In the Trenches: Lesson Plans for Cabins, Bunks, and Groups

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Anyone who has spent much time at camp knows that most activity specialists
draw up lesson plans for running their periods. Well-crafted lesson plans
go far beyond skill instruction and include safety protocols and rules
and regulations — all geared to the age of the campers in each
activity period.

Anecdotal evidence suggests this approach is highly successful. Camps,
after all, routinely engage children in high-risk activities, like archery,
horseback riding, ropes-course elements, technical climbing, and so on — while
maintaining an exceptional safety record. In addition, campers not only
improve their technical or physical skills, but also increase their confidence
level through a sense of achievement. It seems the structure and safety
consciousness found in most activities has made them a safe environment
in which campers can thrive.

Ironically, the riskiest place for campers to be is in their own cabin
or bunk at resident camp or in their group at day camp.1 While
there is not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship between safety
and the use of lesson plans, it is noteworthy that most cabin/group counselors
approach their work without them. My suggestion is that cabin and group
counselors “take a lesson” from their colleagues in activity
areas and adopt lesson planning as a legitimate way to improve the quality
of the experience for their campers. To be sure, camp is not school,
and it would be a mistake for the spontaneous, flow-like experience of
group life at camp to be overly formalized. That being said, there is
much to be gained by adding a few thoughtful routines to cabins and day
camp groups that could enhance the value children get out of camp.

First Things First

When campers first arrive, the overall goal of counselors is to help
them settle in and begin making the adjustment to camp. Depending on
the age of the campers, how many in the group are returning, and how
many are new, the particular approach should vary.

Plan One: Getting to Know You
Objective: Connecting with each camper; increasing
camper comfort level

  1. Camper Groups — Youngest (with higher proportion of new campers)
    • Help them settle into bunk areas or cubbies.
    • Use fun activities to learn names; help them meet one another.
    • Use additional activities to learn hobbies, pets, and favorite
      camp activities.
    • Take campers on a tour of camp.
    • Teach all campers a camp song or two.

  2. Camper Groups — Middle (with mix of newer and returning campers)
    • Help campers settle into bunks or cubbies.
    • Use activities to help new and returning campers get to know
      one another.
    • Have returning campers show newer campers around camp (supervised).
    • Have returning campers teach new campers a few songs, etc.

  3. Camper Groups — Oldest (largest proportion of returning campers)
    • Supervise campers as they are getting settled.
    • Have returning campers introduce any new members.
    • Have a meeting to informally catch up on the past year (use
      a format where everyone answers the following questions: favorite
      moments from last year; something new you learned about yourself;
      something new you learned; some place you visited for the first
      time; least favorite time or experience; etc.).
    • Talk about goals for camp: What does each camper wish to accomplish?

There are several important points counselors should consider during
this first “lesson period.” First, be on the lookout for
campers whose nonverbal language suggests that they may be feeling awkward
or stressed about being away from home and in a new group. What campers
do not say in words, they may say in body language or facial expressions.
Second, remember boys typically connect through action first, then they
can sit and talk. Girls, however, often connect first through conversation
and sharing before they feel comfortable doing something together in
a group. Lesson plans should take these tendencies into account. Third,
new counselors working with older campers, who know one another from
prior years, may find that the campers connect to one another before
looking to meet them. Be patient and allow them to re-establish their

Plan Two: Group Agreements

Once campers are somewhat familiar with you as their counselor, with one another,
and with the general physical layout of camp, they are ready to sit down
and establish a few simple agreements. After all, they will be living together
for the next several days or weeks. Having some cabin or group guidelines
is a way to establish expectations about behavior and norms around what is
acceptable and what is not. All campers should participate in the meeting,
and its goal should be clearly explained in simple terms at the beginning: “Since
we are going to be living together or spending time together for the next
several days/weeks, we need some agreements about how we want to be treated
and how we treat others.”

Have all campers take turns suggesting agreements. Help out by writing
the suggestions down, then converting them into positive statements.
For example, if a camper suggests that “no one takes anyone else’s ‘stuff’ without
asking,” convert that into a positive statement: “Ask before
borrowing someone else’s belongings.” Pare the suggestions
down to three, four, or five and write on a fresh poster board. Have
everyone sign it and put it up in a prominent place in the cabin or cubby
area. Give the set of agreements a name, like “Code of Living” or
the “Panther Group Code,” or “Sunflower Group Agreements.” Periodically,
throughout camp, use the agreements to check in with the group. How are
things going? Are there new agreements that need to be established? Have
campers been able to keep the agreements they made?

Plan Three: List of Firsts

One of the problems with cabin or group meetings is that counselors often have
them only when there is a problem. Campers understandably resist such meetings
because they come to equate them with “being in trouble.” The “List
of Firsts” is a great way to debrief campers at the end of each day
and keep cabin or group meetings on a positive note. The “List of Firsts” is
simply a large piece of paper or poster board on which counselors write whatever
a camper might have done that day that they have never done before. It might
be they dived off the camp diving board, tried out for a play, hit a double
in baseball, learned a new dribbling technique, went down the zip line, fed
the horses, or got the mail for the cabin. Counselors should talk with campers
at the end of the day in a group, discussing whatever they did that was new
to them. Each person takes a turn and makes out a list of discussion topics.
It will grow over the days of camp and is a great way for counselors to keep
abreast of what campers are doing. It also helps reinforce for campers all
the things they are trying and accomplishing.

Plan Four: Public Appreciation

This is another way to keep cabin or group meetings on a positive tone while
reinforcing the camp values of cooperation, helping out, and so on. Once
each day at the same time — preferably when all campers are together
for ten minutes — sit them down and engage them in public appreciation.
Here’s how it works — you raise your hand if you wish to thank
someone for helping you out, being nice to you, teaching you something, lending
you something, showing you something new, and so on. The person you recognize
can be a camper or counselor. The person who is named is applauded by all
the other members of the group, and then his or her name can be written on
a special board or put on a slip of paper and placed into a jar for a special
drawing later in the week. This activity is actually better done in somewhat
larger groups — like three or four cabins or groups at once. Keep the
time limit to ten minutes and simply tell those who have not had a chance
to go that they can get their turn the following day.

These are just a few ideas about lesson planning for groups. Obviously,
there are many other times when a lesson plan would work well. Perhaps
a lesson on conflict resolution or talking things out would help campers
work out their differences in more productive ways. At the end of camp,
a plan for campers to share the memories they want to keep, the friends
they made, and the new things they learned about themselves would be
a great way to help them hold on to the growth they may not even realize
they have accomplished. Again, lesson plans are not designed to take
the fun out of camp but to help bring attention to all the great things
camp can mean to children. Anything that helps us be even better at what
we do is worth the effort!

1Inappropriate camper-to-camper and counselor-to-camper
behavior account for over 50 percent of all hot line/insurance help line
calls during the summer. Most of the abusive behavior occurs in the cabin,
bunk, tent, or day camp group.

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 2003 July/August issue
of Camping Magazine.