Safe Sitter® Goes to Camp

by Judith Erickson

What to do for older campers — the "tween-agers" — too old for a lot of traditional camp activities, too young for others? Three American Camping Association (ACA)-Accredited camps from Indiana found an answer when the Safe Sitter® Program came to their camps in the summer of 2003 for an innovative and unique demonstration project. Safe Sitter® expanded camp program offerings, improved campers' skills, and strengthened their sense of responsibility. The program helped older campers learn to play and work safely with younger ones. Safe Sitter® also connected the camps with their communities — creating safer places for children.

The demonstration project marked a move forward in collaboration with the Safe Sitter® program and the camp community. Earlier conversations with camp personnel had revealed a need to expand program offerings for early adolescents. Camps need new and exciting activities that acknowledge the growing maturity and reliability of young adolescents. Safe Sitter® gave them a chance to get excellent, practical training — teaching them something that they were now old enough to learn. In the process, the program gave many counselor/instructors some skills that they might have lacked. For its part, Safe Sitter® had a need to develop new partnerships at program sites beyond its traditional hospital base. It seemed like a win-win situation.

Why Safe Sitter® Went to Camp

Just as camp is more than a vacation for children, Safe Sitter® is more than a program to help young adolescents make money. Camp and Safe Sitter® programs have the same basic goals — to enhance the health, safety, and welfare of young people and to help them build a sense of self-efficacy — i.e., a sense of personal power to bring about intended results — that will in turn, lead to personal autonomy and positive self-worth. The demonstration project set out to determine, in practical ways, how well Safe Sitter® could fit with the typical camp experience.

ACA also saw potential advantages for counselors and for camps. As Indiana Section President Susie Davis noted at the beginning, "ACA national research shows that the number one concern parents have for their children is safety. I believe the Safe Sitter® program has tremendous capacity to help camp professionals provide personal and group safety training to our campers."

Peg Smith, ACA executive director and also a member of the Safe Sitter® Board of Directors, believes that Safe Sitter® can address some of the new realities being experienced by many American camps:

  • The age range of campers is moving in two directions: younger children and older adolescents. When all parents in the home are in the full-time labor force, they are increasingly turning to camps to provide safe and healthy environments for their children.
  • The experience of many camp counselors is more limited than in the past. Smaller American families have meant that many adolescents and young adults have not received childcare experience in their own homes; many have had no prior experience in their communities.
  • Today's campers present increased behavioral and developmental challenges.

"Safe Sitter® provides opportunities for increasing the skill inventory of current camp staff as well as preparing future counselors through incorporating the program into camp leadership training for older campers — better sitters today . . . better counselors tomorrow," stated Smith.

The Camp Demonstration Project

The Indiana Section of the American Camping Association helped locate two resident camps and one day camp willing to take part in the demonstration project. Staff members from the camps were brought together for Safe Sitter® training just before the 2003 season opened. Instructor training and materials costs were borne by Safe Sitter®. At the outset, it must be noted that decisions to offer the Safe Sitter® program to campers were made after plans for the 2003 season had been made, brochures sent out, and camp staff hired! Nevertheless, eleven staff members from these camps were recruited and trained to deliver the Safe Sitter® curriculum.

Safe Sitter® Curriculum
The Safe Sitter® curriculum is medically accurate in content and developmentally appropriate for eleven to thirteen-year-olds. Two options are available for program delivery: Safe Sitter® Basic, a 6½-hour essential curriculum designed for crowded schedules and usually taught in one day, and the 12-hour expanded Safe Sitter® curriculum that includes more comprehensive coverage and is usually taught in two days (see the Course Content sidebar on page 34). The modular format makes the curriculum flexible, however, and content can be spread over a series of time periods. After completing the program successfully — including passing a written exam — students receive a completion card. To become a Safe Sitter® instructor, an adult must also complete successfully, a day-long workshop conducted by a national trainer. In 2003 instructor training was offered in forty-nine cities around the country.

Why a Program Just for Tweens?
The course targets eleven to thirteen-year-olds, because at this age, young adolescents are routinely sought out as babysitters. "Tween-agers" are often made responsible for the care of younger siblings and begin careers as caregivers for others' children. This is an awesome responsibility — a responsibility of a magnitude that often receives too little emphasis and too little preparation before a young person takes that first babysitting job. Most young adolescents lack the knowledge and experience needed to handle medical, behavioral, or household emergencies that may occur. National statistics show that unintentional injuries lead the causes of death among infants, children, and adolescents. More than 17,500 children younger than age fourteen are treated annually in emergency rooms across the country (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2002). Safe Sitter® students learn to evaluate and respond to emergencies and to recognize and understand when and why they need outside help. Several young lives have been saved by quick-responding Safe Sitters! The curriculum seeks to balance confidence and competence with an awareness of limitations!

It has long been recognized that being away from adult supervision increases the vulnerability of young children, but more recently it has been recognized that the "tween-age" has vulnerabilities of its own. Poised to enter larger worlds beyond their own families, they are particularly open to influences — both good and bad — their enlarged worlds offer. As we know both from research and observation, young adolescents feel a need for acceptance by peers, but in contrast to popular opinion, they also need and continue to seek support from parents and other adults. Their sense of self-worth can be easily undercut by shifting friendships and embarrassment about changing bodies — yet they continue to seek out new experiences, new avenues for developing and improving skills, and broader opportunities to become useful members of their communities. They are, in short, looking for ways to develop a sense of personal autonomy. They have outgrown lemonade stands and want to earn some money of their own. Yet in most states, they are too young to get the permits that would enable them to join the fast food or retail workforce.

What We Learned
During the ACA camp demonstration project, hour-long interviews were conducted with instructors and other camp personnel by Safe Sitter® after the course had been taught at least once. We found the camp staff members selected to be instructors to be unusually well prepared. Most had backgrounds in child development and several had one or more Red Cross and/or other safety certifications. These semi-structured interviews provided much helpful feedback on how the program had worked out. An additional session several weeks after the camp season was over brought most of the entire group together at the ACA national office to give the participants a further chance to compare and reflect on their experiences. Feedback from campers was obtained from questionnaires completed at the end of the session. At the outset — and as could have been predicted — all camp staff involved in delivering the Safe Sitter® program felt that more preparation time could have taken care of most of the problems they encountered!

The Instructors
The camp staff members who taught Safe Sitter® were generally very positive about the program. They found their own training worthwhile and felt that they might become Safe Sitter® instructors outside of camp. At least one of the camp instructors will be giving Safe Sitter® courses in her community in 2004. Given the uncertainties of their lives at this point, however, most did not feel that being a trained Safe Sitter® instructor would be a factor in their decisions to return to camp another year.

Most instructors felt that Safe Sitter® had added value to the camp experience, but one felt it to be too structured to fit well into camp. Instructors also believed that adolescents who had participated in the program gained skills they would put to use later and liked having completion cards to take home. The most popular parts of the program from the instructors' standpoint were the emergency procedures (particularly the Heimlich maneuver) and behavior management.

The Participants
The campers who received Safe Sitter® training were generally enthusiastic. They concurred with the instructors' judgment that the emergency procedures and behavior management modules had been important parts of the training, but added a third: babysitting as a business. Some of their comments included:

  • "[I liked best] learning about first aid & the behavior of a child . . . I really enjoyed it and it was fun."
  • "In the problem behavior management, I learned how to prevent [a] small problem from becoming bigger."
  • "[I learned] how to help solve conflicts between kids."
  • "[I learned how to] keep a look out for dangerous situations."

One youth wrote the following summary in answer to final test questions, "Why do you think a babysitting class is important?" and "What is the most important thing you learned in class?"

I think the babysitting class is helpful because:

  • You can earn money over the summer.
  • My parents will trust me more when I stay home alone with my brother.
  • I can handle a situation better — I'll know what to do.
  • If I become a parent, I'll do better knowing all those safety measures.
  • I think the most important thing is how to rescue a choking child (and breathing problems).

The theme of increased trust from parents when the student was at home alone or with siblings appeared in other comments as did the idea that Safe Sitter® skills would be put to good use when and if they became parents.
Safe Sitter® is a nationwide program. Therefore it is likely that some campers will have completed the training already. Thus, there may need to be some shuffling of camper groups and/or provision of alternative activities to accommodate previous experience or lack of desire to take part in Safe Sitter® training.

Finally, we learned that campers and CITs older than the "tween" age group for which the current Safe Sitter® training was designed found some of the teaching/learning strategies "childish." They were, however, interested in the content, whether or not they were currently babysitting. Comments from those already in CIT programs indicated that the behavior management techniques were already proving useful to them (or, as one participant put it, "I use a lot of behavior things. I think the whole program was important"). Generally, however, a consensus emerged to the effect that teaching strategies will need revision and some content added if Safe Sitter® is to be used to train older adolescents and/or older CITs.

As noted above, staff members who participated at the demonstration project camps were unusually well prepared to pick up and run with the Safe Sitter® training course on very short notice. This would not always be the case. Further, there is usually considerable turnover in any camp staff from one year to another. Having to train new instructors each year would add greatly to the cost of offering the program on a continuing basis. Safe Sitter® instructors may need to be found outside of the regular camp staff. One solution might be to offer the training to health-care or emergency management personnel living in the community where a camp is located. For camps in more remote sites, such a move could also serve to strengthen relationships with the people upon whom the camp depends for help and safety in times of trouble. Other solutions might include providing instructor training to permanent staff members, professional staff members of the sponsoring agency or organization, or others willing to make a commitment to coming to camp for several years.

We learned: (1) that the condensed version of the program, Safe Sitter® Basic, can fit in a typical one- or two-week day camp session (but probably should not be offered all in one day) and (2) that the full Safe Sitter® course can fit in a residential session of two weeks or longer and still leave time for other camp activities. The length of the camp session should be a critical part of the decision as to which version of Safe Sitter® would be offered. In summary, however, all agreed that if the program is to be offered, Safe Sitter® should be described and advertised in precamp promotions so that it can be a factor in parents' and campers' choice of session. The Safe Sitter® program should be explained to all camp staff. Camp staff should be part of the planning for any adjustments in schedule needed to ensure that all Safe Sitter® content is covered.

In addition, we learned about another camp reality — that counselors are called upon to wear more than one hat. To maintain flexibility of program for the campers and to accommodate multiple staff responsibilities, having several trained instructors on hand was a necessary asset at the Goldman Union Camp. This would undoubtedly be true in many camps.

For the demonstration project, costs normally associated with establishing a Safe Sitter® training site were borne by Safe Sitter, Inc. In general, start-up costs include a one-time registration fee of $375; workshop fees for two instructors at $50 each (includes their manuals); manikins (up to$500, if they cannot be borrowed); and miscellaneous training materials and supplies at about $100. Total start-up costs would also vary according to the number of instructors trained, instructor time, and travel costs to attend the Instructor Workshop.

Student manuals cost $15 for each participant. The $15 cost of each student manual is generally included in a course fee set by the sponsoring organization and paid by the participant.

Maintaining continuity of instructors would reduce future costs. We learned that even among the camps included in the demonstration, ability to absorb program costs for another season would vary greatly. Two of the three camps hoped to receive outside funding rather than drawing on already tight operating budgets. Sources of funds that might be tapped for camp programs include corporate sponsors, community foundations, service organizations, professional associations, hospitals and health-care service providers, and individual donors. Many camps already charge special activity fees for horseback riding, canoe trips, and the like, and could charge campers an activity fee to cover the cost of a Safe Sitter® program. More information about funding Safe Sitter® is available on the Web site: and from the national office of Safe Sitter®. The national office will help you work out a budget tailored to your camp's situation.

Is Safe Sitter® Right for Your Camp?

Safe Sitter® meets the goals of positive youth development programs — sometimes known as the "5 Cs" (Roth 2004). Participants gain new skills and knowledge of child development, as well as how to respond to both normal and emergency situations — a decision-making process that results in increased feelings of competence. Their confidence is enhanced as they gain a sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem. Increased knowledge of how to control their own actions in a real role with real responsibility, gains in respect for the youth in their care, and strengthened understanding of the need for strict standards contribute to the development of their own character. Rising feelings of caring and compassion are focused on the important role of the baby-sitter, and finally, as they provide this valuable service, Safe Sitter® provides young adolescents with connections to other families and to their communities. The "5 Cs" represent the same goals that most camps have for their campers.

But, is Safe Sitter® right for your camp? Answers to the following questions may help you decide:

  • Need Does your camp have a need to augment program offerings for eleven to thirteen-year-olds?
  • Scheduling Could you fit Safe Sitter® into a regular camp session? Or would your programming allow for a special Safe Sitter® session?
  • Staffing Is there a member of your camp staff who could take the required Safe Sitter® training? Or is there someone already trained as an instructor who could come to your camp to teach Safe Sitter®?
  • Support Do you have access to support to cover costs of the program — both start-up and on-going (e.g., student manuals)? Or, could camp fees (or canteen accounts) be used to cover the costs of student manuals?
Roth, J.L. (2004). Youth Development Programs. The Prevention Researcher, 11(2), 3-7.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2002). Nonfatal Choking-Related Episodes Among Children —United States, 2001. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Judith Erickson is a member of the Safe Sitter® board of directors. Staff members of Safe Sitter, Inc.'s national headquarters in Indianapolis look forward to talking with you and helping you decide if Safe Sitter® is right for your camp. Contact Safe Sitter, Inc., 5670 Caito Drive, Suite 172, Indianapolis, IN 46226, 800-255-4089,

Originally published in the 2004 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.