The children’s industry took a collective trip to camp this summer, pitching virtual tents and singing socially distanced campfire songs. Companies from Kidpik to Monster Jam to GoldieBlox have rushed to launch informal online educational experiences in an effort to capture the spirit of camp, which many kids have had to give up as COVID-19 continues to spread. Indeed, so many virtual camps have sprung up that online activity booking platform Sawyer quickly decided to partner with the companies behind them to create a curated list for families.
Virtual camps are definitely a trending way to get kids involved. But on top of that, their offering of escape and structured learning, not to mention specific exploration of things like music and arts and crafts, gives virtual camp content a long lifespan that should pleasing children even after the pandemic has passed, says Catherine Winder, CEO of Wind Sun Sky Entertainment.
In addition to meeting a current market need, virtual camps are also easy to create, with producers able to turn live content into weeks, adds Winder. And with global restrictions separating children for the foreseeable future, it’s likely there will be continued demand for this type of content.-for at least a little longer. “Even when the kids are out and about once again, families will still be looking for content that inspires kids to be active and reflective, and that’s what camps do best,” says Winder.
Slip into a virtual experience
After canceling their North American shows for 2020 due to the pandemic, Australian children’s music group The Wiggles knew they needed a digital hub to reach children and families. Seeing an opportunity to engage kids on social media and experiment with a new format, the brand launched Virtual Summer Camp with The Wiggles and Rascal + Friends in the United States and Canada, says Yellow Wiggle Emma Watkinwho is also one of the group’s producers.
Sponsored by baby product maker Rascal + Friends, the virtual series first launched on July 14 and is a two-week virtual camp experience for toddlers and parents. Recorded live in 20-minute increments (the short length was chosen to reduce screen time for children), the content is streamed on the Wiggles and Rascal + Friends Facebook pages. It stars Watkins and actor Paul Paddick, who plays friendly pirate Captain Feathersword, doing simple crafts, singing and dancing. The live format allows the Wiggles to engage with the audience in real time, as well as get instant feedback on what kids want to see (or, in many cases, what songs they want to hear), adds Watkins.
“Virtual camp allows us to mimic our actual stage shows, but in an activity-based setting where we can be ourselves and the audience can sit back and relax while watching,” says Watkins. “It’s a format we’ve never done before, offering a little different educational content for kids.”
A few episodes later, the series has already received positive feedback from families looking for a fun daytime getaway, she says. The spontaneity of a live format also keeps the Wiggles brand fresh and relevant to audiences, who surely watch a lot of content at home, adds Watkins.
Even after the pandemic is over and the Wiggles can return to the stage, Watkins believes the virtual camp format is one the brand should revisit in the future as it is as close to a live show without a tour as possible. . Being able to see what kids are connecting to in real time also helps the brand plan its future digital content, she says.
“There will always be a need for content like our potty training and social distancing songs, as well as educational entertainment,” says Watkins. “Virtual camps allow us to connect to multiple territories at once in an easy-to-create format that is accessible to the public.”
WNET sets up Camp TV
When the pandemic hit the United States, public broadcaster WNET New York Public Media began hearing from organizations and businesses interested in supporting children stuck at home. Throughout the spring, the pubcaster rolled out new distance learning programs like Let’s learn NYC, where teachers were teaching remotely, and it became clear that children and families needed this type of educational content to fill the school void, says Sandra Shepardexecutive producer of WNET and director of children’s media and education.
Wanting to continue to involve children in the summer, while responding to this demand for educational content, the broadcaster has moved from the sometimes rigid format of Let’s learn NYC to something more playful and informal, similar to what kids would experience at summer camp.
Completed in about six weeks, Camp TV is a 20 x 60 minute series for kids ages 5-10 that focuses on accessible activities that anyone can follow. Content will be repeated throughout the summer months on the channel so kids can tune in to their heart’s content.
WNET tapped Broadway actor Zachary Noah Piser (Dear Evan Hansen, Bad, pictured above) as a virtual summer counselor who will guide children through art, storytelling and movement activities, with each episode revolving around a different theme such as cooking or songs. Pisner completes fun challenges, like seeing how many hats he can stack on his head, which are quick and move the episode forward. Each ep ends with a story reading to end things on a calmer note.
To expand its nationwide reach, the network has incorporated images from content partners across the United States, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York Public Library, and Franklin Institute Science Museum. Having a variety of segments throughout episodes helps change the pace and keep kids engaged, Sheppard says.
The series has already resonated well since its July 13 launch, with kids outside the target age range saying they tuned in because the content is informative, Sheppard says. WNET also launched a digital hub on its website with clips, resources for activities and details about its content partners to make its content more accessible.
And while Camp TV was created in response to the pandemic, Sheppard sees future potential for the format when things return to normal.
“There’s a dearth of scripted, host-directed series that can provide a mind-blowing educational factor and encourage kids to try something new,” she says.
Take a trip to Camp Bonkers
Wind Sun Sky’s trip to virtual camp predates the pandemic. The Canadian prodco behind great dinosaur and Invincible for Amazon Studios was already gearing up to launch a bigger camp-focused brand in 2021 to tap into a demand for educational content that inspires kids to get active and try new things. But when the pandemic hit, the company saw a window to release Camp Bonkers early, Winder says.
Over the span of six weeks, the prodco developed their seed of the idea into a scripted series with three new eps launching each week, along with a social media presence and marketing strategy, Winder explains. He sent green screens and cameras to the actors who would host the show, and asked the directors to work with them virtually to help find the right voice to engage a six- to nine-year-old audience.
The activity-based program encourages children to play games, sing along, prepare food and try new science experiments at home. Wind Sun Sky plans to make 50 30-minute videos by the end of the summer. Each day is a different theme: Make-It Monday (crafts and arts), What-A-World Wednesday (history and science education) and Fun-Time Friday (comedy). The structured experience gives audiences something to come back to throughout the week, Winder says.
The content began rolling out to the Camp Bonkers YouTube channel (445 subscribers) two months ago, and it has garnered over 220,000 views. Some of the most popular videos include Discover the dinosaurs and Craftsmanship through time.
The format recently caught the eye of techco Fingerprint Digital, which picked up the series to launch July 20 through its Kidomi subscription app, Winder says. Toyco Playmonster also visited the Camp Bonkers tent to market its Spirograph toys in an episode, which received a positive response from viewers, she adds.
Now that YouTube content has seen some success, the goal is to work on an app and find broadcasters and production partners to produce new episodes. Winder would like to continue doing new eps in the fall to keep the kids involved.
“We started this for the selfless opportunity to support children and families during what is not an easy time for them,” says Winder. “But at the same time, it’s a fitting way to build our brand earlier, and in a way that families can continue to engage whenever they want organic learning and content that will keep them active at the House.”