A Recipe for Successful Youth Programs - Part 1


I cannot count the number of times my colleagues and I have come up with a great idea for a new program, camp, or class and then watched staff members struggle to turn our vision into reality. After one or two failed attempts, they often revert to some of the more tried-and-true standbys. For example, a company I worked with planned elaborate theme-based summer day-camp programs, complete with activity schedules, materials lists, and instructions for each and every project, game, and song. Generally, by week 3, most of the staff members were doing their own thing, having repurposed the supplies, allowed children to come up with new and unique uses for the materials, and even used the “lesson plans” as scrap paper. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone, but there is a better (and easier) approach to program innovation.

The Main Course

The most important ingredient for successful programming is enthusiastic and motivated staff. Just as a gourmet meal cannot be made from inferior ingredients, no great youth program can exist without a passionate and committed leader.

Many of us have approached programming in the past by planning what we think children (or parents) will be interested in, and then try to find staff to run the programs. On rare occasions, this approach works. A staff member is hired, takes what is given, and delivers an outstanding program. More frequently, some level of disconnect leads to dampened enthusiasm and confusion, and may even lead to a hurried search for a new employee.

So, how can we plan programs that staff will be excited about? Begin by using staff members’ strengths and interests.

However, maybe you had your heart set on offering five different basketball camps, or little tumblers’ gymnastics, or a toddlers’ nature-explorer program. You may be contractually (or historically) obligated to provide these special activities. But I’m talking about entirely new programs you and the team would like to offer based on surveys, board member input, or just an honest desire to offer more to members of the community. These “experimental” programs can and should be developed with real ownership from a staff that will deliver them.

At a previous camp at which I worked, a nature program had historically struggled to attract interest from the campers. One summer, two long-time staff members asked if they could be in charge of nature for that season. The director, somewhat surprised, agreed. These counselors, who were both artistically and musically inclined, renamed the program “Funk in the Forest.” They started getting campers excited about all of the cool things they would be doing over the course of the summer. From that point on, the program was one of the most popular at camp. Many of the activities, like hiking, bug hunts, and nature-based crafts, remained the same. What changed was the enthusiasm and ownership the staff shared with the campers.

I admit that letting staff take the lead in program efforts can be somewhat uncomfortable, but I’ve seen firsthand how well it can work. It’s also important to distinguish between empowering staff and being completely absent from the process. While still being active in planning, I tend to work more as a guide or resource. The final product is a collaborative effort, but I do retain the right to decide what is put before the public.