3 Quick Ways to Create More Camp Magic for Less Than $100


The key to making more magic is taking the first step

The magic of camp can mean a lot of different things. When pressed, many people who have spent significant time in a summer camping environment point to a certain intangible "something" that just makes camp different from the rest of the world.

I happen to agree with that sentiment. I think that simply getting young people together in an environment free of external expectations creates magic all by itself. I also think there are things we can do to remind our campers that this is a different, magical place. Now, when I first got into camping I thought the type of magic I'm about to describe was something reserved for big budget camps with unending resources. What I really found was the magic I'm about to describe is reserved only for people willing to try it.

Its cost? One extra staff member.

"But James," you might say, "We've already cut budgets to the bone! Where are we going to find an extra staff member?"

I'll answer from my own experience!

First things first. I've worked at a few camps, and had the pleasure to work with or visit many more. At the camps where I've been, there's almost always somebody somewhere who's not doing something. Maybe they have time between archery or high ropes sessions, or maybe it's a unit director who happens to have a week with fewer problems. But usually, there's at least a free staff hour available per day for someone to create some unique magic.

I'd personally hire someone to be a full time magic maker if I could afford it (or, as I've done, just ensure that I've hired enough staff for SOMEONE to fill this role at any given time), because I've seen the incredible returns it can have in terms of retention and story-telling at camp.

Once you've got a person, the opportunities are endless. Not every staff member is cut out to play these roles, of course, but the ones that are will LOVE it. More buy-in from staff, and more fun for campers. Here a few things we do, just to get your creative juices flowing.

Number 1: Be a random character, show up places, and either entertain or ask for things

Costumes help for this one, but face paint or even extra bed sheets can get the job done. Here are some favorites of ours. Apologies for grainy photos - they're oldies but goodies! The Questing Gnome - our first and best character. He walks around in some thrift store clothing and a walking stick and offers absurd quests for worthless baubles. You might be on the way to the waterfront, and the Questing Gnome will appear. He'll babble about being chased by a Pharoah, and ask for a song in exchange for a prize of incalculable value. After the song, he might produce a dirty sock from underneath his robe. He might do this for a while until he gets a reputation, and then produce something really awesome - like a pass to go eat the extra cake after dinner that night. Some kids will love the Questing Gnome. I guarantee it.

The Rock Star! You've got a staff member with a guitar, right? Right. He or she can walk around playing tunes, but gets huge bonus points for doing this at hilarious or inappropriate times. Automatic laughs guaranteed if you spend 5 minutes getting the Dining Hall quiet for afternoon announcements, and right when you begin, the Rock Star barges in and starts playing something obnoxious like Smashmouth's All-Star.

You have campers who would turn down unicorn rides? Didn't think so.

This is the "person who lives in the woods." I unfortunately didn't have a good picture of someone covered in leaves and brambles, but that's often the direction we'll go here. The person in the woods might also do random stuff, like set up a lemonade stand, or have a bunch of lawn games set up. This person is strategically placed at a normal resting place along a hike. They can do a number of things, like teach an immersive nature lesson (this counselor is helping make tea from foraged ingredients nearby), or just do something silly. It's unexpected, fun, and memorable.

You get the idea as far as characters are concerned. Characters really took off for us, I think, because we also encouraged staff choose and make up their own characters. Of the above, only the Questing Gnome was something other than a counselor-generated idea. Once characters "became a thing," staff started showing up with their own costumes, doing this for fun on their breaks, and generally thinking more creatively. A win for all involved.

Number 2: Decorating cars

A simple one. Our counselor drummed up interest among other staff members, and then parked these cars on the lawn outside our dining hall. It was the last day of the last session of camp, and the counselors let kids decorate their cars with glass chalk to celebrate the end of camp (a la a high school graduation). No camper of ours had ever done this before, and they were totally in the moment.

Number 3: Fog Machines Make Everything Cooler

Semi-unrelated to the extra counselor thing, but a quick note: fog machines make everything awesomer. Have a talent show? Fog machine. Want to make an indoor dungeon? Fog machine. Spice up a carnival station? Fog machine. Themed meal? Fog machine. If you're trying to answer the question, "How could I make this experience (insert positive experience here)?" The answer is usually a fog machine. They cost less than $100 on Amazon.

How do you make magic on the cheap?

We're all on a budget, but our financial budget shouldn't restrict our creativity. If you do something weird, wonky, or cool - please leave it in the comments below to share with our wonderful world of camping!