Day Camp Staff Supervision Techniques

by Greg Cronin

Effective supervision is one of the most important aspects of quality camp staff experiences. A successful, safe, and activity-filled summer is predicated on the camp’s ability to adequately monitor each step of staff’s growth and development. While day and resident camps are inherently different, the following ideas can be used in either setting.

The basis for a strong supervisory program begins with identifying the overall goals for staff supervision. Depending on the camp, its programs, and its population, the goals will differ widely, but it is imperative that clear goals are set. Some examples of staff supervision goals might be to:

  • Permit counselor autonomy in group management situations.
  • Set an expectation that positive resolution to problems is the norm.
  • Expect that personal accountability is the earmark of the camp staff.

Overall goals will help identify the more specific items and activities to be addressed. An accurate assessment of the current supervisory techniques will pinpoint areas for improvement. Isolating the areas for improvement and addressing them contribute to a strong supervision system that will support the camp’s mission statement while creating better communication within the camp community.

Once the framework is established, opportunities for creative supervision are abundant. Start with the interview process for prospective staff. In addition to the overview of the camp’s program, include how the staff members are supervised and what avenues they have for communication with their supervisor, the director, campers, and parents.

Morning Meetings Help Staff Bond

During orientation, sharing the supervisory structure and expectations are important, but only the beginning. Supervising and training are ongoing processes, and they increase in importance when campers arrive. Try this! Meet with the entire staff each morning. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Each morning just before campers arrive, meet with all the administrative staff, counselors, junior counselors, and representatives from the specialty areas — twenty to thirty minutes works best.

What does this accomplish? It allows the staff to hear about the previous day’s problems and solutions, to be informed of assignments and schedule changes, and to address the special needs of campers. In addition, it provides an opportunity to communicate with supervisors and camp administration, to voice opinions, to be heard and respected, to eat breakfast treats, and to have a chance to bond. More importantly, it provides camp supervisors the chance to monitor how the staff members are doing, observe their interactions, and to help establish commitment to the campers and the program.

The morning meeting should accommodate a block of five to ten minutes for staff members to follow up individually, if necessary. Typically, senior staff administrators can meet with three or four staff members who have the most burning questions. This time is also very useful for speaking with anyone who may have a new assignment for the day or week. A few words from the camp director or a senior supervisor will go a long way to encouraging communication and quality performance from a camp staffer.

Take the “Open Door” to Staff

Many supervisors pride themselves on their open-door policy, but what does that really mean to staff? They must come to the open door. Staff may be reluctant to approach you with a problem or may not even know they need assistance in some respects. So in addition to being available and approachable, make time during the day to informally interact with staffers. Observe and talk with them about the day’s experiences at camp, watch their interaction with the campers, and offer encouragement and praise whenever possible. Purposely talk about some non-camp related topics in an effort to connect at another level. Once common ground and comfortable communication are established, any constructive criticism will be seen as helpful hints rather than personal criticism.

Supervisors who use this technique provide a powerful learning tool to their staff. Staff will find they can capitalize on their relationships with campers to effectively supervise them during the day. Modeling the technique in training sessions and in on-site situations will help staffers successfully deal with camp problems such as undesired behavior. Time is short during a camp day and problems need to be resolved before campers leave. So if the goal is to handle common discipline problems quietly and with the intent of preserving camper integrity as much as possible, begin teaching this method by choosing non-complicated issues like appropriate dress, tone of voice, or the correction of undesired behavior. This type of consistent modeling will pay great dividends as supervision techniques move to the next level — getting staff to supervise each other!

Encourage Information Sharing

Because of the short camp day, be as proactive as possible when dealing with camp issues. Be sure to adequately use the other professionals on the staff to help with supervision and problem solving. Allow younger staff to utilize the many avenues of sharing information and identify the opportunities when other administrative staff may play an important part in the training and supervising process. For example, staff should be encouraged, when appropriate, to cultivate an open dialogue with other supervisory staff, such as a clinic professional or program director. Ideally, this open dialogue will continue beyond the parameters of the stimulating camp day while staff are relaxing, reflecting, and sharing. Supervisors and staff alike should be taught, before camp, to recognize the opportunities to share pertinent information.

Manage by Walking Around

Throughout the course of the day use the age-old technique called MBWA (management by walking around). This technique calls for relaxed observation, positive presence, and enthusiasm from supervisors. The key to MBWA is to time it carefully. Examine the times in the program in which this type of supervision will be most effective. Nothing substitutes for the director being available, visiting various activities, and providing positive constructive feedback to staff. This provides a reference point from which staff will be willing to accept suggestions in the future from other supervisors as well as from the camp director.

End the Day on a Positive Note

End the camp day with a short assembly. It brings the camp staff and campers all together and allows them to see the camp director and other senior supervisors in action. It can be a far more effective supervision tool than any other single daily activity. While announcing group accomplishments, directing group cheers, and praising staff, supervisors can monitor the overall well-being of each group. The combination of the morning meeting and the daily assembly will provide supervisors with a broad overview of staff dynamics.

A final opportunity for observation of staff occurs at the end of the camp day dismissal. During transition time, supervisors can monitor the interactions among campers, parents, and staff. This observation provides additional insight into individual and group dynamics, which may help to pinpoint issues, address concerns, and develop training topics for further discussion. It is critical that the camp director and other supervisors be present to observe during major transition times.

Capitalizing on the opportunities to both observe and nurture staff development in a hectic, but controlled environment is paramount in day camp. Camp can be the perfect place to develop problem-solving skills, hone life skills, and perfect communication and interaction skills. Giving young people a chance to make observations and share ways of resolving situations under the supervision of senior staff is invaluable to their growth and self-esteem. Being creative and providing multiple opportunities for supervision and training also provides the director an opportunity to offer alternative solutions and establish policy in a positive manner.

The experience day camp provides young staff for working closely with campers of all ages will lead to insights that would never be available through a less challenging job. Directors who help staff achieve self-knowledge and appreciation for creative problem-solving will provide a much-needed avenue for a higher level of thinking. Steady, constructive, non-threatening feedback from the camp director, supervisors, and peers will result in a staff with shared visions and strong bonds. The benefit is a creative and happy staff who return year after year for more personal camp experiences.

Greg Cronin is the director of Congressional School Day Camps.


Originally published in the 2001 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.