Problem Solving at Camp: Creating win-win solutions

by Michael Shelton

Camp can offer a child more than mere fun. Camp is also the ideal environment
to help campers develop their problem-solving skills.

Children learn problem solving through trial-and-error and modeling
(watching how adults solve problems). Camp, with its community living
focus, presents a constant source of potential conflicts and, thus, incidents
in which to practice problem-solving skills. Camp also offers endless
observation of how others (especially counselors) solve daily problems.

Successful Problem Solving

Children have a limited repertoire of responses when involved in a conflict;
the first solution that comes to mind is often acted upon. This is one
reason why young children often react aggressively, hitting or pushing
the other child, when faced with a conflict. Adults, in comparison, have
the ability to consider various responses and weigh the consequences
of each.

Successful interpersonal problem solving results in win-win solutions
where all parties involved in a conflict are satisfied with the resolution.
Each positive resolution to a conflict is a learning experience that
lays a foundation for mature and insightful problem solving in the future.

Steps in Problem Solving

When a conflict occurs, the first step is to refrain from action. Children
often act impulsively before accurately assessing the entire situation.
Slowing down enables the parties to assess the other person's feelings
and to come up with possible solutions.

Assess the situation

Attempt to determine how the other person is feeling by looking at his facial
expression and body language. Since this is only a guess, you should also
ask simple questions, such as "How are you feeling?" or "What happened?"

Determine each party's goals

Determine what each camper desires as an outcome. What resolution would best
satisfy him or her?

Brainstorm Solutions

Have each camper think of as may ways to reach the desired goal as possible.
The more ideas, the more possibilities for resolution. Even if some of the
ideas are completely untenable, they are still accepted as possible solutions.
Brainstorming requires uncritical initial acceptance of all ideas; the ones
that are outlandish can be disposed of during the next step.

Select a course of action

Each of the brainstormed responses has possible repercussions if acted upon.
What are the pros and cons of each idea? One choice may only increase the
severity of the conflict or result in smoldering bad feelings for one or
all parties in the conflict. Another idea may have a more equitable and positive
outcome. The major objective in this step is to determine what effect(s)
the chosen plan of action will have on the other person in the conflict.

Carry out the plan

Act upon the plan that will accomplish the desired major goal and, at the same
time, result in minimal stress or further conflict in the relationship. If
you are unable to reach a win-win solution, then repeat step three until
a resolution is found.

Problem solving by this method may appear to be a lengthy and tedious
process, and, at first, it is. Having to walk through a long series of
steps is rarely exciting. With practice, however, this process will become

Camp as Life's Classroom

There are many times during the camp day when you can teach problem-solving
skills. Also, keep in mind your interactions with campers and other camp
staff can be excellent examples for campers to observe you solving problems

Staff's everyday interactions

When faced with the common but nevertheless frustrating incidents that occur
with campers (e.g., lateness for meals; untidy cabins; lack of cooperation
in quieting down in cabins at bedtime), camp staff can actively model problem
solving. By sitting with campers and verbally walking through each step to
exhibit how a certain decision is formulated, they will learn the necessary
cognitive steps for their own attempts. Counselors come to a camp expecting
to teach a multitude of skills such as swimming and crafts; problem solving
is simply an elaboration of the position's responsibilities.

Daily bunk meetings

At a pre-arranged time daily, hold an informal meeting to discuss the major
events of that day. Discuss any conflicts that occurred. If a counselor witnesses
an altercation between two campers, present this and request feedback from
the entire group on the success of how the campers solved the problem. The
other campers in the group can offer alternative solutions and possibly perform
a role play.

Campers' daily interactions

After witnessing counselors solve problems and, practicing problem solving
during bunk meetings and amongst themselves, campers can begin to use the
steps in their daily interactions. When conflicts occur, staff can intervene
and remind the involved individuals of their problem-solving abilities. Staff
may need to walk through the entire sequence or simply initiate the process
and let campers work it out on their own.

As children grow into adulthood, the memories of their camp experiences
may be lasting treasures, but the social skills they develop while at
camp may be a major reason for success in life.

Problem Solving in Action

The following is an example of problem-solving skills in action.

William is the waiter for the afternoon meal. While returning to his table
carrying a plate of sandwiches, he is pushed from behind and drops the food
onto the floor. William's immediate reaction is to turn around and punch
the other camper who caused this incident. He remembers the problem-solving
skills that his counselors have been teaching for the past week and refrains
from immediate action (step 1). 

The camper standing behind him, Carl, has an embarrassed look on his
face. William notices the facial reaction and also asks what happened
(step 2). Carl explains that he slipped on the floor and accidentally
fell into William. William decides that the major resolution of this
problem requires cleaning the spilled sandwiches and obtaining another
plate of food (step 3).

William considers several options: tell his counselor who will then
take control of the situation; demand that Carl both clean and retrieve
the food; work out a compromise in which both of them are responsible
for managing the predicament (step 4). The only solution that will probably
not result in bad feelings and possible further escalation is the third
alternative: cooperative clean-up (step 5).

Michael Shelton is the assistant director of New Image
Weight Loss Camp. He is also an outpatient therapist for substance
abusing individuals.

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