Creating Your Ideal Camp Culture

by Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., and Joseph Riggio

There are CAMPS that DO the most simple things in the most extraordinary ways — CAMPS that totally commit themselves to fulfilling their “MISSION.”

These camps take incredibly precise steps to ensure each aspect of their camp is aligned with this mission and is indeed serving it — from the songs they sing, to the ways they acknowledge kitchen staff, to the way they handle conflicts. It is an incredible experience to be in these camps’ cultures.

At the same time, there are camps who have one stated mission but who fail to live up to it. Of course, there are variations on the continuum in between the two, yet some are much more exaggerated than others. Think of a teacher who describes her process when she goes to work at a new school. “The first day I listen to the principal spell out the ideals for how the school operates. Then I go to the teachers’ lounge to find out the truth!” There are indeed parallels to be drawn with what can go on within the culture of a camp, as well.Culture is evident in the manifestation of the underlying attitude and ways to which the people within it subscribe. Where the people subscribe to being serious — the culture will be. Where the people subscribe to being playful — the culture will be. Likewise, where people subscribe to being sarcastic or critical — the culture will be. When the patterns have established themselves enough through time, the culture begins to take on a life of its own.

While it is true that the culture of a camp is much greater than any one person or element in it, it is also true that changing one person or element of a camp can change the whole culture. This change can either be accidental or by design, but by exploring the ways to make the change deliberately, by design, you can generate the culture you most want.

What does it take then as a leader to create, within your camp, the culture you most want? How have others who have done it gotten there?

Defining Your Mission or Vision

The process begins with defining your mission and/or clarifying your vision. What is it that you most want your camp to achieve? Pop culture is filled with ample self-help books describing the value of this. These books are beneficial but often underestimate the enormity of this task. The actual process of doing it demands much more than simply saying “We want to impact kids’ lives in a positive way.” It requires actually defining what it would look like and sound like if indeed you were doing it. For example, you’d walk around camp and see kids doing what and hearing people saying what? You’d go to watch a competitive game being played, and your campers would be behaving how, and your counselors would be modeling what? The more precise and comprehensive you are, the more evident it will be as to where to put your attention next. Often, clarifying and defining your camp’s mission creates such clarity, such focus of attention, that everything around it seems to become effortless — natural.

This precision and comprehensiveness also serves to dispel ambiguity and miscommunication in camp. Instead of “I want to see good sportsmanship,” your message might be “I want to hear kids cheering each other on. I want to see everyone involved in cleaning up the equipment before leaving the field. I want to hear counselors giving praise and affirmation to campers who help each other out. I want to hear counselors coming to me to tell me of the successes of their campers.”

The Components of Culture

Within a camp, there are several primary categories of components, which make up culture. Each of these has influence and impact, and changing any one of them impacts the whole. They are signs and symbols, ritual and tradition, stories and metaphors, communication and behavior, and finally, you as a participant in it (the culture you are creating). What follows are some examples of the way these components create the culture, and the kinds of questions to ask to assess how they impact your camp’s culture. These examples are by no means comprehensive and are intended solely to begin to provoke thinking and awareness!

Signs and symbols
This is everything from the things that hang on the wall in your dining hall to the logo on your letterhead. Included in this is the dress code and camp clothes — Do you dress differently for visiting day, and what message does this send? Do your camp uniforms bring about pride in camp? What about your tag lines, slogans, and signs offering directions, instructions, or rules; signs bearing nicknames you have for buildings; and all other signs you have in camp? Are they consistent with the values you want to be teaching?

Ritual and tradition
All your rituals and traditions should reflect your culture — from color war to inspection; Olympics to special trips (What value is emphasized or taught by where you choose to take special trips?); special meals for special occasions to early morning swims; and from chapel or special services to awards (Do you award equally? Do you award the things that most serve your mission?). Are there rituals that are outdated and no longer relevant to your population? Do the traditions you uphold congruently serve the mission you want to serve? Think of the new people who come to camp with new ways of doing things that were much more efficient and of how old timers argue to do it the old way just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” Sometimes the tradition of traditions is a part of camp culture that limits us, and we don’t even realize it!

Stories and metaphor
The obvious stories are the ones told around the campfire or the ones that introduce special activities — the legends of camps. The less obvious stories are the ones that are told behind the scenes — the stories of campers who drove everyone crazy or of the counselors who were fired for their antics. Many of these stories get grossly distorted or exaggerated, and yet their very presence impacts the culture. Are stories told of people who make mistakes and then become a subject to laugh at behind their backs? Are stories told of people who overcame great odds to find success at your camp? Which ones does your culture most encourage?

Communication and behavior
What kind and standard of communication dominates your culture? Are people direct and upfront, or is there much gossip? Is sarcasm encouraged or discouraged (it’s impact can often be divisive and at worst devastating)? Do leaders consistently treat counselors with the same respect and positive regard as they do campers? Are compliments and praise consistently abundant for all? When people are struggling, do others reach out or do they secretly laugh behind their back (think of a new counselor who does something very foolish but doesn’t realize it)? Are there double standards, e.g., one set of stated rules yet unstated exceptions for certain people? How do these double standards impact your camp culture? Do they contribute to or take away from creating trust and respect?

Ourselves
Of all the components, arguably none is more important than this one. Some examples and considerations — Do we as leaders model the behaviors, attitudes, and manners we expect from others? Do we take criticism and feedback seriously? Are we truly approachable and open? Or do we tend to let personal biases cloud our judgment? What area of our professional development needs the most attention, and are we attending to it? Often times the area of professional development that needs the most attention is intricately linked to an area of personal development.

One camp director knew he needed to work on being patient and controlling his temper when things went wrong. He knew that even the few explosive outbursts he’d had were extremely detrimental to his camp and to the morale of his staff. A year later after putting considerable attention on this part of his life, his staff described being at camp as, “It is like being in a whole new camp.” Changing his approach to conflict created an environment where others felt safer to take chances and to speak up. This led to others feeling more valued and getting more of their needs met. This change manifested itself tangibly into a camp where the return rate of staff went up five times over in one year. The following year the camp put more attention on communication and behaviors, as well as on updating some of the rituals and traditions to align them with their clearly and thoroughly defined mission statement. The experience of their camp culture now, as opposed to four years ago, is almost indescribable.

Assessing These Components in Your Camp

Often these components may indeed be aligned with the camp’s stated mission, while one or two may not. Only through careful assessment and analysis will it become evident where the shortcomings are. How to do this assessment is another matter, and one well worth considering. An off-season retreat of key staff is an excellent time to perform this kind of self-analysis.

There is one huge consideration to make and that is this — Being inside the culture is the most difficult place to be able to see it for what it is — the “truths” are so close as to be invisible. This is where visiting other camps or working with others who do have objectivity in their perspective proves invaluable. Others can see things in a way that is extremely difficult to do on our own, because we are so close and so personally attached to what we do. Visiting other camps can be a wonderful way to realize how many different ways there are to go about doing the same things — some of which may prove substantially better than the ones you’ve been doing. It also provides the perspective to help you be more objective, both about what has kept you from having the culture you most want and about what will make it possible for you to create exactly what you do want . . . your ideal camp culture.

Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a professional counselor and camp consultant, specializing in training, supporting, and counseling camp counselors and camp leaders. For questions about this article, or to inquire about Leiken’s staff training and camp support services, contact him at JLeiken@MentorCounselor.com or 415-441-8218.

Joseph Riggio, president of J.S. Riggio International, is an international senior management consultant to Fortune 100 companies and a recent presenter at Tri-State conferences. Contact him at JSRiggio@jsri.com or 201-512- 8772.

 

Originally published in the 2002 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

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