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Because I Worked at Camp
Now that the summer has come to a close, camp directors are inevitably thinking about the staff they want to invite back next season. If we as directors have created a strong camp community, one that staff find rewarding and enjoyable, this should be an easy process, right? However, we all know this is not necessarily the case when put into the context of the current job and educational environment, which places a heavy emphasis on out-of-classroom learning experiences for college students.
There is a considerable amount of pressure for college and university students to pad their resumes with learning experiences and development opportunities in order to set themselves apart from the masses of fellow graduates. Our summer camp staff who are college students are hearing messages from parents, friends, and educators telling them, “It’s time for an intern-ship to prepare you for the real world,” or “Why don’t you get a real job this summer instead of playing with kids at summer camp?” Because of these additional pressures, we need to step up our work when it comes to understanding the benefits of the camp experience for staff, being intentional to enhance opportunities for learning specific skills, and helping staff articulate that growth on resumes and in job interviews.
We have become well versed in discussing the growth and development opportunities that camp offers our campers. The Because of Camp . . .® campaign is an excellent message that is easy to recite and remember. For those not familiar, this is a series of videos and marketing pieces with well- known individuals and celebrities talking about their personal accomplishments they can attribute to their experience as a camper. Camp directors across the country began using this campaign in order to “sell” the camp experience to their potential campers.
However, we as directors need to begin our own campaign titled “Because I Worked at Camp . . .” to articulate the positive benefits of working at camp to our staff. On a certain level, most camp directors believe there is something to be gained from working at camp. Even if it is not labeled, most probably feel those benefits are related to the 21st-century skills that we have been hearing about at camp conferences and in articles in this magazine. Some of these 21st-century skills include teamwork, communication, and problem solving. If directors don’t grab on to these 21st-century skills and connect them directly to the experience of working at camp, other industries will, and already are.
Employers are recognizing that today’s graduating college seniors are not entering the workforce with many of these essential 21st-century skills. The Association of American Colleges and Universities released a study of employers that indicated colleges and universities must focus on specific learning outcomes for graduating students. Employers said that graduates were coming out of college unprepared for today’s work environment and colleges and universities needed to focus on life skills such as communication, critical thinking, problem solving, ethical decision making, and teamwork (Hart Research Associates, 2010). Another survey noted that colleges need to do a better job in providing the right opportunities for students to develop their oral communication skills, collaborative skills, and experiences that enhance their creativity.
This gap in learning at the college and university level is a huge opportunity on which camps can capitalize. Not only do we as camp directors intrinsically know that our staff are gaining these valuable skills at camp, we have seen through research and assessments that the camp experience can play a role in developing these skills among seasonal staff members.
Working in the camp environment requires a strong commitment to working as a team. We know that we cannot create the camp experience alone. Co-counselors, program instructors, and administrative staff all rely on one another to be successful in their positions. Research has shown that staff identify teamwork as a key component of their experience. In one study, researchers concluded that camp was a powerful agent for change in young staff, as it gave them the opportunity to work with a diverse group of people. The researchers stated that focusing on a common goal had the potential to lead to the greatest change among staff (Garst & Johnson, 2003).
Furthermore, staff members have a strong self-awareness about the positive benefits working at camp has on their ability to work as a team and develop group cohesion. Staff have identified these skills as essential in their professional development and recognize that these essential skills are transferrable to many careers beyond camp (Bialeschki, Henderson, & Dahowski, 1998).
Working with youth requires staff to be able to communicate effectively in a number of different situations. Whether it is a warm welcome on the first day of camp to nervous campers and parents, setting group agreements to establish expectations, teaching a group of campers safety commands on the archery range, leading a song at campfire, or having a one-on-one conversation with a coworker, we need to effectively communicate with the words we say, how we say them, and when we say them. In assessments, camp staff identified interpersonal skills and communication as an important aspect of their camp experience (Bialeschki, Henderson, & Dahowski, 1998).
These staff members reported that respect and cohesion among the group was learned throughout their experience, especially as they relied on one another to achieve a common goal. In addition, staff identified these interpersonal skills as having a positive carryover into future careers — reporting that anyone working with others would benefit from skills learned during their experience working at camp. In a study that explored emotional intelligence through pre- and post-camp experiences, researchers reported a strong increase in skills related to interpersonal relationships (Jacobs, 2004). These interpersonal relationship skills are essential in developing attitudes about teamwork and responsibility to the groups we work with. Other studies have shown that staff recognize that they gained skills in communication as a result of camp (Dworken, 2004).
In today’s rapidly changing society, adapting to change and solving problems are becoming key skills in the workforce. Being able to solve issues with limited resources, balancing a diverse work team, and coping with multiple pressures are critical to success across multiple job industries. Problem solving is also integral to the success of seasonal staff members at camp. Staff may find themselves in situations in which they need to adapt an activity to fit the needs of their group, lead a program that does not have all the necessary supplies available, or help campers negotiate their differences in order to accomplish a task as a group. Not only do camp directors see problem solving in action among their staff, researchers have also found that staff experience an increase in their ability to solve problems as a result of working at camp.
Through in-depth interviews of residential camp staff focused on transformative learning, researchers indicated increases in these skills through post-experience reflections. Furthermore, these increases were not just reported after the first year of work, but veteran staff members showed an increase in problem-solving skills through pre- and post-summer assessments, indicating that change continues even after multiple years at camp (Garst & Johnson, 2003).
Critical Professional Skills
From the research previously cited, we know that camp staff will learn critical professional skills through their experience working at camp. Problem solving, communication, and collaboration are parts of their job description, and they do those things constantly throughout every camp day. However, we can enhance their learning of these skills, and their applicability to their future careers, by intentionally creating opportunities for them to practice and by thoughtfully challenging them to grow in these areas. Think about this in the context of the way we teach our campers: Youth learn character skills like teamwork, independence, and more through the inherent “magic” of the camp experience, but abundant research has shown that their attainment of these attributes soars when camps are intentional and explicit in their teaching of character / noncognitive skills development. If we address staff learning in the same way, the outcomes will increase similarly.
Name the Behavior
With any intended outcome, learners achieve more (both in objective measurements and in their self-reported feelings of success) when they have the vocabulary to describe what they learn. We can use this in our praise and supervision of camp staff. Rather than complimenting a staff person by simply saying, “Great job helping Sophie with her homesickness,” we can praise them for the professional skills they’ve used: “You showed great active listening in helping Jack with his homesickness. You asked open questions to get to the root of his problem and empathized with his needs to find a good solution. Those are awesome communication skills!” Reinforce the named behavior by applying it to other areas of camp (or outside of camp life, even): “In what other situations might those communication techniques come in handy?”
Model Ethical Decision Making
As camp directors, some of the toughest decisions we have to face are generated by parents. We often work with the parent to find a solution, and then we ask a staff member (the counselor of that parent’s child) to implement the decision we’ve made. Bring staff into the decision-making process sooner and involve them. Ask for their input on the problem so they can see the importance of gathering data for well-informed decision making. Challenge them to brainstorm possible solutions with you to pull back the curtain on the sometimes-mysterious mind of the camp director. You can even simply have them sit next to you as you talk to the parent so they can pick up positive decision-making vocabulary (this helps teach communication skills, too).
Challenge Staff to Be Creative
It’s often easier and less stressful for camp directors to plan the entire camp program before summer begins (how else would we spend our offseason?), but we can teach our staff responsible creativity by building in opportunities for them to add to the program. This isn’t a free-for-all, though. In their later careers, our staff will be given a project, with a specific end goal, and will need to think creatively and innovate to achieve it. We can easily create the same structure for them to practice at camp. Assign individual or small groups of staff a piece of the program. Have them define a goal or objective that they can achieve through the camp program (e.g., “Teach campers teamwork through a Top Chef-style cooking competition”), and work with them to create a step-by-step plan for teaching the activity, leading the special event, or reaching whatever objective they’ve determined. You can even give them a budget for supplies, as working within a budget is a valuable professional skill.
As staff get more practice planning, they’ll need less of your facilitation, but it’s important to follow up to ensure that learning happens. Did they achieve their intended goal? What unexpected problems occurred that they could’ve accounted for in planning? What other resources could they access to make their activity even more successful? Remember that even less-successful programs can often provide valuable opportunities for staff to grow in their creative planning skills.
Opportunities for Enhanced Collaboration
When companies like Google and Pixar put foosball tables in their conference rooms or provide gourmet lunches in their cafeterias, it’s not because it demonstrates their appreciation for their employees. They do these things to keep their employees churning among one another, fostering new relationships, and sparking innovations. Give your staff opportunities to collaborate in new combinations throughout the summer — and point out knowledge, skills, and expertise among the staff so they can work creatively beyond their assigned cabin or program area. You may have an ecologically minded cabin counselor who can work with the food service staff to create a new composting initiative, for instance. This can also be a way for staff to access problem-solving resources in a way that’s less formal than asking the camp director for help. Perhaps your sailing counselor is getting his master’s in social work and can help a counselor find new strategies for dealing with a challenging camper.
The Value of Building Professional Skills
Admittedly, it is often much easier for camp directors to solve problems, plan programs, and offer quick bits of praise to our staff than to incorporate these things as inten-tional skill-building activities. We trust our own judgment, and we know that the job will be done correctly if we do it ourselves. However, the value of building the profes-sional skills of our staff is manifold. It helps prepare them for future careers in any industry, which is a tangible benefit that helps us recruit the best staff and keep them coming back for multiple summers. Many of our staff love to talk about the things they’ve learned through working at camp and how those skills have helped them get hired and succeed in a wide variety of seem-ingly unrelated fields. If we want summer camp jobs to remain relevant and viable, we must continue teaching our staff, listening to how they apply those lessons beyond camp, and sharing that message beyond the camp community.
Author’s Note: The title of this article, “Because I Worked at Camp,” emerged from a conversa-tion the authors had with John Chakan, camp director at Plantation Farm Camp. Thank you to John for your creativity. John can be reached at email@example.com.
Bialeschki, D.M., Henderson, K.A., & Dahowski, K. (1998). Camp gives staff a world of good. Camping Magazine, 71, 27-37.
Dworken, B.S. (2004). The unique contributions and impacts of the camp staff experience. American Camp Association Camp Research Symposium.
Garst, B., & Johnson, J. (2003). Impacts of residential camp counseling on adolescent leadership skill development. American Camp Association Camp Research Symposium.
Hart Research Associates. (2010). Raising the bar: Employers’ views on college learning in the wake of the economic downturn: A survey among employers. The Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Jacobs, J. (2004). The effects of summer camp employment on emotional intelligence. American Camp Association Camp Research Symposium.
Andy Kimmelman is the camp director at Tumbleweed Day Camp in Los Angeles, California. Contact Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff Heiser is the senior assistant director of the University of California, Davis Campus Rec and Unions Youth Programs. Contact Jeff at email@example.com.
Originally published in the 2013 September/October Camping Magazine.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Heiser, Campus Recreation and Unions, Youth Programs, UC Davis.