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North Hills Monthly

Activities Directors Add Fresh Options to Keep Camps Exciting

Feb 29, 2020 10:52AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

As the countdown to summer begins, so does the planning for summer camp activities.

Camp Guyasuta in Sharpsburg is owned and operated by the Boy Scouts, but the summer camps are open to any child between the ages of 6-14. Directors Mike Daniher and his wife, Kim, actually start planning the following year’s calendar at the end of summer after an evaluation of the previous summer’s activities.

“We debrief with counselors, talk about what the kids liked and what they’d like to see, and we build forward from that point,” said Mike Daniher.

He added that Camp Guyasuta is completely hands-on and revolves around STEM activities, with an underlying educational element. “For example, as they’re going to the archery range, they’re learning about trajectory and the science behind archery,” he explained.

To keep things fresh, they change out the STEM activities each year. Last year, for example, campers launched pop bottle rockets, while this year, they will be making rubber band cars. “Every year, we add an activity or a spin on another activity,” said Daniher.

Language Camp has been in operation for 35 years, and Helena Schaefers has been the director for the past 25 years. The camp started by offering German, and then expanded to include French and Spanish. It attracts children in grades one through nine, who follow one of the language tracts.

The language activities are supplemented by traditional camp activities, like swimming, crafts, cooking and various sports options. Schaefers varies the activities each summer to make it fresh and interesting for returning campers. This year, for example, she said she may try tie-dying, a change from last year’s dry clay modeling.

“There is always a new little twist; the campers are always going to experience something new,” she said. This year, the camp will be held on the grounds of Camp Guyasuta during the first week in August.

Wes Weitzel has many fond memories of being a camper at Camp Deer Creek in Cheswick. His parents bought the camp in 1973, and he currently serves as its director. In existence for 88 years, the camp has a formula that works, so Weitzel doesn’t tweak it too frequently. 

“I’m a big fan of ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’” he said.

Still, as a former Deer Creek camper himself, he tries to remember what he enjoyed and to incorporate those fun activities. Most of the intricacies in the planning process revolve around the weekly Friday themes, which range from Superheroes to Olympics Day.

He also makes upgrades, as necessary, such as a new lodge expansion this year to accommodate the uptick in attendance.

“You’re always flexible, but the things we know are working the best, we always keep around,” he said. Case in point: Weitzel rented a climbing wall for years, and because the kids loved it so much, he purchased it. It is now a permanent part of the camp.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy runs an environmental day camp at the Frick Environmental Center in Squirrel Hill. Weekly camps are offered for ages 3-13, and camp activities are tailored for each age level. Some activities include berry picking, kayaking, outdoor cooking, and taking an urban hike.

Kinder Nature Camp, for 3- to 5-year-olds, has daily themes, such as soil, insects, birds, and plants. Camps for elementary-age children are themed around animals, habitats and exploring Frick’s woods. Older campers, rising 7th and 8th graders, can participate in Survival Camp and learn wilderness survival skills.

Patty Himes, one of the center’s team of camp coordinators, said that many of the activities have been tested over time, so they have a good idea of what appeals to the kids, though they frequently test new activities.

“Even though we have a solid schedule, we are revamping each night for the next day,” she explained. “We really believe in evaluating how things are going on a daily basis and changing our approach for the following day.”

Inspiration for ideas can come from anywhere. Daniher said that he attends a Boy Scout America outdoor leadership conference and often gets ideas from there, and his wife is constantly looking for activities. “One of our staff is a retired engineer; he’s a STEM instructor for the summer, and he comes up with really creative things,” said Daniher.

But planning camp activities is not without its challenges. The goal is always to keep the kids—some of world’s toughest critics—interested and engaged. And sometimes the weather does not cooperate; it’s Pittsburgh, after all.

But from an activity director’s standpoint, the rewards are immense.

“I like just seeing it being a success—that they are having fun, getting involved, getting some physical activity, and socializing with their peers,” said Schaefers.

Daniher echoed this, saying that one of the rewards is watching kids excel. “Seeing a kid that is timid meeting other friends and encouraging each other to step outside their comfort zones, and challenging themselves to do something they’ve never done before is a life lesson they can take with them,” he said.

“We work really hard to figure out fun and interesting ways to get kids to know each other and step outside of their comfort zones,” agreed Himes, adding that her team is committed to connecting with kids, introducing them to nature, and building a community of support and kindness.

The most rewarding part for Weitzel? “When the kids tell me that they had a great summer, and can’t wait to return the next year.”

For more information on any of these camps, visit: