A Kaleidoscope of Opportunity: Teaching life skills

by Mary Ellen Waltemire

Camp professionals know that camp provides the opportunity to teach
life-long skills, such as creative thinking, decision making, and getting
along with others. By developing goals for your program and anticipated
outcomes for your campers, you can ensure that your camp program will
give kids a world of good.

The seven life skills that follow have been identified by the 4-H program
as being essential for productive and happy lives. Consider how these
life skills might have a place in your camp program.

Creative Thinking

Many children today are not challenged to look at things differently,
to find the second right answer. By teaching creative thinking you challenge
campers to think in alternative ways through speculating, imagining,
visualizing, investigating, and synthesizing untried directions.

Creative thinking is often the most fun skill to program for with both
teens and youth because the opportunities are unlimited. Staff can easily
work with youth to develop creative thinking skills through arts and
craft classes, drama workshops, and other small and large group activities.
Perhaps the best way to encourage creative thinking is to engage young
people in team-building and initiative programs. Campers' creative juices
really start to flow when faced with a challenge of limited resources
and having to cross an imaginary quicksand pit with alligators on either

During staff training, prepare teen leaders for their leadership role
at camp by discussing possible scenarios. For example, it's the third
rainy day in a row, and campers are getting restless. Challenge the teens
to create activities that involve campers in an exciting experience.
Consider other exercises that require counselors to think outside the
box and get creative juices flowing, such as asking them to bring new
and creative program ideas to each training session. Another exercise
involves giving teen leaders a sheet of thirty or so circles and asking
them to come up with ideas that use all thirty circles.

Decision Making

As a youth development specialist, you realize the importance of helping
young people learn and put into practice sound decision-making skills.
The reaction you get when you take a group of campers through the formal
decision-making process and relate it to the choices they have at camp
is interesting. At camp, the choices and decisions campers make are endless
- from selecting beds in the cabin to which activities to take to what
to eat at meal time. With the help of caring teen and adult staff, your
campers not only learn and practice the decision-making process but also
learn to ac-cept responsibility for their decisions. For some youth this
last aspect, accepting responsibility, is the hardest part of the process.
They come to recognize quickly how their personal values influence their
decisions and those of others.

Teen leaders can play an important role in the development of this skill
by helping campers identify all the available options throughout the
program and then systematically working through the benefits of each
in a cabin setting. Teens can gain volumes of experience themselves by
helping and guiding campers through decisions to be made during their
time at camp.

Acquiring Knowledge

The ability to gain knowledge and skills and apply them to new situations
is an important step toward self-directed living. As youth build upon
and extend their knowledge and skills, they develop a commitment to life-long
learning. In a camp situation, it is imperative to give campers the opportunity
to learn new skills, practice those skills, and process the information
for both immediate and future use.  Many camp classes provide an
opportunity for learning new information than can be used in a variety
of ways. Some camp classes provide an awareness of new subject matter,
while other classes that youth participate in offer the opportunity to
gain some in-depth knowledge in a particular area. Flexibility and variety
in camp programs and opportunity for campers to experience something
they would not in the home environment are indications of a camp's commitment
to youth development.

For teens working in leadership roles in camp, the skill of acquiring
knowledge not only applies to learning leadership skills but also to
learning other skills that are offered in the subject matter sessions
that are planned for and offered to them. Classes that are designed for
specific age groups can be more effective and easier to conduct than
those that include a variety of ages.  Specialized instruction tailored
to specific age groups makes camp easier to manage and heightens the
interest of the campers involved. Teens serving in leadership roles can
learn much through co-teaching classes and working with young campers
who are learning new skills.


Responsibility means accepting a task, consistently working toward completing
the task, being reliable in meeting obligations associated with the task,
and being accountable for the results. There's no better instance to
teach this skill than in a group living situation with other campers.

For some, the thought of accepting a role in cabin clean-up is a truly
new experience. Yet when campers are involved in the decision of who
does what and can easily see how everyone has a role to play in making
the cabin community work, it's great for them to realize that together
everyone really does achieve more.

Teens working as part of the leadership staff also learn and practice
this skill throughout each day. One of the important aspects of working
with teens in learning this skill is to have them understand what is
expected, provide the training they need to accept a particular role
at camp, and then support them through the process. A most effective
tool to help teens know what is expected is a detailed job description
that outlines the qualifications for the job, specific duties, and the
reporting chain.

Provide extensive training for each position and then identify adult
mentors to help teens as they work to accomplish their jobs. As a follow-up,
complete an evaluation for each teen including written suggestions of
ways he can improve his skills as he considers returning to camp for
another summer. Responsibility is one of the most important life skills
and can be encouraged and fostered in many ways through effective training
and caring support.


Communication is vital! By helping campers develop an understanding
of the communication process, you can help them prepare for the future.
This process involves listening, observing, and sharing information,
feelings, talents, and skills with others through interactive verbal
and nonverbal processes. As you know, effective communication is imperative
in a camp situation and clear communication affects everything we do
in life.

Campers need to know when and where activities are taking place and
what they are expected to do. Developing their communication skills is
important since the way they perceive and understand camp experiences
is key to the success of the camp and campers' future participation.
One activity that reinforces the need for good listening and verbal skills
is the telephone activity, where one person starts a message and then
repeats it to a second person and so one until the message comes back
to the original sender. What a transformation that message takes!

With teen leaders, developing and practicing good communication skills
is crucial to their success as leaders. Much time can be spent in helping
them practice these skills, yet the true test of their learning is when
they practice those skills with young campers and in small group activities.

Understanding of Self

Understanding self is basic to developing a positive self-concept. Youth
develop confidence and self-respect by confirming their identity as unique,
capable, significant, and influential people. From the welcoming activity
to the ending celebrations of a great session together, you have many
opportunities to help campers gain a better perspective of who they are.

Camp staff play a vital role in helping youth accept themselves and
their unique talents and abilities. Creative activities, self-expressions
of song and dance, and other experiential activities can foster a pride
in one's self. When a camper feels challenged by a situation, others
should chime in and give encouragement and support.

Teens learn to understand themselves through examining their relationship
to the entire camp community. Helping teens understand their individual
strengths and abilities is key during the training process, and encouraging
them to use those skills through the camp program is essential as well.
Many teens enjoy the opportunity to teach classes, conduct recreation
activities, and facilitate camp experiences. Equip them with the tools
to succeed and you help teens value their significance, which in turn
helps you have a great camp program.

Getting Along with Others

Building cooperative, interdependent relationships with others is a
skill young people need to develop and continue throughout life. For
some campers, getting along with others can be a real challenge. Helping
each camper understand his individual role as it affects the whole is
important. Whether in the group living situation, on a three-mile hike,
or through camp clean-up, campers can assume a role, work with others
to get the task done, be recognized for a job well done, and move to
the next activity.

Getting along with others is key to any successful camp program. Through
camp staff training, you can help your teen leaders learn to respect
each other as individuals, which in turn helps them help their campers
practice the same acceptance. One activity that teaches acceptance is
to role play a situation where some teens have certain disabilities.
By walking in the shoes of someone who has a disability, they can understand
first hand what it's like to be different and how people sometimes react
to differences in negative ways. Follow this with a discussion of ways
to work with all types of individuals.

Camp provides so many opportunities for positive youth development for
both campers and teens who provide leadership at camps. It is an environment
where, by designing and deliberately facilitating experiences that teach
and help young people practice life skills, you truly are giving kids
a world of good.

Mary Ellen Waltemire has twenty-two years' experience
as a camp director and youth educator. She is 4-H camping coordinator
and county extension director for Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Originally published in the 1999 January/February
issue of Camping Magazine.