Where Camp Happens

Scott Arizala

When was the first time you really felt camp? Whether you are a longtime camp person or this is your f irst summer, chances are that the answer to that question is (or will be) intangible, buried in a moment — something you just can’t quite explain. I like to ask the question this way because camp is a feeling. It is so much more than a collection of activities, schedules, lakes, and songs. Camp is an experience — one that you will deliver to many campers this summer.

Camp is not about the stuff. It is about the culture, relationships, connections, and learning. Camp is about being a part of a community and something bigger than yourself. Camp is a huge event and one of the most meaningful in many people’s lives. It is interesting to note, then, that camp happens in the smallest places.

As camp staff, you need to know that camp happens in between all the activities, underneath the traditions and routine, behind the songs and the program. Camp happens in the smiles and high fives and can be as quick as a breath. This is where you need to focus your time and energy. Of course, you need to run the activities, be on time to the meals, and be responsible — everything your camp director emphasizes during training. All of this is important because this is how camp operates from day to day. If your focus is on delivering the best camp experience possible to all the kids coming to camp, then you also need to spend time focusing on the small moments.

Seeing What’s Right in Front of You

In your field of vision, what you focus on is a matter of your intention or concentration. There is a lot going on, so our brains force us to focus in a conscious way. If we don’t see something, it is often because we are not looking — not because it isn’t there. (See sidebar below for a fun resource related to this.)

You need to learn how to focus on what is important. The first step to doing this efficiently is to be in the moment and to concentrate on the present. As adults, we get trapped in the past or the future. Take stock of where you spend your mental energy. Most of the time it is in reviewing, reliving, and otherwise fretting over what has already happened, or being anxious, wondering, and worrying about what will happen next. Although this may be functional and necessary to being a productive member of the team at camp (i.e. learning from mistakes we make or anticipating the next activity so you can be prepared), it can be a trap when it steals us away from what is going on right in front of us. It makes us look away mentally and blinds us from the experience of now. We must be able to learn from the past, prepare for the future, and experience the now.

The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (2011) describes how sometimes we do not see what is really there. Their coinciding video, The Monkey Business Illusion, is a great illustration of this fact. I encourage you to watch this short video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY. I won’t ruin the experience for you, but I will say that they prove there are several very obvious things you just don’t see unless you are looking.

 

Active Listening

There is a good reason why we spend so much time on listening during staff training. It is hard to listen to others, especially kids. It can be difficult to understand the powerful impact you can make just by hanging on and following a camper’s train of thought. My daughter is four years old, and she teaches me this lesson every day. It may be just her development, but I think she knows what I need to be a better father and camp counselor. She is at the stage where she wants to play independently, but she isn’t very confident in her skills to do so. She asks me to rearrange her dollhouse or have a tea party with her all the time. There is this precarious balance she strikes between wanting to lead the game or activity and asking me to do it. For example, when I try to put the refrigerator actually in the kitchen of the dollhouse, she scolds me for not doing it right. When she takes the lead and I zone out, she scolds me for not knowing what to do next. Of course, these aren’t the most fascinating games for me, nor would they be my choice, so it is already hard for me to mentally engage. The only thing I can do to fully satisfy her is to pay really close attention and listen carefully.

For most of you, your campers will be older than four, but the need to pay close attention and listen carefully doesn’t go away. It just becomes more nuanced and subtle, which is basically harder. So you have to practice.

Noticing

What do you notice? Left without a prompt, most people notice what they don’t like and what stands out. It is somehow easier for our brains to focus on the thing that stands out. My son is not even one year old yet, and he does this all the time. He will notice the smallest leaf or the tiniest sequin on the rug almost immediately after you put him down. He notices what his sister is playing with and desperately does not want him to have, and he’ll make a beeline for it. He will actually army crawl through a sea of toys to get the things that are standing out (if only because his sister is squawking about him not getting them).

This is important for you to understand because this tendency just gets stronger with age. As a camp counselor, you are way more likely to notice negative camper behavior than positive. It sticks out, it is disruptive, and you generally don’t like it. You have to retrain your brain to notice the small, positive, and wonderful things campers are doing and then engage those campers because of it.

Try this out next time you are with a bunch of campers. Ask yourself, “How can I make this situation better?” Don’t wait until you have seen something wrong; ask it all the time. When you do, you’ll start to notice things that you just didn’t see before.

Is a camper sitting off to the side? Is a group about to transition? Is a camper so engrossed that he or she didn’t even hear the next direction? Asking the above question really makes you notice the small things. When you engage in these moments, you are being present and aware — and you are taking huge leaps toward actually delivering camp.

Bring It into Focus

Now that you know what you are looking for, you need to work to bring it into focus. Start by thinking about all the things that pull your focus away and get rid of them to the best of your ability. Use the following strategies to help you focus on your campers in the present moment this summer.

Mental Weeding

It would be too easy to blame others for the noise that often gets in our way of paying attention. It is true that some of your coworkers may be unreliable at activities, irresponsible with their duties, unresponsive to the schedule, and disrespectful to you. So in order to be prepared to handle some of those kinds of challenges, we need to work on the challenges we invite or cause ourselves.

There are some pretty obvious things we need to do: turn off our mp3 players, put away our phones, and manage our social networks later. And harder yet, we must be emotionally honest about what preoccupies us and either deal with it and let it go, or let it go until there is a more appropriate time to deal with it. We stew a lot, and that is the mental equivalent to weeds choking out the plant we are trying to cultivate.

Time Management

There is also a time management aspect of this that is very important. Taking some relatively small yet important steps will free you from this trap.

Plan Ahead

The best camp counselors are prepared for a lot of different scenarios. Of course, we plan extra projects at arts and crafts or a few more games at sports and rec, but I also want you to plan ahead for downtime, transitions, waiting times during activities, meal times, before bedtime, rest hour, walking to and from activities, waiting for pick up or others to be dropped off, and other times we typically don’t see as “program” time. Besides making sure your backpack is full of great activities and games, these are the times you should make a point of checking in with individual campers in your group. Ask each camper two or three questions during this time, and do your best to stay in the moment and follow along.

Ask for Help

Being great at time management means that you know when to ask for help. Asking for help spreads the work load around and can free up the mental time and space for you to be more intentional with the camper who is right in front of you. Asking for help isn’t always about not knowing what to do; often it is about being better at what you are actually doing. We are all shy about asking for help, especially at camp. There is a little four-year-old kid in all of us that desperately wants to do it ourselves just to prove we can, even if we know it would be better with help. This is a skill that needs practice. Try asking for help when you are doing something at which you are really competent and confident. Inviting help in those moments gives you practice and at the same time permits you to feel successful and positive about it. That way, when you need help because you are having a hard time with something, it is less of a blow to your ego.

Be Organized

This is not everyone’s strength, I know. However, being organized in this context is really about making sure that you methodically connect with every camper throughout the day. It can be as simple as keeping a list. Be careful where you spend your time. It is easy to get caught in the “favorites” trap when it comes to spending informal time with campers. Think about the in-between times I listed earlier. Can you ask the first question to a different camper at the beginning of each transition? Can you say goodnight to the campers in a different order each night? Can you sit next to different kids at each meal? When you are more thoughtful and organized with your time, it is easier to connect with individual kids and bring their experience into focus.

Camp Happens

Some of my strongest memories of growing up at camp were the times we used to spend on the brown couch — a beat-up, old couch that used to be on the dining hall porch. The memories I have aren’t of particularly deep conversations or poignant learning experiences; they are of feeling the community around me, of simply being. When I close my eyes, I can see the people around me on the brown couch, and some of them are counselors. They took the time to notice and to focus on the experience that was happening right in front of them and created a lasting and powerful set of memories for me.

When you take the time to notice and see what is in front of you and expend the energy necessary to bring it into focus, you make camp happen. These skills can enhance the activities, games, and programs that you have; they can bring clarity and depth to the traditions and routines you have; and most importantly, they can highlight the smallest moments at camp. Those are the moments we remember, and those are the moments we feel — and that is where camp happens.

 

Discussion Questions

  • What are the best ways to notice all the small things happening around you?
  • Discuss five active-listening strategies not listed in the article.
  • What are some strategies for dealing with our social lives at appropriate times at camp?

 

Scott is a trainer and consultant in summer camp. He is the director of Dragonfly Forest, a camp for kids with serious illnesses, and Camp Kesem, a national organization for kids whose parents have cancer. He is also the author of S’more Than Camp. Contact the author at scott@thecampcounselor.com.

Originally published in the 2013 May/June Camping Magazine.

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