In the Trenches: Helping Campers Take Their Accomplishments Home

by Bob Ditter


At the end of our summer session, many of our campers (and we suspect
some of our staff) carve their initials into the bunks or write graffiti
on everything from the phone desk in the office to lavatories and the
shower stalls. No matter what “talks” we have with our camp
community, we don’t seem to be able to curb these practices. Do
you have any thoughts you could share that might have an impact on this

— California Dreamin’

Dear Bob,

We have managed to create a wonderful camp culture based on caring and
a true sense of community. Many campers and staff feel this is their
home away from home. What concerns us is the level of upset at the end
of each session (we run two four-week sessions). Counselors and campers
alike seem overcome by the grief of leaving one another. It seems that
all the good feeling and growth of the summer gets lost in the tears.
Does leaving have to be this emotional, or are we needlessly concerned?

— Happy Campers

Dear Dreamin’ and Happy,

Saying good-bye is something most people find difficult. Many people
would rather avoid or put off the sad or painful feelings that come with
leaving those they have become fond of or with whom they have meaningful

Counselors may themselves avoid saying good-bye for different reasons.
Some counselors emotionally leave camp before they physically depart,
thinking ahead to what is waiting for them after camp. Others, who have
developed strong, healthy attachments to campers and other staff members,
may find the thought of leaving camp as difficult as it can be for some
of the children. Overall, your staff may benefit from talking about the
end of camp as much as your campers.

View the Ending of Camp as a Process

It is best to begin talking about endings well before they actually
happen. My experience is that most camps wait until just the last day
or two of a session to acknowledge all that the ending of camp can signify.
This often means that too much emotion is forced upon campers and staff
in too little time. It is more effective to view the end of camp as a
process, involving many feelings and issues, rather than just a single

For example, campers who carve their initials into the woodwork or who
write on various surfaces join a well-documented tradition of leave-takers
who want to be remembered. One of the big questions a campers has, somewhat
below the surface of their awareness, is “Now that I’ve spent
this time here, who will remember me? And what will I remember of it?” Carving
one’s initials into something seems to lend a kind of permanence
to the feelings that come with passing on. It is like the carver is saying, “I
really was here!”

Count Down to Help Campers Prepare

My suggestion is to do a little less talking about the “problem” and
more talking about the actual ending of camp. When you ask most campers,
however, they can’t imagine what else you would say about leaving
camp other than good-bye. This is where campers need camp staff’s
help to increase their awareness and guide them through a more meaningful,
satisfying ending.

For example, I suggest counselors actually start a countdown the last
week or five days of a two-week session. During this period, counselors
should ask campers what it is they haven’t done yet at camp that
they’d like to make sure they do or do more of before they leave.
Once again, left to their own, many campers will deny that time is slipping
away and will not do what they then find they have no more time for on
the last day.

Remember the good times

In addition, the ending time in any significant place should include taking
stock of all the best and most fun or meaningful events. Reminiscing is a
healthy way for counselors to help campers preserve and make sense of their
experience. Remember that it is when children don’t use their words
that their feelings then drive them to act, such as carving into camp buildings
or writing on camp property.

Offer Acceptable Forms of Reminiscence

Some other conversations sparked by the ending of camp can include best
and worst moments of the past two weeks, favorite moments or activities,
looking ahead to what campers would do next year, and so on. A counselor
who is skillful with this conversation can help campers understand what
they have accomplished during their time at camp and what they take home
with them. These may be new abilities, new social skills, new friends,
new tolerances, and not just trophies for winning the inter-camp baseball
tournament. In fact, if camps did as superb a job of acknowledging and
marking campers’ social and emotional growth as they do athletic
achievement, many campers would leave camp with a richer, more robust
sense of their growth and accomplishments.

Leave-taking rituals preserve camp’s
world of good

To these conversations, add as many rituals of leave-taking as you and your
staff can dream up. Remember one of the golden rules of behavior management:
to extinguish a certain behavior (such as graffiti), replace that behavior
with a behavioral option that is just as compelling but more acceptable. Acceptable
alternatives to graffiti would include group pictures, mini-bunk or group scrapbooks,
skits and plays and poems, murals depicting the events of the session, campfires
with reminiscing and special songs, time capsules, a group carving or sculpture,
and letters campers write to other campers and counselors.

Discussing the ending of camp with campers and encouraging them to express
their feelings through positive channels can help them feel less “ambushed” by
their feelings and preserve more of the world of good that camp can provide.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for and can be reached via e-mail at or
by fax at 617-572-3373. “In the Trenches” is sponsored
by American Income Life Insurance