The Power of Camp: Camp Changes Lives in Positive Ways

by Jessica Coleman

Don't think that these things just happen — campers don't grow and mature passively; what they get from their camp experiences depends on you.

I'll let you in on a secret. I went to camp as a child, all kinds of camps, and I never really understood what I got out of it until I worked as a counselor one summer when I was in college. It was then that I finally realized what I had learned as a camper — because of what I saw my campers learn.

At camp, the children in our group — who became "my kids" — had amazing, positive life changes. Little, blond-haired, freckle-faced Will, who was diagnosed with a learning disability and put in "special" classes at school, made new friends at camp who treated him just like everyone else — and, wow, did his self-confidence grow! And Denise, whose overwhelming energy had gotten her in trouble at home and school, discovered that her enthusiasm helped her to be a great leader within the group. And Tim's fearlessness — seen as too risky on a school play ground — at camp made him a hero to the other boys as they watched him fly down the zipline. From his actions, they were encouraged to try something they had previously thought of as "too scary" and the look on each of their faces as they were unharnessed: priceless — they had learned that they could do things they didn't even think were possible.

If you've worked at camp before, you probably have a half dozen stories of your own just like this. And if you've never worked at camp, you'll soon see what I mean. Besides anecdotal evidence, there's been academic research — real studies — on the proven benefits that a quality camp experience provides: Camp Gives Kids a World of Good® (American Camp Association and Philliber Research Associates 2004).

How Can I Change My Campers' Lives?

At camp, learning happens on two levels. There are basic skills that campers know they are learning through daily activities: skills like how to serve a tennis ball, how to do the backstroke, and how to make a lanyard. And then there are more advanced skills — ones campers don't necessarily recognize, but which will last them a lifetime: emotional and social skills like how to work as part of a team, how to cope with adversity, and how to assess risks and analyze possible outcomes.

Camp teaches on two levels:

  • Activity Skills (basic) – e.g.: pitching, swimming, drawing, acting, climbing
  • Life Skills (advanced) – e.g.: compassion, reason, patience, creativity, self-reliance

So, just how do campers learn these two levels of skills?

Instruction
If you were hired to teach an activity at camp, this probably seems like a no-brainer. Of course you are there to instruct! However, remember, at camp, everyone plays a role in teaching campers — and you're teaching on two different levels.

For example, when coaching soccer, consider both the activity skills that you want campers to learn — dribbling, passing, positioning — and the lifelong skills that can be incorporated — teamwork, sharing of the spotlight, cooperation, and so on. This dual-level education can be extrapolated to any activity in camp — and beyond!

And, if you're not teaching an activity, remember that you still have the responsibility (and the opportunity) to work with your campers on lifelong skills.

Role Modeling
Campers are like sponges; they'll absorb whatever is around them. You can create a more pleasant summer for everyone by surrounding your campers with positive influences — namely you. Your campers will look up to you and want to be like you, so always be aware of what you are doing and saying, as your campers will be watching.

Be fair. Don't gossip about fellow staff members or about campers. And try to remain positive. Make smart choices, not because they are easier or because you might otherwise be caught and get into trouble, but because they are simply the right things to do. Be who you want your campers to be.

Is This Really My Job?

Well, what's your job at camp?

Before you answer with a list of duties like "teach boating"; "supervise campers"; "make activities fun"; "keep campers safe"; "wear silly costumes"; or "be a good role model" — let me summarize it for you with one phrase: no matter the position you were hired for, your job is to get campers to want to come back to camp. Now, that probably doesn't sound as cool as you had hoped, and it's definitely not glamorous, but it's the barebones truth — without campers, there is no camp. And camp is really important! As we have already seen, camp helps children grow in a variety of positive and healthy ways that can affect them throughout their lives (see the sidebar Instructing Campers — Intentionality).

So, how can you do this job of yours well? What can you do to persuade your campers to come back again next year? What magic spell can you cast that will make your campers — and your boss — love you? First, you have to know what the universal motivation is that brings campers back to camp; there is one thing that gets kids to come back year after year. Think it's a great variety of activities? It's not. What about independence or being able to create one's own schedule? Nope. Is it the silly evening programs? Uh-uh. How about the facilities and the fine-dining experiences? Still no. Is it the enthusiastic and caring counselors? Getting closer . . . Well, it must be the fun then, right? After all, that's what camp is really all about!

Surprisingly, it's not . . . fun is not the top reason why campers come back to camp.

While all of the above are important aspects of camp, the most influential facet of their camp experience — the one thing that truly causes campers to return to camp — is friends (Forster 2009).

What Does This Mean for Me?

To do a really great job this summer — and to give your campers the best memories of their lives — help your campers make lasting connections, both with fellow campers and with staff members. Ensuring that all of your campers make and keep friends is the single most important action you can take this summer.

How do you do it?

As anyone who has gone away to college or who has moved to a new town knows, meeting new people and trying to become their friend can be emotionally taxing. This is also true for your campers, especially if they have never been to camp before. You can make this process easier by creating a safe environment at camp — one that feels safe both physically and emotionally.

Create a Safe Environment
To make a place where campers can feel comfortable reaching out to new people:

  • Get to know your campers. On an individual level, ask questions about things that they like, both at camp and at home, and about their interests and concerns. Tell them about your life, too (as appropriate). This sharing of information helps each camper learn to trust you, and it's good practice for making new friends.
  • Show that you care about them. Support and encourage your campers. Praise them. Be fair. And don't have a favorite camper — or better yet, find a way to make every camper feel like your favorite.
  • Be a good role model. Do the right thing — always. Mentor (help/advise/guide) your campers to do the same.
  • Provide boundaries. When you have — and enforce — rules that protect them, campers know that you care about them and that you will work to keep them safe.
  • Put a stop to bullying immediately. Bullies sometimes look like leaders — at least to adults. However, they lack empathy, they exclude, and they abuse an imbalance of power (e.g., in strength, popularity, age, size, or money). Know that bullying occurs when you're not looking; you'll need to figure out other ways to determine if it's happening. Realize that both bullies and their victims need your help.
  • Have fun! Create and implement activities and events for your group only: a daily pow-wow, evening lullabies, a costume theme day, or a rest-hour talent show or lip-sync contest (with prizes!). Make your campers feel special; ask them what they want to do.
  • Help others, especially your fellow counselors. Be aware that not everyone will ask for help when they need it, so you may need to be proactive. (And don't just offer to help; actually do it!) By helping others, you show campers that this is a place where people are supported.

Creating a safe camp environment is of the utmost importance. Only when campers are truly comfortable — only when they feel safe — will they be willing to step outside their comfort zones and try things that are scary or difficult, like making new friends.

Teach Campers How to Make Friends
Since many campers will arrive literally not knowing how to make a new friend, it's helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve. Start each new session by playing lots of icebreakers and name games. Help campers learn the names of the people in their group as well as some interesting personal facts (like favorite color, type and name of pet(s), number of siblings, top three activities they are most looking forward to at camp, and so on). Over the next few days, pair campers up for different activities, and rotate the pairs so that each camper spends time with every other camper. Begin this right away, before your kids have a chance to decide who's "cool" or who's "mean."

When you have one camper who just doesn't seem to "click" with anyone, sit down with her/him and find out what's going on. There are a lot of reasons why one camper may not be making friends as quickly as others. Brainstorm with the camper about what else could be tried in order to make a new friend; for example, maybe the child can approach another camper and ask what it is that they like about camp. Or maybe s/he can join in an activity that's not a favorite, rather than sitting it out. If you and the camper have trouble coming up with ideas, ask your supervisor or director for help; that's what they are there for!

Help Campers Keep Their Friends
If you've ever been around a bunch of tenyear- old girls, you know that they make and drop friends like it's a race; best friends from five minutes ago may no longer be speaking with each other, and when you ask about it, you get the dreaded, "Her? I hate her!" Since connections are so important to the camp experience, it's imperative that you help your campers learn how to keep the friendships that they've worked so hard to build.

Two core skills for keeping friends are apologies and conflict resolution. Model healthy apologies by saying you're sorry whenever you get the chance, and, perhaps even more importantly, show campers how to accept an apology graciously and sincerely from someone else. If a camper feels an apology is owed, encourage him or her to ask for one appropriately.

Try to avoid forcing campers to apologize, especially with a stilted handshake; what you want is a sincere expression of regret. Be careful not to create a situation with two campers who not only don't get along but are now also mad at you for not understanding. Instead, work with your campers to figure out an appropriate response, something that can at least begin the mending of their relationship. This is conflict resolution (see the sidebar).

Expand Your Skills
Conflict resolution works for friendship disputes as well as for issues that arise between other campers, between staff members, and between campers and counselors. It can also be effective with homesickness and with acts of misbehavior. Have campers suggest potential solutions or appropriate consequences. How can they help themselves feel better? How can they make up for what they've done?

When you've gotten really good at working with campers one-on-one, try facilitating discussions in small groups. Facilitating, or leading from within, is a useful skill that you can use to help a larger number of campers solve difficult group dynamics. Such conversations can be used in reaction to a specific negative incident or series of annoying behaviors or in preparation for positively opening up communication within the group. Topics might include relationships, what-to-do-if . . . situations, planning a special event, or just about anything else you or your campers want to talk about. Feel free to ask your supervisor for ideas and support, too.

Beyond Just a Summer Job

Know that what you are doing this summer is important; what children learn at camp will affect them throughout their whole lives. You are teaching your campers not only how to make friends and how to keep them but also all the skills that go along with that: compassion, teamwork, cooperation, communication, sharing, perseverance, problem-solving, leadership, listening, taking responsibility, being accountable, decision-making, considering others, and more! Because of you, your campers will become better people. They will grow into contributing adults. They will impact and influence others in a more positive way. They will be better community members and better leaders. Because of you, the world will be different.

You make the difference to each child this summer.

You are the power of camp.

Author's note: With special thanks to Bob Ditter, Michael Brandwein, Chris Thurber, Lisa Ginsburg, Scott Arizala, Jay Frankel, and Jeff Leiken — my knowledge of staff training and camper development would not be as complete without you.

Instructing Campers — Intentionality
Whether you are running a camp activity or you are a group counselor or you have some other role in camp, the key to instructing campers — in whatever you want them to learn — is in being intentional. Do it on purpose. Plan for it. And, make it fun whenever possible; that's a key element to the camp experience, for everyone.

When teaching higher-level skills, focus on your intent: What is it that you want your campers to learn? Name it; tell campers what they can call that behavior, e.g., diligence, persistence, leading, compromising, etc. When you see a camper exhibiting one of those advanced skills that you want to see more of, praise them — do so immediately and be specific about what you saw (they can't do it again if they don't know what it is that you liked); remember to use the name of the behavior so they learn what it is.

Likewise, if you don't like something a camper is doing, tell them so — and then help them replace that action with a new, better one. (This can be as simple as your changing "Don't run!" to "Please walk.") Keep in mind that it may take time for campers to unlearn an old behavior and to begin substituting the more positive alternative; support your campers through this process.

In addition, as your piano teacher probably always told you, "Practice. Practice. Practice." With your campers, actually rehearse the skills that you want them to have. For example, if you want your campers to learn patience, create scenarios throughout your time together that cause your campers to have to be patient — and to learn how to do so; when you arrive early for an activity, discuss how you will have to be patient until the instructor is ready for your group, brainstorm ideas for what to do while you are all waiting, then try one together. Your campers will learn patience as well as problem solving, and you will all have a lot more fun!

Teach campers what you want them to learn.

  • Praise what you like. Be immediate and specific; name it.
  • Present alternatives for what you don't like. Replace it with a better behavior.
  • Provide opportunities to practice what it is that you want your campers to do.
 

Conflict Resolution
Start by asking questions (to each camper involved, separately) like, "What's going on?" and "Why do you think that happened?" Really listen to the answers. What occurred behind the actions that you didn't see or know about? Be an investigator; you may be surprised by what you learn!

After you have a good idea of what caused the situation, help each camper come up with their own ideas of what to do in response. How could they avoid a similar issue next time? What can they do now to make it better? What do they think the other person could do that would help their situation? If campers can't think of anything (and often, they won't), brainstorm ideas with them; don't shoot down any suggestions during this phase. Try to be supportive. If you can't think of any ideas either, admit that, and ask your supervisor for input.

Once you have a few choices of what the camper could do, talk through the likely outcome of each. Help your campers to process their ideas, to problem solve, to look forward and picture what will probably happen if they take that action. This is a good time to use your wisdom of the world to (a) show campers why crazy solutions are unlikely to work (but don't call them "crazy" or "silly"!) and to (b) help them temper any suggestions that are way beyond what is necessary or appropriate. The hardest part of this step is to not make the choice for them; each camper needs to choose what he or she thinks will work best for the situation.

Then, try one. Encourage the camper to implement the response that he or she has chosen. You might need to assist with this (as you are comfortable), to morally support your camper, or simply to remind him/ her that it needs doing. Follow up with your camper on how that action went. Assess the pros and cons of it (What went well? What didn't?), and determine if anything needs to be changed before trying something like that again. In addition, if the action didn't work at all, help the camper figure out what other possible solutions might have worked better, and support him/her in trying one of those next.

References
American Camp Association and Philliber Research Associates. (2004). Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience. Forster, G. (2009). What Counts the Most, www. ACAcamps.org/youngpros, accessed February 2, 2009.

Jessica Coleman is a jack-of-all-trades camp professional with experience in all aspects of camp administration. Jessica is active with the American Camp Association on the national and local levels and is proud to be an ACA Standards Visitor. She recently co-authored her first book for camps: Crisis Communications — Weathering the Storm: A Handbook for Camps and Other Youth Programs.

Originally published in the 2009 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

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