Kidventure Celebrates 30 Years

Thirty years ago, Mike and Peggy McDonell noticed what he thought was a problem.

“I felt at the time that summer camps – day camps – felt like they were daycare-like in their approach,” he said.

He points to a curriculum that wasn’t particularly challenging to the imagination, and often very young counselors, primarily teens, leading activities. Obviously, he wasn’t including all camps under that umbrella, but he did feel that there had to be an opportunity to create a better experience all around.

That’s how Kidventure was born.

From its beginnings in one location, at Biron Gymnastics on Houston’s west side, the camp has grown into an operation in 31 locations in Houston, Dallas, Austin and Plano, and an overnight camp in the Hill Country. Kidventure’s mission is simple: build the self-esteem and self-worth of every child through every action. Serving children ages 3 through ninth grade in its day camps and ages 8 to 16 in its overnight offerings, Kidventure built its programming to serve the whole child, offering activities in sports, the arts and science discoveries, all designed to engage kids in ways that blend fun with education.

In fact, many of Kidventure’s counselors are teachers or retired teachers, bringing their wealth of classroom experience to Kidventure campers for the summer.

“What better people to make counselors than teachers?” McDonell asks rhetorically. “They love kids, they understand child development.”

For McDonell, it was important that Kidventure offer a rich set of activities that would not only complement things children either had learned or would learn in the classroom, but also things that allowed them build their self-confidence, their team-working skills, their grit and helped foster their imaginations.

CARLEY MCNICHOLAS  has been a Kidventure director and manager for the last two summers. She teachers first grade in Austin’s Eanes ISD.

“I love that Kidventure cultivates a love of camp starting at an early age,” she said. “Each day, campers are greeted by enthusiastic counselors, engaged in a wide variety of activities and have lots of fun. Our model lets us target campers’ interests and allow them to become well-rounded in activities from music to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math).”

“For us,” said McDonell, “it’s all about the outcome. When a kid leaves our camp, do they have a better sense of confidence? Do they know that they can both succeed and fail, which are both great lessons.”

To build the experience he wanted to see, McDonell said he basically “reverse-engineered” sleep-away camp into a day camp setting. Overnight camps provide spaces for children to learn about the world and each other. Away from what’s familiar, they learn how to make friends, get a sense of independence, discover how working together toward a goal helps everyone.

So Kidventure designed a summer curriculum focused on four cornerstones: Creativity, Exploration, Physical Activity, and Reflection. Children might paint or sculpt. They may take on science experiments or a nature walk. They could rock climb or learn archery. They may do yoga activities in small groups. Day campers rotate between these activities every 30-to-45 minutes, each one designed to be age appropriate. Three- to 5-year-olds are Discoverers. Children entering the first through fifth grades are Explorers. Those who are entering 6th through 9th grade are Leads. Each group encounters progressively more challenging activities that help stretch their abilities, and older children take part in weekly field trips.

At Kidventure’s overnight camp in the Texas Hill Country, campers can take part in either a Safari or Quest track. Both are designed for children ages 8 through 12, with Safari running six days and Quest running nine. Older children, between the ages of 13 and 16 take part in Echo, another nine-day program. Like their day camp counterparts, overnight camps explore Kidventure’s four cornerstones through a series of activities designed to enhance outdoor adventures. Think zip lines, kayaking, mazes, hiking and more.

Families interested in Kidventure programming can take part in sessions that vary from a week to the entire summer. McDonell designed the program to allow families as much flexibility as possible and notes that every week offers unique programming.

“In the beginning, I think the approach to summer camps for a lot of parents was, ‘What am I going to do with my kid for the summer while I’m working?’” said McDonell. “Over the decades, however, more and more parents see camp as a way for their children to grow between school years. At Kidventure, that’s always been our approach.”

Another approach McDonell made from Kidventure’s beginning that continues through today is that every day camp location is based on a partnership with a school, church or other organization.

“I was never interested in a leaser-leasee model,” he explained. “Both the host site and Kidventure understand that we are working for the common good of the community.”

That model means that Kidventure sets up shop in locations that might already be familiar to many families. This year, Houston locations include Holy Spirit Episcopal School, Nottingham Forest Club, the West University Recreation Center, St. Rose of Lima Catholic School in Memorial Mark, and more. The number of locations can vary from year to year; McDonell notes that some spots might need the summer to do renovations so they can’t host a camp, but in general, the number of locations grows from year to year.

Bernadette Drabek is the principal of St. Rose of Lima of Catholic School. Kidventure has led St. Rose’s after-school program for 15 years. She said she asked the organization to bring in a summer camp about five years ago. The 2024 session sold out in 30 minutes.

“They are fantastic!” she said. “Having them is one of the best things we’ve ever done. People are really looking for hands-on activities, and Kidventure provides that. I love that they encourage kids to use their imaginations. They’ll provide a base for an activity, and then let kids build off of that. It’s just a wonderful operation.”

As McDonell looks toward the next 30 years, his goal is simple: improve. That means serving more families, expanding locations and continuing to develop a curriculum that helps children be their best selves.

“I really believe that kids who participate in our four cornerstones grow to be not only happy, healthy kids, but happy, healthy adults,” McDonell said. “It’s great to see them push themselves, try new things and succeed at things they never thought possible.”


Kidventure is currently accepting applications for 2024 summer camps. Two new scholarships are available for families meeting certain criteria, the Power Right Scholarship and the James Lawton Scholarship. Both honor long-time Kidventure counselors. More details at kidventure.com.

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