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North Hills Monthly

Creating Memories with Camp Traditions

Feb 28, 2018 05:05PM ● By Beth Gavaghan

Campers at Winchester Thurston School

Summer camp season will soon be here, and with it opportunities to embrace new experiences and make new friends. Camp traditions add to the fun, helping campers connect in a memorable way.

Opening and closing ceremonies are valuable traditions at YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh summer camps, said Todd Brinkman, vice president of youth development. About 17,000 kids from kindergarten through high school attend its 21 different day camps and three overnight camps.

“We’re starting with a bunch of kids who’ve been coming and ‘bleed the camp Kool-Aid,’ and right next to them is some kid who’s scared to death and never been here before,” he said. “The opening ceremony is a tradition that I think has made our camps very successful. It puts those new folks and those returning folks on the same page. At the end of the camp week, they’re sitting arm-in-arm singing camp songs. There are many tears and long hug goodbyes.”

Games, activities and crafts done primarily at camp have also evolved into YMCA traditions. Two such games are the Ga-Ga Pit—Israeli dodge ball played in an octagon-shaped court—and carpet ball. Carpet ball is played on a long, carpeted table as two teams try to knock each other’s balls into a small pocket at one end. 

“The advantage is when you’re out or waiting your turn, you’re cheering on your friends who are in,” said Brinkman. “You’re talking to your buddy next to you, having a good time and having those moments to connect to a new friend. That’s the real win of the game.”

Another YMCA tradition is making bracelets from plastic lace to keep or give to friends. Brinkman explained that it’s not about how artistic the product is, but “about sitting around in a circle chatting while they do it.”

A tradition at Pittsburgh Ultimate’s Camp Spirit of the Game, an ultimate Frisbee program for kids ages 7 to 14, is to focus on a core value each day of the weeklong camp.

Campers are recognized for modeling the value of the day, be it respect, teamwork, integrity, enthusiasm or dedication. At the end of the week, counselors pick the players who best exemplify these values throughout the week and those campers wins prizes.

Practicing these core values helps campers in life and in Ultimate Frisbee.

“The sport is self-refereed, so it is important for our campers to learn conflict resolution skills,” said Christie Lawry, executive director of Pittsburgh Ultimate. “If there is a disagreement about a play on the field, players must come to an agreement in order for the game to continue.”

Another tradition at Camp Spirit of the Game is the weekly disc-cathlon, where kids compete in fun contests, such as who can throw the frisbee the farthest or through a hoop the most times.

“Our camp feels like a traditional summer camp. We build in free play time; we go to the pool every day. We try to achieve a good balance of relaxing and being challenged physically and mentally,” Lawry said.

Held in North Park, Camp Spirit of the Game runs for six weeks from late June until the first week of August. New this year are single-day “flash” camps designed to introduce kids to the camp experience. 

A “woo-hoo attitude” is a tradition at Saltworks Theatre Company's summer camp. “It means being positive and supportive and willing to take risks,” said Rachel Smith, production manager. Staff and campers write affirming notes about each other and place them in the camp woo-hoo box. The notes are then shared, building goodwill and confidence for new and returning campers.

Camp teams are another tradition at Saltworks summer camp. The staff groups kids by age into teams on the first day and assigns them team colors. The teams then create their own names and team cheer. Saltworks camps also include fun theme days such as Color Day and If I Were a Superhero.

A typical Saltworks camp day involves rotating through theater-related classes with different teachers, which ends in another tradition. The teachers and students thank each other for teaching and learning, since everyone is both a learner and a teacher.

Saltworks runs a half-day camp for kids 4 to 7 years old and a full-day camp for ages 8-18 at its Oakland and North Hills locations.

Not surprisingly, a tradition at Act One Theatre School is to close each camp with a show that is the culmination of the camp effort. The school runs three camps: a three-week camp for kindergarten through first grade and one for second through fourth grade, and a four-week camp for fifth through twelfth grade. The older kids have two shows that include all campers; one features fifth through eighth-graders while the other includes ninth through twelfth-graders.

For the older kids, the camp theme is a particularly important tradition in that it drives the creative effort. “The faculty choose a theme that is important in the kids’ lives or stresses where we are going as a community,” said Karen Cordaro, Act One owner and artistic director.

“Last year, the theme was ‘Inside Out and Outside In,’ which focused on what it was like to be in the ‘in group’ looking out and an outsider looking in. It was about developing an attitude of empathy and including everyone,” she said. The students write music, monologues and scenes based loosely on the theme and everyone is able to be in the spotlight. 

“I believe you can change people through art,” Cordaro said.

Both Saltworks and Act One camps have what they call New Works, where campers create original performance pieces and perform them for one another.

The Teddy Bear Picnic is one of the oldest and most beloved camp traditions at Winchester Thurston School, said Annie Alexander, director of the North Hills Campus at WT Summer Camp. The picnic is part of Teddy Bear Camp, in which kids ages 3 to rising pre-kindergartners build their own bears. It takes place at the North Hills campus, which holds camps for kids through fifth grade. 

At the school’s city campus, kids in the sixth through twelfth grades benefit from fully experiential camps that utilize much of the city for their activities. Winchester Thurston offers about 245 different programs in the summer (80 of them are brand new this year) and hosts campers from more than 100 schools. 

Each camp has its own traditions that bring kids together. Most are run by faculty, and the teachers know how to make kids feel comfortable. “By the end of the first day, everybody has a new best friend,” Alexander said. 

A tradition on Fridays at the elementary camps is for campers to wear their camp t-shirts and sing the Friday song. The lyrics are simple: it’s just the word “Friday,” which kids chant all day. Different chants are also used each morning when kids get on the bus in the city to travel to the North Hills campus, Alexander added.

At Camp Invention, campers start every day in base camp with a song and activities, said Alaina Rutledge, director of educational programs for the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which runs the program. Camp Invention operates weeklong camps in 1,500 schools in 50 states, developing creative problem-solving skills through science-based activities.

North Hills’ area camps are being held this summer at Wexford, Ingomar, Wyland and Hartwood elementary schools and Evans City Middle School. Because the camps are run by teachers, the kids are often already familiar with them.

One tradition campers look forward to each year is the take-apart piece, which has students taking apart electronics and making them into something new. The camp experience always includes lessons on entrepreneurship and intellectual property, and campers even receive a mock patent for their inventions. 

“We celebrate the victories and the failures,” Rutledge said. “We allow them the freedom to explore new solutions.” This year, Camp Invention kids will take home two robots: an electronic dog and a 'line-chasing' robot. The kids will also work on small-scale smart homes.

Summer camp is a time for kids to have fun and grow. Camp traditions make for memories that last long after camp is over.