Tips for Camp Counselors: Sage advice from a veteran camp director

by Bob McKinlay

As a camp counselor, your job is among the most important responsibilities
anywhere - parents have entrusted their children to you. You have the
charge of not only making sure they are safe, but of nurturing their

Nurturing campers' development includes having clear ideas of the kinds
of behaviors you want to encourage. Some positive behaviors that can
be taught at camp are:

  • Getting along with others by doing one's part, supporting others,
    developing relationships, accepting others, being part of a community, 
    sharing, and being a team player.
  • Being part of a group, cooperating, group decision making, and comparing
    self-interest in relationship to the best interests of others.
  • Increasing self-sufficiency and self-reliance - the more self-sufficient 
    campers are the better they relate to others, develop confidence, and learn
    skills with minimal direction, all of which build self-esteem.
  • Just being a kid, experiencing new things, exploring, observing nature,
    and participating in worthwhile activities.
  • Increasing the concern about natural surroundings through outdoor
    living experiences and improving campers' conservation attitude and

How You Can Nurture Campers' Development

So, what are the first things you do to influence these potential areas
of development and bring about these behaviors in your campers? You need
to become a super person! Enter that phone booth and exit with a cape!
You will never regret it; it will be the best decision of your life.

When you exit that phone booth, offer campers your undivided attention
all the time (any non-attention times should be specifically arranged
for other coverage). Your attention should be positive, encouraging,
friendly, individualized, fair, understanding, and accepting. When interacting
with campers, say "we," let's," "us," and be inclusive, receptive, and
nonjudgmental. Listen (and hear), understand, accept, and respond. Set
limits (in campers' interests, not yours); show integrity by always being
depended on to follow through on what's expected of you.

Show respect and you will receive respect

Treat your campers with respect. "The children who are best behaved are those
who are treated with respect," says Benjamin Spock, noted pediatrician. Respect
is probably the best form of positive reinforcement. How do we show respect?
Talk back and forth on a child's agenda; listen, really listen, and respond;
have a conversation with an open mind; and find areas of mutual interest to
discuss. Show campers you like and care about them by enjoying being with them
and having fun - let the kid in you out but in appropriate ways.

When showing respect, you are giving yourself to the camper, and depending
on many other circumstances, that giving will be returned. Respect becomes
mutual and therein lie the rewards. Smiles, greetings, sincerity/realness,
equal treatment, being nonjudgmental, being fair, appropriate pats and
touches (well-defined by camp policy), and simply doing things together
are all part of creating a respectful camp environment.

Reinforce the positive

Reinforce your campers' good behavior, and those positive behaviors will be
repeated. Avoid, or give as little attention as possible, to lousy behavior,
and redirect it to something good so you can give it positive attention.
(Defiant behavior can be a reaction to lack of attention.) Some positive
reinforcements include smiling, saying something nice, giving a pat on the
back, or identifying a specific achievement. Be genuine and don't overdo
it. If one technique doesn't work, try another.

Give of yourself and you'll be rewarded

Give, give, and give some more! And what happens? You like it, you receive
even more than you give. You don't do it because you receive, you do it because
that's why you're there, and then you realize it's all because you went into
that phone booth to start with! And, you give because it's right - the rewards
come in various ways. Often the overt rewards are lacking or come too seldom,
but you continue your efforts and gain in your own self-esteem and self-sufficiency.

Give of yourself because then you realize it's really the only way that
works, and you discover that the degree of your success as a counselor
correlates, in large measure, with the degree you get outside of yourself.
Giving, then, becomes a marvelous experience. A great case can be made
for this business of getting outside of selfish desires - probably the
mission of a lifetime. There is no greater opportunity to grow and develop
in this manner than at camp.

Lead campers to their own answers

Don't try to have all the answers. You will be expected to have answers beyond
your capacity! But, remember that who you are is fine so function from there.
Campers must find their own answers - your role is to provide appropriate
information - consistent with camp policies regarding relationships, religion,
politics, natural environment, nonviolent problem solving, etc. Provide sources
for help, advice, and aid that fit the situation of the moment, but stay
off of your personal soapbox.

Take good care of yourself

Take care of yourself, health and sleep wise. You're a staff team member, but
you can only behave for yourself. This is tricky - you contribute through
your own efforts, and you can be an example for others; however, you cannot
behave for others. Everybody grows as a result. This is great and who would
have it any other way?

Guiding Positive Behavior

Camp provides an environment where all kids can do well at something
and have some degree of success and enjoyment. In a real sense, you are
the main provider of creating these circumstances and reinforcing good
behavior. You need a plan of attack and methods in mind. (Your particular
camp will have its system of putting this into effect, and you should
have major input into the system.)

Some simple statements will help you guide campers to the desired behavior
by creating circumstances where kids individually and/or as a group determine
their own fate. Some examples:

  • "If you do well at our own campfire tonight, we can invite another
    group next week . . ."
  • "When you're quiet, I'll start reading the story . . ."
  • "Before we eat we need to wash hands, so meet at the washhouse at waiter's call . . ."
  • "To use the swimming area, we need to follow certain rules . . ."
  • "We'll meet at the cabin and when everyone has arrived, we'll walk
    the campfire . . ."

Telling Campers What You Expect

Setting expectancies for campers helps them take responsibility for
their own actions and lets them determine their own fate. Together, counselors
and campers should agree on what is appropriate behavior and what they
should expect of others and themselves. Choices should be geared to age
level, and you need to be constantly guiding this process. It should
be clear to the campers that coming through on expectancies leads to
a response of positive reinforcement, while not coming through on these
expectancies will lead to consequences such as sitting out of an activity,
stopping the activity, or not planning an activity until agreed upon
criteria are met.

Enforce the consequences

Don't overreact to minor misbehavior, which is a common goof that can actually
reinforce the negative behavior and sidetrack us from focusing on bringing
about and reinforcing the good behavior that we do want. However, be sure
to follow through when campers don't meet the agreed upon expectations. Avoid
indulgence, or you'll lose control. (Usually indulgent leadership is simply
the easy way out due to lack of courage to follow through on previous statements/agreements;
and it unfailingly leads to further complications.)

The better you get at setting up situations so that campers determine
their own fate, the less discipline you'll be doling out. Campers will
know, understand, and appreciate how their behavior affects others. They
will increasingly take responsibility for their own actions. Therefore,
know what you want, make a plan, and actively pursue it. Have clear understandings
and agreement, be consistent, follow through, reinforce the good behaviors,
and you'll be great.

Congratulations! You are on your way to becoming a super person. Maybe
none of us will really get there, but we will all have the fun and benefit
of trying. You've got what some of us think is the best job in the world
- working with kids at camp - and you've got the opportunity to help
them experience and identify with the earth in unusual ways. The better
you do at this, the more likely you will develop youth who will influence
life-saving, earth-care practices.

Put yourself into it, and live up to what's expected of you. You'll
have the most fun and beneficial summer of your life.

Bob McKinlay is executive director of Hidden Valley
Camp for Boys and Girls in Granite Falls, Washingtion.

Originally published in the 1999 May/June
issue of Camping Magazine.