How to Create and Run A Fun Backyard Summer Camp
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How to Create and Run A Fun Backyard Summer Camp

How to Create and Run A Fun Backyard Summer Camp

Summer is a time for adventure, creativity, and making memories that last a lifetime. For many families, sending kids to summer camp is a cherished tradition. However, traditional camps can be expensive and inflexible, especially for families with unique schedules or specific interests. This has been a struggle for our family over the years so I’ve had to be creative to give my kids some of these fun memories.

This summer, why not bring the magic of camp right to your own backyard?

Creating a backyard summer fun camp is an exciting way to engage your children in enriching activities, tailored to their interests and your family’s needs. Imagine the joy of crafting a personalized camp experience, complete with themed weeks, fun activities, and educational opportunities, all while spending quality time together. Plus, it’s a cost-effective and flexible alternative to traditional camps.

In this guide, we’ll explore the many benefits of hosting your own backyard camp, provide you with step-by-step instructions on how to plan and run it, and share creative ideas to make this summer unforgettable. Whether you’re looking to foster your children’s curiosity, encourage outdoor play, build a family bond, or simply create some amazing summer memories, a backyard summer fun camp is the perfect solution. Let’s dive in and start planning your summer adventure!

kid lying on the grass giving thumbs up with text "Turn your backyard into a fun summer camp for your kids" overlaid

Why Create Your Own Summer Camp in Your Backyard?

There are a lot of benefits to creating your own summer camp – including the fact that it’s a cost-effective alternative to other programs available in the summer. Many times, you can fill the days with things that you already have around your house or that have minimal cost in materials.

Unlike other camps, where you have to commit to a specific set of hours or days, doing your own camp means that you can plan it to be flexible around the needs of your family, like if there’s a baby who needs to nap or you have an appointment to work around. Plus, depending on the theme and activities for a given day, you can even take it with you to a new location – whether that’s visiting grandparents or even the neighbourhood park. I love that we can make our backyard summer camp based on the interests of our kids, too. No doing something that scares or bores anyone!

Doing it together as a family means that you help strengthen the family connection, building on memories that will last a life time.

Sometimes we need an intentional plan to have some screen-free activities for at least some of the day – to get out and enjoy the summer weather doing something fun and engaging instead of just being couch potatoes.

And, as a homeschooling added bonus, you can easily tie the themes into your homeschooling plans, either as a review or an introduction or even a deeper dive into subjects that you have been or will be learning!

What Exactly *IS* a Backyard Summer Fun Camp?

A Backyard Summer Fun Camp is basically an activity-based unit study that you plan and run right from home (or your preferred location.) You pick a daily or weekly theme and build a plan of activities, snacks, and other fun things around that theme. In comparison with traditional summer camps, the one you do yourself can be a smaller portion of the day allowing for other things in your day, doesn’t require you to hire any additional staff, and can be more focused on the theme.

But how do you actually run a backyard summer camp? Let’s walk through the steps:

Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Your Own Backyard Summer Fun Camp

1. Planning Your Camp

Camp Details:

So the first thing you need to do is sit down and make some decisions around what camp will look like for you. Will this be an all summer kind of adventure with multiple weeks or will it be only 1 or 2 weeks long? Once you know how long you are planning for, it’s easy to pull it all together.

Another thing to consider is how long you will be doing camp every day. Will this be for mornings only? A couple of hours long or a full day of activities?

If it’s only for 2 hours every weekday morning, then you will need significantly less in the plan than if you are doing it from 8am to 4pm every day. If this is more of a full day plan, then consider how you can add in things like free time, as well as snack and lunch breaks. Make sure not to pack the whole day full of structured and planned activities. Balance it with lots of space for play time and movement activities.

Sketch out a general idea of what you would like each day to look like.

Choose Weekly / Daily Themes:

Once you’ve decided on the amount of time you need to plan for your backyard summer camp, you need to come up with themes.

If you are doing a multi-week camp plan, you will likely want to make each week be their own theme, but if you are doing a shorter time frame, you can decide to do a theme for each day instead. I wouldn’t recommend doing a daily theme if you are doing this all summer or you are likely to get overwhelmed and suffer whiplash. Keeping a weekly theme for longer plans helps make everything coherent with a natural break on weekends before you start a new topic.

Think about what your children’s passions are and consider what they absolutely do not enjoy. There is no sense making a whole week about books if they would rather burn a book than read it! That being said, don’t be afraid to stretch and challenge them a little. The goal isn’t to make summer simple, but engaging and fun!

Here are some theme ideas:

  • Nature
  • Science
  • Magic and Mystery
  • Music and Performing Arts
  • Farming
  • Space
  • Makers’ Club
  • Time Travel
  • Fitness
  • Water Fun
  • Survival

Write down a list of all the topics you would like to cover during your summer fun and then move onto the next step, filling the plan with activities and matching extras.

zoomed in image of a tye-dye bottle squiting yellow paint onto a pillowcase
Tie-Dying Pillowcases.

2. Designing Activities

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Next, you need to decide what exactly you will do each day based on the theme of the day – a list of activities, games, snacks, crafts, and movement that you can pull together to make the full plan.

For this example, let’s pick one of the above topics, like Maker’s Club, and come up with a plan for a week-long camp that’s going to be from 9 to noon on weekday mornings. We need to figure out what we can do during that week. Personally, I like to break down the main topic into smaller themes to make this planning step even easier. So, for this maker’s club week, let’s plan it like this:

  • Monday – Woodworking
  • Tuesday – Electronics
  • Wednesday – Upcycling
  • Thursday – Sewing
  • Friday – Inventions

Now we can build out each day with some fun activities, crafts, snacks, and extras. One great thing about this summer camp plan is that it’s a perfect example of what I call “sneak schooling” – where kids learn without even realizing it and without the dreaded label of “school.” So, consider what kinds of learning opportunities you can include in the plans as you pull things together. I like to brain dump all the ideas I have for each topic first and then make a plan afterwards.

Monday: Woodworking

  • Tool Practice: Hammering nails into wood. Using a screwdriver. Saw wood by hand. Using a drill.
  • Make a simple wood project – like a birdhouse or a picture frame.
  • Painting or decorating a finished project.
  • Build a bigger project – like a fort together.
  • Snack Idea: Build a Log Cabin out of pretzel sticks.
  • Movement Activity: Be a hammer (jump). Be a drill (spin). Be a saw (lunges).

Tuesday: Electronics

  • Disassemble old electronics or appliances (make sure they are safe first.)
  • Play with circuits – like Snap Circuits or with wire, batteries, and a small lightbulb.
  • Make a simple motorized robot – like the one with a paper cup and markers with a motor on top.
  • Try offline coding activities like giving a sequence of instructions for a game.
  • Snack Idea: Make circuits with cheese strings and grapes.
  • Movement Activity: Circuit Tag or a “follow the circuit” obstacle challenge.

Wednesday: Upcycling

  • Sort recycling into glass, plastic, metal, cardboard, and paper groups.
  • Make an upcycled craft – should this be free design or an intentional design?
  • Give everyone a large cardboard box to make a home.
  • Have a scrap paper “snowball” fight.
  • Snack idea: Leftover Fruit Smoothies.
  • Movement Activity: Recycle sort – divide the yard into quarters and have the kids run to different zones based on what you yell out.

Thursday: Sewing & Fashion

  • Learn hand stitching methods like the running stitch, back stitch, and blanket stitch.
  • Make a sock puppet with button eyes.
  • Tye-Dye a shirt or a pillow case.
  • Try a sewing machine – bean bags?
  • Snack Idea: Edible bracelets with Fruit Loops or Cheerios on a string.
  • Movement Activity: Under / Over challenges

Friday: Invention Day

  • Make a tinker box with miscellaneous items like any left over wood, recycling materials, fabrics, paper towel rolls, tape, fabric, popsicle sticks, clothespins, etc and let the kids have at it.
  • Make model robots out of tin cans, nuts and bolts.
  • Design a paper plate marble run.
  • Make a Rube Goldberg Machine.
  • LEGO building challenges
  • Snack Idea: DIY Mini Pizza station
  • Movement Activity: Throwing a ball into different bins and boxes – put them on angles and different heights to encourage creative thinking.

Once you have put some ideas together, it’s a good idea to consider if any of these are unrealistic with the time constraints, budget, or age ranges of the children I’m running the camp for. For example, it might not be possible to get a hold of a couple broken electronics or appliances, and sometimes they just aren’t safe, so maybe I decide that’s not going to work and instead, we’ll make a circuit matching quiz game. And getting a sewing machine outside won’t likely work, especially if I have more than one child, so we’ll skip the machine and focus on hand sewing instead – but I’ll add in a challenge to make a fashion accessory with LEGO or similar construction toy.

image of a pizza box solar oven in the sunshine in our backyard
A backyard solar oven helping us make tasty smores!

So now we have a plan of activities to do every day. Of course, you will need to be flexible and adaptable on fly – sometimes things don’t take as long a time as you expect, or kids are so excited about an activity they don’t want to shift to something else, or the materials that you have don’t end up working! Just go with the flow and enjoy the process together.

3. Gather Supplies.

I really recommend that you get the main bulk of the materials that you will need for camp together well ahead of time. There’s nothing quite as exhausting as running around the night before to find everything you will need in the morning – especially when you can’t find where you’ve put the popsicle sticks or you’ve run out of tape.

Make a materials list for each day. If something needs to be prepped the day of, put a star beside it.

To keep things budget friendly, look through your own supplies first. I know we have wild collections of craft and art supplies, miscellaneous things around the house that are able to be pulled together for camp use. If you need something that other people might be able to donate – like toilet paper rolls or broken electronics, ask in a local buy and sell or freecycle group. For anything you need to buy, try the dollar store first to save money. Order any specialty or bigger ticket items ahead of time so they arrive before camp begins.

Sometimes, it can be fun to go to the library (or pull from your own book collection) to gather books on the theme for the week / day – so that kids can have something quieter to do if they finish a project early or if they need to rest. Plus, it can extend the camp experience to outside the planned times.

4. Running Your Backyard Summer Fun Camp

Set up a “home base” for your camp. This can be a patio table, a blanket or plastic tablecloth spread on the grass, or another location that you can have kids sit and listen to instructions or do the activities that you have planned. Make sure that you have the space you need for the projects of the day as well as somewhere for some movement in between.

Take the plan you’ve put together and figure out what order you want to do the activities in. A routine can help run your backyard summer camp experience smoothly. Here’s an example of a routine:

  • Meet at home base to introduce the topic of the day.
  • Play a movement game related to your topic to get some of the excited energy out.
  • Theme activity 1.
  • Snack.
  • Theme activity 2.
  • Meet at home base to wrap up.

Again, this depends on the length of the camp and how long each activity may take. Some will require more time than others.

Once you’ve got the themes, the activities, the materials, and the daily plan in place – you are all set to go! Slap on the sunscreen and head outside for your very own backyard summer camp!

3 little flowerpots with heads made out of nylons and soil to make chia pet style characters
Homemade Chia Pets – they grow grass out of their heads!

Keeping Kids Engaged

  1. Get invested in the idea of camp. If you are excited, they will be excited.
  2. Ask the kids to help you come up with themes and activities. Kids are so great at being creative with ideas and, often, if they’ve helped plan something, they get excited to see their ideas come to life.
  3. While doing an activity, if you see them losing interest or feeling frustrated, it’s okay to shift to the next thing instead of trying to force an activity for the sake of doing an activity. The goal of the backyard summer camp is to be fun and memory filled – no one wants a miserable memory!
  4. Change things up enough every day that they don’t get bored with the routine. New themes and new activities every day will help that.
  5. Have movement breaks and free time periods throughout the day – depending on how long your planned camp times are. If it’s a full day camp, make sure that at least 30 mins in the morning and 30 mins in the afternoon are set aside to just let kids do whatever they want: run around, swing on swings, scream at the top of their lungs, whatever they need to do.
  6. Have an alternative. Sometimes an activity will be the best thing ever for one kid but totally of no interest to another. Always have a backup activity on standby. This doesn’t necessarily have to be on theme. Think simple, quiet, and engaging. Popular backups are making bead necklaces with pony beads and plastic string, playdough, and colouring sheets. These can be pulled out when one kid just needs something non-distracting to do while the other kids finish the planned activity.

Additional Tips for a Successful Backyard Summer Camp

Guess what? You aren’t limited to your backyard. You can pick a theme that takes you on road trips and adventures. So don’t be afraid to think outside the yard!

Make sure you take pictures of your camp activities and projects together, because there’s a lot of fun to be had putting them into a scrapbook, journal, or digital memory program after camp is over. My kids love looking at the pictures of themselves having summer fun!

Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t every day. If you notice that every day the kids aren’t able to focus for 2nd activity (no matter what it is!), it might be a good idea to rearrange your schedule to have snack and then free play before starting an activity. Adjust on the fly based on the needs you have and the kids you are doing camp with!

If the weather doesn’t co-operate, you can shift indoors. Find ways to adapt the plan to a new location, maybe change some of the more messy or large movement plans, and keep the fun going.

If you have older children who aren’t really interested in being in camp, “hire” them as camp counsellors! That way, they can still be involved but without the pressure of feeling like they are part of little kid camp. Camp counsellors can help run to get supplies, help kids with projects, lead movement activities, take pictures, and more.

If the activities you are doing are particularly messy, cover your grass with a plastic dollar store tablecloth that you can throw away when you are done. Set up a clean up station – so that the kids can get washed before heading back into the house!

Expanding Camp For a Group

In 2021, after a year of being isolated and my kids feeling sad because they missed their neighbourhood friends, I decided to take the backyard summer camp idea and set up a plan to run a week-long, free morning camp version at our local park. I invited the neighbours with kids, planned it all out and away we went! Camp doesn’t need to be complicated. It just needs to be fun. Several of the days, we ended up with a large group of kids who had just wandered in to play at the park and found us having a good time with our activities.

picture of me in an inflatable dinosaur suit chasing a laughing kid around the park for our community backyard summer camp
That’s me. In a dinosaur suit.
Chasing kids around the park for a dino themed summer camp day.

Because being left alone with kids who aren’t your own often requires police checks and other understandable safety measures and because I didn’t want to be responsible for the safety of kids other than my own, I made sure that parents knew they had to stay while we did camp. They were welcome to sit, supervise, and chat with other parents while I did the leader role, or they could actively participate – whatever worked best for them as long as they could see and help their kids.

This was a great way for the local kids to connect and have fun, and honestly – it didn’t cost me hardly a thing as we just used resources that we had around or things that weren’t every expensive to buy.

I did the steps above – planned daily themes, came up with activities, gathered our supplies, and dragged everything over to the park to set up a home base camp with a set of plastic tablecloths on the grass. We had a couple of days when rain ruined our plan, but I was able to hand-deliver kits of projects to each family we’d invited so they could do them at home! Overall It was a great week and all the kids had fun.

Image of 3 ziploc bags with craft supplies and instructions sharpied to the front for our community backyard summer camp.
When it rained, I made kits with the activities we’d planned for art camp that day and delivered them to everyone’s houses to do at home.

Final Thoughts

Backyard summer camp doesn’t need to be complicated, it just needs to be fun. That’s what I hope you will take away from this post. It can be one week in the summer, squeezed in between all the other fun things you have planned, or it can be a full summer of creative madness. It can be just you and your kids, or it can be a whole community of families.

The goal is to give you and your children a lifetime of memories.

If you need some ideas to help pull together your own summer camp, try this 8 week themed outline for an At-Home Summer Camp.

Lisa Marie Fletcher
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