When I think back to my first summer as a camp counselor over twenty years ago, I wish I knew then what I know now about working with a group of energetic campers. I was assigned to live with ten thirteen-year-old girls for seven weeks, and it didn't take long for them to figure out that I was a new staff member with a lot to learn! I hate to admit that I fumbled my way through many situations that summer and later as a novice teacher in various middle and high school classrooms. A few years ago, I was invited to work with a staff group during orientation training at a Cape Cod camp. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to address the topic of how to make the challenging times in a counselor's day easier to manage — a session that would have made a huge difference in how I handled my first cabin group during that inaugural summer.
In preparation for this training, a favorite math game adapted from an article in Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School (April, 1994) by Dan Brutlag came to mind. When I would play "SKUNK" in my classroom to teach the concept of probability, I began noticing some predictable responses from the students involved in the activity that had nothing to do with the mathematical ideas we were learning. Because "SKUNK" is a dice game that relies on both "chance" and "choice" to determine the winner, it is the perfect metaphor for camp staff in their work with children. Counselors who go through a typical day at camp without giving much thought to decisions being made and leave it up to chance will most likely find themselves frustrated and discouraged. However, if you make good choices and are deliberate in what you do regarding daily routines, it will take less effort to lead campers through a busy camp schedule.
In the many games of "SKUNK" played throughout the years, I have noticed several observations after playing with a group that can lead into opportunities to "unpack" the following points.
- There are varying degrees of risk takers; some players will stay standing no matter what, while others will be more conservative and sit down after one or two rolls of the dice. It is always interesting to see which players choose to stand until they are forced to take a seat because of the eventuality of a "1" being rolled. The difference between taking safe vs. unsafe risks at camp can also be explored.
- Many players will "wait" to decide whether or not they are going to sit or stay standing until they see what other players decide to do. Campers will admit to this if you ask them! This activity demonstrates the power of peer pressure and can ignite a good discussion on this topic.
- Another dimension that is worth pursuing is how goal setting is used in this activity. Players will often set personal goals in the hopes of accumulating more points with each round by remaining standing for a certain number of rolls (e.g.: stay standing for three rolls each time). This is a good time to talk about winning vs. self-improvement. Some players are out to "win" and will do everything possible to make that happen, while others will try to make small improvements in their individual score each round.
- I have had amazing conversations with eighth graders after playing this game on the topic of when do you know it is time to "put on the brakes" in a given situation? When is enough, enough? One girl responded with how she listens to her "gut" and the "voice inside her head" and uses that as her guide for when it is time to "stop." Wow!
- Finally, the correlation to intentional choices staff make regarding decisions in a typical camp day vs. chance or luck will be the focus for the remainder of the article.
One of the key differences between new counselors and veteran staff is the planning that takes place before the campers arrive. In a similar fashion to what I did many years ago, it is tempting to wait and see how things go before making a plan of action for leading a group of campers throughout the daily camp routine. However, taking this course — the "leave it up to chance" route — can make for a challenging start to the summer. What I propose instead, and what I wish I had known during my initial summer as a counselor, is to make intentional choices from the minute the campers arrive or wake-up to the time they leave for the day or turn in for the night.
Quest for Best Practices
"Quest for Best Practices" is a list of questions to help lead you through the steps of thinking through the "nitty-gritty" of a typical day at camp; it is adapted from one created by a superstar counselor I had the pleasure of working with at Camp Illahee (Brevard, North Carolina). Several activities are also included to assist you in making good choices at specific times throughout an action-packed camp day.
Road Rules (travel to/from day camp or taking a trip)
- Where/how are campers greeted?
- What guidelines should be enforced for safely loading and unloading a vehicle?
- What procedures should be followed if a camper does not report to the pickup area?
- What quiet activities can be done with campers if a delay is experienced?
- What are proper procedures to follow in the event there is an emergency while away from camp?
Something to think about: Roadside Bingo, the License Plate Game, String Games (Cat's Cradle), Aluminum Foil Art, Pirates of the Caravan (dress in costumes for an extra fun adventure), Counting Cows, Lines & Dots, and Battleship are just a FEW tricks you can have up your sleeve to make for eventful travel (see www.momsminivan.com  for more great suggestions and printable game sheets). "All American Car-i-Oke" by David Schiller (www.amazon.com ) is a fun sing along CD that can entertain a group of campers on a van or bus ride.
- What are positive ways to start the day?
- What is the best way to get campers up each morning?
- What tasks are campers expected to complete before/after breakfast?
- What is an appropriate way to handle a camper who doesn't want to do his/her job?
Something to think about: Start each day with a positive tone (exercise, shower, read, have a cup of coffee) and then play a peppy wake-up song to get campers up in the morning. To ensure that campers "buy in" to clean-up, it is a good idea to include your name on the job wheel. A "free space" can be added to give each camper a day off or a slot that allows campers to be "DJ" and select the tunes for that day's chore time. Other innovative suggestions include naming the broom or mop; musical bed-making (it is more fun to make someone else's bed than it is to make your own); and beat the clock (go for the world record). It is always a good idea to have campers agree to help each other when finished with their own job so that completing clean-up tasks is seen as a community effort and part of the culture of your camp.
- Where do counselors sit throughout the meal in relation to the campers?
- What manners should be enforced?
- What quiet games can be played at the table?
Something to think about: Asking LOTS of questions is a great way to start the conversation and connect campers with each other during a meal. What is the most unusual sandwich you have ever made? Who would you like to have visit you for a whole twentyfour hours? What would you like to have the world's largest collection of? These are just a few interesting questions from Larry Eckert's book, If Anybody Asks Me . . . 1001 Questions for Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, to get your group to interact and enjoy time spent together in the dining hall. A favorite game to play with campers at the table is "Two Truths and a Lie." Each person tells three things about themselves, two true and one that is a lie (not in any particular order). It is up to the group to decide which of the three statements is a lie (www.groupgames.com ).
- What are effective ways to get campers settled down?
- What is the counselor's role during rest hour?
- What consequences can be used if campers are not quiet?
Something to think about: Some campers will use this time to sleep, and often counselors want to take a nap after lunch; however, many children can be restless at this point in the day. Setting expectations for rest period is key to making it work for all involved. One counselor at Camp Rockmont (Black Mountain, North Carolina) offered a method that works for the boys in his cabin. He establishes a step system of varying degrees of quiet during rest hour to allow for different camper preferences. If a particular level is handled well, then campers move to the next step in the chain on the following day (campers can also move "backwards" in this system). The first step is complete silence with campers on their own bed doing individual activities (reading, letter writing, etc.). The second step allows campers to whisper the last 10 minutes of the hour. A final step might permit campers to play card games quietly on the floor of the cabin. One of my favorite writing activities that can be done during individual rest time is "Positive Me from A to Z." Campers write something descriptive/positive about themselves for each letter of the alphabet (Source Unknown).
- What if a camper is missing from an activity?
- What will campers do if the planned activity is completed before the period ends?
- What if a camper is reluctant to do an activity?
- What if severe weather threatens during an activity period?
Something to think about: It is always desirable to plan for the unexpected before being faced with the first rainy day or sudden change in the schedule. Know where to go in the event that an activity held outside is surprised by inclement weather and have a plan "B" in mind to keep campers engaged and calm. Creative counselors keep a hackey sack handy if soccer gets rained out, or waterfront staff can teach "land" lessons around a first aid topic or safety issue. Many camps have one day each week that departs from the normal activity schedule. Because of the additional amount of "down time" on these days, counselors need to be prepared with activities that are fun for the group to play. Whoonu (Cranium) and Catch Phrase (Hasbro) are excellent selections for this occasion. Taking a hike or doing a low-prop craft project such as making creations from duck tape (www.ducktape.com/ducktivities ) will keep the energy of the group focused in a positive way.
- What time should campers be in the cabin/bunk/tent at night?
- What is a good way to organize campers to get through the bedtime routine?
- What ideas can be used for devotion or friendship circle?
- What are ways to make an overnight camp-out fun?
- What if campers haven't settled down when the counselor is ready to leave for time-off?
Something to think about: The nightly routine can build lasting memories that campers will remember long after the summer is over. One Camp Illahee counselor had "Family Fun Night" each week in her cabin to promote unity and bonding. These tenth grade girls could hardly wait to return from evening program every Wednesday to play a fun game together. Another resourceful counselor painted "You Rock" on a rock that was found and started the "You Rock" award given to one camper each night by the previous night's recipient. Reading bedtime stories is still a great way to wind down from a busy camp day for campers of all ages! Don't forget to take along some Wintergreen Lifesavers on an overnight for the grand finale activity. Complete darkness and one Wintergreen Lifesaver per person is all that is needed for electrifying results. Have campers take turns biting down on their lifesavers (mouth open) so that a partner can view the sparks.
Important for Making Good Choices
- Set expectations EARLY for specific times of the camp day (have a group meeting on the first day of each session). Children count on you to do this!
- Meet with co-counselor(s) to make a unified plan before campers arrive (children need to see that staff are on the same page!).
- Be consistent with other counselors of the same age group when setting and adhering to expectations.
- Stick with your plan from the beginning (don't give in if a camper is not in agreement with the "rules") . . . adjust later if necessary.
- Ask campers for input about what to do should someone forget an expectation (campers will often be harder on themselves than counselors will be) and check in with the group regularly to see how things are going.
- Re-evaluate expectations at the start of each new session and make modifications as needed.
- Be intentional . . . make ordinary moments of the camp day extraordinary (Leiken 2003)! Using ideas from this article and what is learned in orientation training is a good start to making this happen.
- Being a great counselor is not a spectator sport!
Being a camp counselor is hard work, and as Kermit the Frog says so eloquently, "It's Not Easy Being Green." Making intentional choices leads to quality time spent with campers and is vital to being successful whether a novice or veteran staff member. Choose to make it a great summer, and chances are, it will be!
Web Site Resources
Brutlag, D. (1994). "Choice and Chance in Life: The Game of SKUNK" Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, Vol. 1, No. 1 (April 1994): 28‑33.
Eckert, L. (1998). If Anybody Asks Me…1001 Questions for Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. Wood and Barnes Publishing.
Leiken, J. (2003). "Making Ordinary Moments Extraordinary," Camping Magazine. American Camp Association.
Kim Aycock, M.S.T., is equally comfortable and effective teaching in a school classroom, working with camp staff during orientation training, or presenting educational sessions to camp leaders. She can be reached at 601-832-6223 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Originally published in the 2009 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.