Students can reap many benefits while serving as camp counselors. Working at camp helps prepare them for college or their chosen career, and they learn how to get along with people from diverse backgrounds. However, there are other educational opportunities associated with the role of camp counselor that can be offered during the summer camp period.
In the summer of 2000, Camp Alvernia, in Centerport, New York, developed a course called "Leadership Skills in Community Youth Recreation." The course was based in part on the camp’s annual precamp orientation program, and camp counselors who participated could earn college credit.
The course was accredited by the National Program for Non-collegiate Sponsored Instruction (referred to as National PONSI), which recommended four college credits for any counselor completing the course. National PONSI was initiated by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York in 1973. In 1994, California State University joined New York as a cooperative partner. PONSI provides the administration of a system for non-collegiate organizations nationwide that evaluates courses and educational programs and subsequently recommends to universities and colleges that credit be granted when these courses and educational programs compare to college-level programs.
The course presents one way to keep valuable staff by providing an additional incentive for the counselors to continue with the camp experience. Counselors, when empowered to feel like leaders, identified with the rest of the staff, such as supervisors, program directors, the assistant director, and the director. In other words, they became more closely associated with the camp because of their better understanding of the complexities of the job. It was not just an "easy" camp counselor position but a job that required diligence and know-how. In addition, counselors as leaders then influenced camper behavior, which resulted in a happier, safer, and more effective camp.
The Course Curriculum and Objectives
This college-level course, "Leadership Skills in Community Youth Recreation," enabled the camp directors to cover more areas and spend appropriate time that is not always available in camp orientation. It offered additional time and depth, which enhanced the counselor’s readiness in dealing and working with campers. The course used the text The Situational Leader by Paul Hersey, and lectures and discussion groups allowed an in-depth approach to positive camping skills.
The course developed multifaceted objectives for the participants. For the counselors, the objectives were to be able to:
- create and organize age-appropriate activities
- practice active listening skills with campers, co-workers, and supervising staff
- identify the specific needs and abilities of children in groups
- adjust strategy for instruction and supervision based on the needs of the members of the group
The learning experience of the course emphasized the following areas:
- proper supervision of campers
- components of a well-run activity
- management strategies in dealing with children
- identifying child abuse and neglect
- disciplining with dignity
- the functions of play
- sports and young children
- risk management
Focus on developing leaders
The term "leadership" was used extensively in the course, promoting the belief that all staff members are leaders and to be effective as leaders they must learn and reflect on leadership styles and how to be an effective leader in all situations. The classes, discussions, readings, and activities focused on being a situational leader, or defining ways in which a leader totally individualizes a program.
The emphasis was continually and primarily on the people involved. The tasks were secondary but essential. In other words, a counselor should never lose sight of the camper; the camper is the focus, not the activity. Planning the activity was essential in bringing out the focus where it belonged. It was essential to know when to give support and when to give instruction. Adequate understanding of the needs of the camper created the fertile environment necessary for a rich camp experience. The ability to understand this was critical to becoming a good leader.
Learning to explore and observe individual differences in people and to respond to those individual differences led to creating young leaders. In The Situational Leader, Hersey emphasized that leadership style is defined in the manner that is observed by others. All too often there is the attempt to define one’s own style of leadership and, thus, an individual cannot understand when others do not define it as he do. It is not how an individual sees himself, but how those he is trying to influence observe the individual. According to Hersey, others’ perceptions, not one’s own, will affect behavior.
Elements of the Course
In addition to reading the text and participating in lectures and discussion groups, counselors were required to keep a daily journal and plan activities.
During the eight-week camp season, counselors were required to keep a daily, self-directed learning log in which they would describe an incident or event, analyze the incident or event, consider the alternatives, and plan on how they would apply their skills and behaviors in similar situations that may arise in the future. Their entries did not detail complaints about an event but rather a careful look to determine how to make the situation better. One student wrote, "In my eyes, leadership isn’t always the movement, the control, or the wielding of power, but the ability to use one’s own knowledge to promote an environment and an activity space that is safe and appropriate." The students’ reflections on their roles as leaders were empowering to them.
To emphasize leadership in a practical manner, the counselors were required to conduct two activities of their choosing. In the pre-planning stage, they were to meet with their supervisor and discuss their plans for the activity and the appropriateness for the age level of the campers involved. Also included in the pre-planning stage were the aim, goal, and purpose of the activity and the motivation.
Determination was also made as to the procedures, implementation, and closure of the planned activity. These areas of pre-planning became basically the points of observation. The post-activity meeting allowed a review of the pre-planning meeting and observation assessment, as well as comments and suggestions for improvement. The counselor was afforded a clear, precise, and directed manner to evaluate their style of leading the activity and, in turn, another leader evaluated their style as well.
Counselors were given a structure within which to plan their activities. They were not "winging it," which often times happens. They were armed with two things: they knew what they were going to do, and they had the confidence of knowing how to do it.
The experience of teaching the course allowed the camp leadership the luxury to look at the total camp (campers, staff, and program) in a new light and from a different point of view. They learned many lessons through the process of creating and implementing the course on leadership:
- To refocus precamp orientation. Orientation seeks to create an effective staff ready to implement an effective and successful camp. Since there is a correlation between topics covered in orientation and in the leadership course, it makes sense to run the orientation in a manner similar to the course. In effect, to use the overriding theme of leadership.
- Leadership style affects behavior and, thus, attitude. Again, from the leader standpoint, behavior is what the leader says and does and attitude is one’s feeling, value, and concern for or against something. A behavior evokes a response in someone else. It is one thing to bring awareness to others regarding dealing with children, managing anger between children, encouraging sportsmanship, etc. It is another to demonstrate and discuss how one’s behavior and attitude as a leader will possibly be the most powerful tool to develop the desired behavior and attitude in campers.
- Improve the course. Based on recommendations of the students and PONSI and on camp leaders’ reflections of the presentation of the course, the themes found in the readings will become a focal point of the course. Building themes will create more interpersonal meetings with the students during the camp season. Also assigning weekly themes for counselors’ logs will help them focus and observe on particulars rather than a general approach, which will result in more effectiveness in performance and confidence in the counselors.
- Improve supervision. Supervision, following leadership management styles, can be more effective as well as supportive and productive. Individualizing the course allows camp leaders to model the characteristics of leadership that they are trying to instill in counselors. By addressing counselors’ individual needs at different periods in the program and acting accordingly, camp leaders can more adequately demonstrate the approach they want counselors to take with campers.
- Improve the camp program. Improvements in the camp program are based in part on evaluations from campers and parents and suggestions from staff. The role of leadership will have an immense improvement for the camp, as it encourages staff to take campers from where they are and their experience level rather than the program being the leading component.
Camp Alvernia’s training program for counselors has improved and been strengthened, and camp leaders will continue to look for other opportunities to do so. They hope the leadership course will help increase their counselor retention rate, which is currently 50 percent. By investing time and money more effectively, most specifically by affording the counselors leadership skills that will give them confidence on the job at camp and a chance to practice invaluable skills that will last them a lifetime — not to mention college credit — they hope their retention rate will increase dramatically.
Robert LaFave, O.S.F., is director of Camp Alvernia, in Centerport, New York.
Sandra Buck Loughran, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of elementary and early education at Queens College, City University of New York.
Originally published in the 2001 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.