In the Trenches: A Key Set of Skills for Counselors

by Bob Ditter

I am often asked for ideas about what primary skills directors can pass on to their staff that will help prepare and equip them for the increasingly challenging work of supervising campers. Given that campers travel in groups and that camp is itself a community, the most essential set of skills directors can impart to staff are simple, yet effective group skills.

When children are in a group, their behavior takes on a life of its own, often much different from what we experience with them one-on-one. How many times have staff met alone with campers to discuss their behavior, getting sincere apologies and well-intentioned promises about how they swear they will change, only to watch them revert to their old ways within minutes of rejoining their cabin or group. Camp is a collection of groups, forming and reforming throughout the day. Having ways to work with campers in groups within your existing program may be the single most effective way to empower your staff.

One trick to working with campers in groups is to formalize simple, brief meetings so that the meetings become an expected, seamless part of the program, adding value and awareness to what campers experience at camp. I offer five different kinds of meetings, each with its own objectives and simple agreements, that give counselors an edge in being successful with their charges. Meetings such as these have become a best practice at many camps around the country and can add immensely to any camp's culture by being incorporated as a regular feature into the existing program. It may be helpful to think of them not as meetings but as mini-activities. The five different mini-activities are as follows:

  • Daily group, bunk or cabin meetings
  • Briefing and debriefing before and after activities
  • Public appreciation ("the mayonnaise jar")
  • Gratitude
  • Closing circle

Group or Cabin Meetings

Group or bunk meetings as described here happen once or even twice a day. They are brief (five to ten minutes), regular check-ins with simple ground rules. Campers come to expect the meetings and to look forward to them because they are done at the same time each day. The ground rules are easy:

  • One person speaks at a time
  • Each camper speaks for him or herself
  • No put downs
  • Everyone listens

Campers sit in a circle or huddle. It helps if each group or cabin has its own object, like a conch shell or a large pinecone, to pass around while people are speaking. This adds a bit of ritual to the gathering and puts the group's stamp on the meetings. Facilitated by a counselor, the meeting has a simple focus, yet offers a useful pause to the pace of the day. The following are the most important points:

  • Recognize campers for contributions, helping out, and acts of cooperation.
  • Recognize campers who have tried something new or challenging.
  • Have campers recognize each other for friendship and assistance.
  • Have campers discuss any challenges they are having living or playing together and then discuss new agreements to address them.
  • Review any bunk or group agreements that have already been made.

Briefing Before and Debriefing After an Activity

This is an extremely effective practice that all specialists and cabin or group staff should be trained to do. The purpose of the meetings is to lay out the goals and focus of each activity before it begins and then to take the last five to ten minutes at the end to debrief. The following is a format that a specialist or activity leader might follow while briefing campers on what they are about to do:

  • Introduce the activity and spell out how campers will be spending their time (making a craft, practicing a skill, doing drills, or playing a game).
  • Be specific about which skills campers will focus on or practice.
  • Be clear about what behavior is expected: what kind of cooperation, helping out, assistance, and encouragement.
  • Tell how campers will be supported throughout the activity.
  • Explain how campers will be assigned to one another or how they can support one another.
  • Be clear that the activity will end five to ten minutes before the period so everyone can check in and see how things went.

While the activity progresses, staff interact with and observe campers so they can make comments at the end of the period about the following:

  • What support, helping out, or encouraging did staff see being practiced by which campers. The people involved are named and praised.
  • What skills did staff see being practiced by which campers.
  • Ask campers what part of the activity they liked most and least.
  • Ask campers how they might want the activity to go next time. What might they like more or less of?
  • Discuss goals for future meetings in this activity area.

Public Appreciation

This gem of an activity comes from Ira Seinfeld at Camp Lokanda in New York. Done with a full unit, like lower boys camp, it is a group activity that takes place at the same time each day and reinforces such camp values as friendship, cooperation, and support. Campers are assembled in a safe, somewhat enclosed place such as a gazebo or a deck. Counselors announce the activity, and campers raise their hands to be called on. Once called on, campers stand and name campers or staff members who did something nice for them, helped them find something, helped them feel better, or helped them learn or try something new. Everyone applauds the individual who has just been recognized. The activity continues for approximately ten minutes. Campers who did not have a chance to recognize someone will have a chance the next day.

Some people embellish this activity by having a camper write the name of each recognized individuals on a card or ticket, which is then placed in a large jar. Once or twice a week, names are drawn from the jar, and prizes are given to the campers whose names have been chosen. (Counselors who may be recognized do not put their names into the jar.) The power of the activity, however, comes from campers standing and publicly recognizing other campers. A more detailed description of this activity, named "The Mayonnaise Jar," can be found the book Trail Signs and Compass Points, which is available from the ACA Bookstore (800-428-2267).


Gratitude is an activity that is similar to public appreciation in that it happens with a large group sitting in a safe, somewhat enclosed place. The activity is done approximately once a week or after a major activity like a trip. Counselors model the behavior, which is simply one person speaking at a time and stating something they are grateful for, such as having friends, being able to go swimming, having had such great food out on the trail, or just being able to be at camp. Again, the activity is a reflective one and can last for as little as ten minutes or can go on as long as there are people who wish to speak. After a special trip or activity or a full week at camp, this can take a large group up to twenty minutes.

Closing Circle

This activity comes from my friend and colleague Helen Fouhey, who helped develop it while with Outward Bound. Closing Circle, also known as Closing Wheel, can be used as a method for sharing or debriefing a single major activity, such as a rafting or climbing trip, or to bring closure to the entire camp session.

Each bunk group or camper, depending on the size of the group, receives a large circle that has been cut out of oak tag or similar sturdy card stock. Each circle has been divided into wedges with each wedge representing a category, such as a thought, feeling, notion, and observation. These categories become markers, or ways for each camper to put words to their experience. This is a powerful way to enhance a child's learning and enables them to hold on to the experience, whether it is about the summer or a particular trip or a major activity. Suggested categories include:

  • Something that surprised me about myself
  • Something I accomplished or was able to do
  • Something new I tried
  • Something I learned about myself
  • A high point
  • A low point
  • A gift I received from the group
  • A gift I gave the group
  • A moment when I learned a new lesson about friendship
  • A moment when our group felt the closest

Before the circles are passed out, it is important for leaders to frame what the activity will be about. For example, the leader could say, "This is a way for us to talk about the rafting trip, the whole summer, etc." Once the circles are distributed, let campers take several minutes to write down their own responses to the given categories. After a certain amount of time, which will vary from group to group, have everyone sit together in a circle and share. The best way to have campers share is to begin with one category and continue around the circle until everyone has spoken; then pick another category and repeat the process. Generally, campers are happy to share everything they've written and more. For a group of eight to ten campers, plan at least an hour for this activity.

After all campers have shared, instruct them to draw something in the center of their circle that represents the experience for them. Campers also like signing each other's circles, which become mementos of their time at camp or of the trip. Variations include adding a blank for whatever category campers might want to add; having a shape other than a circle (like a tent, a raft, a mountain, or another symbol of the trip); lighting a candle before or after each category is discussed; having a large circle drawn in the dirt around which campers sit when they talk; and simplifying the categories for younger children. I also recommend that your key staff or leadership team do this activity with your staff in groups six to eight after the campers have left and before everyone disperses for the remainder of the summer.

These simple, easy-to-learn group activities help campers find words for the experiences they have at camp. Language is, after all, the handle children need to mark and hold their experience. Without words, children have no way to make sense out of what happens to them, let alone make choices and learn from what they do. These activities allow every camp, no matter what the program or style, to add a powerful dimension to what campers experience - a world of good.

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.

Originally published in the 2001 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.