While many summer camps and children’s programs were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, one local museum embraced the challenge and quickly adapted to make sure the show went on. The Castle’s History Camp, which typically takes place on-site for one week each summer, went entirely virtual this year to provide campers a safe, fun, and educational experience that they could enjoy from the comfort of their own home.
In order to follow social distancing guidelines for the state of Ohio, The Castle had to cancel much of its spring programming and limit tours to smaller groups by appointment only. “We wanted to make sure we were able to social distance and make the best choices for the safety of our patrons,” said Kyle Yoho, Education Director. “With the guidelines set forth for day camps, it became clear to us that we would not be able to have a similar experience to what we have been able to offer in the past.”
Museum staffed weighed their options. Rather than run the camp at half-capacity and risk exposure, they chose to move the entire camp to a virtual platform. Ultimately, they felt this was the safest option for campers, staff, volunteers, and presenters. Yoho also worried that by having to enforce strict social distancing guidelines, campers might not have an enjoyable experience.
“The situation was ever-changing and evolving,” said Yoho. “Guidelines came out but didn’t come out quickly enough for us to make decisions about what our camp was going to look like given our time frame.” From a planning and logistics perspective, he said it was nearly impossible to plan for a physical camp. By moving to virtual, they knew they would be able to make it work.
Moving online also made the camp more accessible to people who might not have physically attended in the past. Yoho said they had campers from not only all across Ohio, but also from Florida, Nevada, and even British Columbia. While the camp was virtual, the museum made sure the sessions were still hands-on and interactive. Campers were involved, up, moving, doing things throughout the day.
“It was a cool experience to try hands-on programming in a new way,” said Yoho. “When we did a cooking program, for instance, we got to see campers interact with parents, grandparents, and family members. Even though we weren’t physically with them, we could see how much they were enjoying it, it was a nice extension to be able to include members of their family.”
The shift also allowed the museum to work with presenters who may not have normally been able to travel to camp. This year’s presenters included professional musicians, tin-type photography artists, historians, and experienced interpreters. In total, there were twenty unique sessions that took place over the course of a week.
While fewer campers participated this summer, Yoho said those who did embraced the change. “Our campers were phenomenal, they really took to the format and enjoyed the learning experience,” he said. “It was rewarding to see them engaging with it, especially after going through all of the planning and training ourselves how to create this virtual experience. It blew my mind how smoothly everything went and everyone’s enthusiasm during this time of transition.”
Feedback from campers was overwhelmingly positive. Parents appreciated that the classes were hands-on and easy to manage while working from home during the pandemic. “This is her first year and she loved the camp,” shared one parent, on behalf of their daughter. “I would like to see her be able to attend onsite in the future, she really loved all of the sessions.”
To prepare for a virtual camp, The Castle’s staff had to learn about video recording equipment, how to record live sessions with campers, how to stage sets – Yoho said it became almost like a TV or movie production. “Now that we know how to do these things, we will definitely utilize these tools in the future.”
Even after the pandemic when events can physically be hosted at The Castle again, Yoho believes there will always be a virtual component to programs to increase access for the community. In fact, they’ve already moved their Third Thursday talks to a virtual platform and are considering additional virtual programs this fall.
Despite the challenges of a global pandemic and a steep, digital learning curve, Yoho is grateful for the experience and said the smiles on campers’ faces made it all worthwhile. “They were really excited to learn and that made us happier that we put in the effort to put together a quality, virtual experience.”
Transitioning to virtual required three times the amount of work in a much shorter time period, a shift that would not have been possible without the help of dedicated volunteers and a willingness to learn. “We had a great volunteer group who became our tech people who helped monitor our online learning and aided with filming and recording sessions.”
At the end of the day, Virtual History Camp went off without a hitch, making The Castle one of the first organizations in the state to successfully move an in-person summer camp online.