In the Trenches: Counting Down to Goodbye

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,
For many years I have had a concern about a particular part of our program about which I would like your opinion. I operate a resident camp that has multiple sessions. We just came off of an excellent summer with great staff and many happy campers. That being said, I am dissatisfied with the way we end camp with both campers and counselors. For many of our campers, the end seems very emotional, which on the one hand is reassuring — a good sign that they did, indeed, find something meaningful during their two- or three-week stay with us. On the other hand, the emotion almost seems too much for some campers. Some of our counselors seem unsure about what to do with campers at the end of camp, while I feel others get too emotionally involved with campers. And once the last group of campers has left, I feel our staff simply drifts apart. All in all, I am concerned that we don’t prepare either our campers or staff well enough for saying goodbye. Do you have any suggestions about how to approach this aspect of camp life?

   — Wondering in the Woods

Dear Wondering,
No one likes to say goodbye to good friends or good times. Because many campers and counselors have difficulty facing the end of their time together, they put off acknowledging the impending separation. Doing so can load the final day of camp with so much emotion that it can be overwhelming. While tears at the end of camp are great evidence that something important just happened — with the proper amount of time and the right activities — counselors can help campers express their feelings in ways that are both meaningful and affirming.

Though everyone handles the end of camp somewhat differently, there are some practices that the entire community should shift into as the end of camp approaches. Most camps have specific activities they save for the final days of camp, like a color war, Olympics, a banquet, or special camp fire. While these activities do signal that camp is winding down, they in themselves do not help prepare children or staff for the transition that is about to occur.

It Starts at the Top

Just as you call your staff together in the days before Parent Visiting Day or some other major camp event, the process of ending a camp session should begin with a clear set of directives at a staff meeting dedicated to the topic. When this meeting happens differs depending on the length of your camp session. For a seven- or eight-week camp, it should be a full week before the end of camp. For a four-week camp, it should be about five days before the end; and for two-week sessions, it should be about three or four days before the end.

At this meeting, present the steps you want your staff to take to begin the process of leave-taking, as follows:

  1. Begin a “countdown” with campers in each bunk or living unit, marking the last few days down on paper for all to see. Doing so not only helps campers prepare emotionally, but it also helps them think about exactly how they wish to spend their remaining time at camp.
  2. Establish specific goals with each camper regarding the time left — finishing an art or wood shop project, passing the next level of proficiency in some activity area, going down the zip line, launching the rocket they are making, working on a cabin “yearbook,” and so on. Write those goals on the “countdown” sheet. Then mark everyone’s progress.
  3. Do a lot of reminiscing. Recall what the first day or days of camp were like, think out loud about things campers have tried at camp for the very first time, and talk about the trips or excursions in which they have participated.
  4. Engage in specific “end-of-camp rituals” — like Closing Circle, making a time capsule, putting together an end-of-camp skit, making out a last will and testament, creating a picture book about their weeks at camp. Help campers write themselves a “letter from camp” that contains certain memories or positive feelings that can be mailed to them in December.
  5. Provide ways for campers to talk about their best, worst, fondest, hardest, and most rewarding moments. Circle up with campers at bed time to talk about things like what they liked most about camp, what they will miss, what they learned about themselves, and what they can expect when they return home (family vacation, a new school, etc.).
  6. Find ways to acknowledge the positive behaviors campers displayed while at camp: cooperating, helping each other, supporting friends, including others, and so on. These are behaviors that are consistent with the values you are trying to teach at camp and should be validated in both spoken and written ways (like a “certificate of cooperation”).

Counselors should engage in the process of saying goodbye that parallels that of the campers. Have a series of smaller unit meetings with staff to talk about the same things the campers are being encouraged to talk about — your fondest memory of camp, something new you learned about yourself, what you did this summer for the first time, how you felt you improved in your work with campers, what memories you want to be sure to hold on to, and so on. At the end, after the campers have left, have a meal with staff and do some fun reminiscing about the highlights of the season. A PowerPoint® slide show that focuses on positive staff involvement with campers and one another is a great treat at such a gathering. Consider having your staff sit in a circle and acknowledge one another for the help, support, hard work, and encouragement they offered campers and one another during the summer. This public appreciation can be one of the most powerful ways to affirm the value of your staff and send them off with a warm glow from the summer.

Practicing these steps in deliberate ways and coaching the staff with particular activities helps to make the end of camp as meaningful and rewarding as the rest of camp. Indeed, as adults we need to give children the words and time for reflection that allows them to make sense out of their camp experience, acknowledges the growth they achieved, and helps them hold on to the gain they made while at camp.

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 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.