’s how my grandma liked it.

What do you do the first and last day of camp to make it memorable?