Columbia University’s Little Lions Camp Teaches More Than Sports Skills

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Columbia University’s Athletics Department hosts a number of camps over the summer, including Little Lions Camp, the general day camp, and 14 sport-specific camps. The Athletics Department’s commitment to excellence provides campers with the opportunity to further develop their skills in the sport of their choice by receiving expert instruction from NCAA Division 1 coaches, professional athletes, collegiate student-athletes, and trained teachers. Participants in our sports camps also have a chance to compete in Columbia’s NCAA Division 1 athletic facilities as they improve their abilities and enjoy an action-packed summer. 

Camps are either located on the main Columbia campus in the Dodge Fitness Center (116th Street and Broadway) or uptown at the Baker Athletics Complex (218th Street in Upper Manhattan). Camp dates vary, with Little Lions Camp offered most consistently through the summer starting June 12 and ending August 18. Head coaches also offer 14 different sport specific camps, including baseball, girls & boys basketball, cross country, fencing, field hockey, football, golf, lacrosse, rowing, soccer, softball, swimming, and volleyball.

All camps are open to any and all entrants, and are limited only by the specified number, gender, age, or grade levels of each camp. Anne Marie Skylis, Director of Sports who has been with Columbia for four years, offers additional insight into the camps.

How do the camps benefit from being associated with Columbia University?

The easiest way to answer this question is simply that campers are able to experience athletics on a Division 1, Ivy League campus. Having Columbia University as your playground is pretty inspiring! It’s a beautiful place to be any time of year, but especially during the summer.

The sports specific camps are all organized and run by the head coaches of those programs. Consequently, campers are learning from Columbia coaches, student athletes, and other professionals. These coaches are all extremely passionate about their sports and provide fun, competitive, and inspiring opportunities to learn.

Overall, the association with Columbia helps to draw great and diverse people- including both staff and campers. The physical place and community are really what make all of these camps special.

The Athletics Department hosts both sports specific camps and a general day camp- what are the perks of both?

It’s really all about the staff. All of the camps have top notch coaches, and Little Lions Camp draws experts in sports and in kids. The programming in all of the summer camps allows kids to develop in their respective area. Maybe a camper knows they want to play soccer in high school, so they want to use part of their summer to develop those skills- NYC Soccer Academy is a great place to do that! Maybe a camper just wants to be exposed to a variety of sports- swimming, playing squash, capture the flag, and more all in the same day. Little Lions Camp can certainly meet those goals! All of the camps offer a great opportunity to learn, develop, and have fun.

In overseeing the programming for Little Lions Camp specifically, what do you feel is more important in a summer sports camp – a competitive environment or one that builds soft skills?

At Little Lions Camp, we prioritize soft skills. Part of our goal is to have each camper walk away having practiced cooperation, compromise, problem solving, and adaptability. Sports and athletics inherently create an environment where everyone can practice teamwork. Competition is great because it makes games fun and exciting, but at the end of the day, we care more about practicing soft skills than showing our athletic abilities.

How does the Little Lions Camp build soft skills and teamwork?

At the beginning of each day we set the stage for this – we discuss how we are all there to have fun, make friends, and try new things. I often then ask the kids if they’re going to win any Olympic medals at camp (usually that gets a giggle). I want them to understand that winning and losing is going to be a part of most sports. However, at camp, there will be many more opportunities to win and lose – because the games never end! So, we like to frame our activities around this idea; we are here to have fun and make friends, all while playing sports and games.

Sports are an awesome way to teach kids to work together and compromise. Campers are all on a team – the Little Lions Team. And from there we can’t all be the goalkeeper or Jedi (in Star Wars dodgeball), so we take turns. We build teamwork and other skills into the games, sports, and projects we do. Many sports inherently require teamwork, so we help campers work together to accomplish their task. For instance, in a game of capture the flag, you have 

What is a typical day in the Little Lions Camp like?

Our camp day is full of variety, but mostly easily explained as the “fun gym games.” Swimming, squash, and arts and crafts are consistently scheduled, with swim four times a week, squash twice a week, and arts and crafts at the end of each day. While we have camp at Baker we also swap tennis lessons for swim time.

Besides those main activities, we plan our activities based on traditional favorites, counselor interest, weekly themes, and camper requests! Over the years, it seems like Ga Ga and capture the flag have been the favorite games across all age groups. So, those games usually make a weekly appearance, along with different versions of soccer, basketball, rugby, flag football, noodle hockey, relays, kickball, and tag games. We like to diversify our sports and games in the hopes that each camper will feel successful. We also love to let campers be creative and add new twists to old games or make up their own!

In sum, campers probably play around five games/sports a day. The morning starts with a group meeting, setting the norms for the day, which are “respect yourself, each other, and the space.” Then we warm up as a group with both stretching exercises and usually a tag game. Swim time is in the morning with lunch usually immediately after. We try to spend the afternoon outdoors playing more games or sports, and then conclude the day with arts and crafts!

How does the camp use sports to teach camaraderie and friendship building?

Sports are a great medium to teach both of these things, as they inherently require teamwork. When playing games, we consistently switch up the teams or partners to give every camper an opportunity to work with someone new. This structure promotes new friendships and encourages campers to get to know someone who might not be their best friend (yet!).

What are the goals of the camp?

Our biggest priority is to create a safe environment- both physically and emotionally. We stress the rules and boundaries of each activity in order to ensure that campers feel they are a part of a community that prioritizes their wellbeing.

Beyond safety, we aim to ensure each camper has tons of fun, which means they make new friends, gained athletic confidence, and learned something new! We hope that when each camper ends their summer with us they walk away feeling like a part of a family; they all become Columbia Lions.

Your staff is a unique mix of Columbia athletes, coaches and local teachers. Tell us about them and how that works.

We have been incredibly lucky to have so many great staff members come to camp! Many return from summer to summer (and some have been here longer than I have!). We often have a few coaches or teachers from The School at Columbia – our K-8 school. This year we’ll have a few teachers who graduated from Teachers College. We also often get a few current students from Teachers College, the School of Social Work, and Columbia College. Wherever they’re coming from, they’re all attracted to camp because they love kids, sports, and camp. These commonalities make working together as a staff a lot of fun.

In sports, young athletes learn skills such as how to swim and how to hit a ball. How can learning those skills be used to teach other competencies?

When playing sports, especially new sports, kids often face the threat of failure and frustration. We try to turn these threats into positive growth opportunities. If a camper is scared to swim but gets up the courage to try, that’s an immediate success. That experience can build a camper’s athletic and overall confidence.

This can also happen when a camper repeatedly fails – say struggles to hit a squash ball – but is encouraged and praised for the little successes. I love squash for that reason. Most campers struggle the first time, but it is so fun to see them slowly progress and overcome their frustrations. Our staff members do an awesome job of showing the campers that small wins are still wins!

In general, I would say that developing new skills – especially skills that campers were apprehensive to try – can lead to overall resiliency. Hopefully that resiliency applies to their athletic and academic lives outside of camp!

In today’s sports world a lot of emphasis is placed on winning at all costs. How does the camp focus on a young athlete’s enjoyment of sport?

We try to help the campers “win” an entire day, not individual sports and games. Winning at camp means campers say yes when asked whether they had fun that day.

The games and activities are framed around that idea; maybe they had fun because they spent the day with their friends, got better at a game, or learned something new. When each activity is centered around that (having fun), it’s easy to explain why winning is just a small perk.

I hope that if campers have fun during the day or during a particular activity, they’ll continue to participate in that activity down the line, at school or otherwise!

You must have some great stories of working with kids. Any ones that come to mind?

This is always a tough question, primarily because these kids constantly inspire me. At our most recent camp, we had the kids choose the Friday game – it was a vote between capture the flag and sharks and minnows. They were struggling to come to an agreement, with strong opinions on both sides. In the middle of it, this one camper shouts, “why can’t we just compromise!” The staff members were all grins at that point, and the group did end up finding a compromise (less time playing both sports). It’s situations like these – kids learning to work together in a positive way- that are really inspiring.

For more information on the Lions Day Camp and other Columbia sports camps click here.

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