Zombie Survival Camp Reanimates Kids

Cedar Rapids, IA | June 2015 | By National Recreation and Park Association

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For kids across the country, summer vacation is a much-anticipated chance to break free of the classroom, take a family road trip, splash in the community pool and…veg out in front of the TV or video game console. We’ve all heard the statistics and warnings about the amount of “screen time” kids consume — around 7.5 hours per day, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation.

Ann Cejka, a creative and passionate program coordinator at Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department, has found a way to capitalize on a familiar theme in popular movies, TV shows and video games and use it to get kids outside. The Zombie Survival Camp she runs at Ushers Ferry Historic Village has become the agency’s most popular day camp, and it has garnered attention from the local and national media — including a tweet by Gale Anne Hurd, producer of the TV hit “The Walking Dead.” Cejka designed the camp as a way to get kids “out of the house and thinking beyond the video game screen.” She wants to help them see, think, imagine, pretend and play in nature.

Since 2010, 8–12 year olds in the Cedar Rapids area have spent part of their spring and summer breaks preparing for the zombie apocalypse. That’s the hook, anyway. Participants learn orienteering, identify edible wild plants, locate safe drinking water, practice archery and develop emergency plans, among many other skills. Throughout the camp there are zombie attacks, and at the end of the week, an epic water-gun battle between campers and zombies ensues.

Of course, these wilderness survival skills would be useful should zombies attack, but that’s only the beginning. Cejka sees Zombie Survival Camp as an opportunity to get kids outdoors to explore and enjoy nature, build teamwork and leadership skills, and gain confidence in their own abilities. “It’s not about who’s the fastest or who’s the smartest,” she says. Instead, Cejka encourages the kids to find the right person for each job and work as a team to accomplish projects like designing and constructing a shelter or drawing a tactical map of the battlefield.

Courage is another valuable life skill many Zombie Survival Camp participants learn. At the end of a week of camp, one boy was talking with his father and Cejka. “I was afraid the whole time. Am I a coward?” he asked. “No, that’s what bravery is,” Cejka responded. “To go out and do what you have to do even though you are scared.”

One of the keys to Cejka’s success is the fact that she truly engages campers not only in their learning and development, but also in the design of their own camp experiences. Camp participants have a say in the daily activities, including, of course, the creation of a drill cadence as they march into the wilderness: “Zombies are the living dead, Zombies ate my cousin Fred!”

The idea for a Zombie Survival Camp originated from a conversation Cejka had with a participant in another day camp several years ago, who commented that his favorite part of camp was exploring in the woods. The kids that day had been pretending to be zombies, and Cejka was inspired. Later she Googled “zombie camp” and was amazed at all of the resources already out there, mostly focusing on wilderness survival skills. So Cejka began advocating for a Zombie Survival Camp at Ushers Ferry as an opportunity to engage kids with nature. Eventually there was an opening for a new camp, and the first session of Zombie Survival Camp was scheduled for summer 2010.

While Cejka and her small staff design and run all of the camps at Ushers Ferry in-house, she credits a few critical local partners who help to make Zombie Survival Camp a success. Volunteers from Green Iowa AmeriCorps played a role in the initial design of the program’s curriculum, and each year, representatives of the Cedar Rapids Police and Fire Departments lead sessions with campers on first aid and disaster preparedness. Cejka hopes to develop more community partnerships down the road.

The truest testament to the program’s success: Many kids return to Zombie Survival Camp year after year. So what happens when kids age out of Zombie Survival Camp at 13? They come back to camp anyway. As the living dead.