In the Trenches: Campers in Groups

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,
We are a coed resident camp that draws campers from mostly suburban locations. Most of the youngsters who come to our camp do not spend a lot of time in the “rugged outdoors.”

We are introducing a new outdoor component to our program this year, which will include mountain biking, outdoor camping and cooking, and an obstacle course. These activities will take most of our campers out of their comfort zone, but we want to challenge them in new ways that we hope will lead to a greater sense of self-esteem.

Our question is, do you have any ideas on how to introduce or promote the program to kids who may be skeptical? We were thinking of trying it out on the youngest campers and gradually introducing it to older campers, who might be most resistant since their idea of camp is well ingrained and does not include this type of activity.

— Couch Potato Mashers

Dear Couch Potato Mashers,

I want to commend you for thinking about ways to challenge your campers. Too many children who complain at camp that they “just want to hang out” end up feeling bored and unfulfilled if left to their own devices. As I have said before, children don’t always know what is in their best interest.

Your question about how to introduce your program is a good one because it requires some understanding about child group culture. In other words, what influences the culture of a child’s peer group and how does one go about influencing that culture?

Your idea of gradually introducing your new programs to campers beginning with your newest or youngest charges sounds like it makes sense intuitively, but I would like to have you consider another approach.

Convince Older Campers First

Most folks who work with children in groups know that younger children learn from older children. The games, sayings, tricks, and other elements of child culture are passed on from generation to generation as the little ones watch and mimic the older ones.

For example, when Walt Disney went ahead with the “Bug Juice” television project, which features the real camp adventures of thirteen-to fifteen-year-old campers, they were fully aware that it would be nine-to twelve-year-old children who would end up watching the series because they knew younger children watch the older ones. So, while it seems your oldest, most experienced campers might resist the new outdoor challenge program more because it does not fit into their current scheme of camp, winning their endorsement will greatly affect how the rest of your camp population accepts the program.

Burgers and chips, anyone?
The key to winning over your oldest campers is to appeal to the things they like. For example, think about special foods you could have your oldest campers eat (or cook themselves!) while out at the program site. Whether it’s burgers and chips for lunch or steak and shrimp for dinner, teens clearly respond to food, especially if it is perceived as different and special from regular camp fare.

Recognize teen leadership
Second, identify those individuals whom you think are leaders among their peers. Invite them over to your house and engage them in a discussion of the new program. Ask for their advice about details (food, time of day, which specific activities they’d most like to try). Teens respond well when they are included in planning or recognized for their leadership. If you can excite this group of leaders, you are well on your way to success. That is because teens clearly follow their most popular group members. It would therefore be wise to use this unwritten rule to your advantage: As go the popular kids, so goes the group. You might even show this small group of leaders (who usually travel together as a pack) a short video or slide show of what you have planned. Even better, perhaps you could get a group of them to try out the new activity one weekend before camp begins. The more fun they have on the course, the more they will talk it up with their friends. If you woo these teens, the younger kids will salivate at the chance to do what the big kids get to do. Of course, having charismatic instructors leading these activities always helps make them popular.


Dear Bob,
Every year we have groups of campers that just do not seem to come together as a bunk. Even though these kids are grouped by age, some of them are more advanced or mature than others and some just seem to want to be in their own cliques. What do you suggest?

— Worried in the Willows

Dear Worried,

There are three factors to consider when talking about a bunk, cabin, or camp group coming together. One has to do with something you alluded to in your letter, the maturity level of group members. The second has to do with what creates a sense of “groupness” among peers. The third has to do with setting expectations for yourself as a camp professional that are reasonable when it comes to the behavior of children in groups (and helping camper parents do the same).

Determine Maturity Level

Bunk placement is a topic that would fill its own column. However, the better you size up the maturity level of campers and group them by experience, the more the group will benefit. Does the child have a best friend? Has she slept over at a friend’s house before? Does he play with other children his own age in groups? Does she control the play? These questions will help you determine what group is a best match for each camper.

Create a Sense of Groupness

Many groups don’t gel because they can‘t identify anything that defines their “groupness” — something they all have in common. At camp, you can promote unity in many ways. Create a special trip or experience exclusively for your cabin group that defines them as distinct from other campers. Give them a special responsibility, have them go on an overnight, or let them do a special activity. All of these opportunities can provide the common ground they can’t establish on their own.

Remember, children will always be children. Girls tend to prefer smaller cliques, and boys tend to react against boys they sense as immature. We must accept that these tendencies often don’t fade in just one or two weeks, nor do they change if we simply lecture kids.

However, camp professionals are in a great position to help children tolerate the differences within their bunk or group and to provide some activities (group sings, pep rallies, camp fires, etc.) where the group temporarily comes together. What influences child group behavior most powerfully is the culture of the adult group — at camp, the culture of the staff. If you model acceptance and inclusion and unanimously advocate for this in the campers, you will have a better chance of broadening the tolerance of the individual members of your camper 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 1999 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.