I am often asked for ideas about what primary skills directors can pass on to their staff that will help prepare and equip them for the increasingly challenging work of supervising campers. Given that campers travel in groups and that camp is itself a community, the most essential set of skills directors can impart to staff are simple, yet effective group skills.
When children are in a group, their behavior takes on a life of its own, often much different from what we experience with them one-on-one. How many times have staff met alone with campers to discuss their behavior, getting sincere apologies and well-intentioned promises about how they swear they will change, only to watch them revert to their old ways within minutes of rejoining their cabin or group. Camp is a collection of groups, forming and reforming throughout the day. Having ways to work with campers in groups within your existing program may be the single most effective way to empower your staff.
One trick to working with campers in groups is to formalize simple, brief meetings so that the meetings become an expected, seamless part of the program, adding value and awareness to what campers experience at camp. I offer five different kinds of meetings, each with its own objectives and simple agreements, that give counselors an edge in being successful with their charges. Meetings such as these have become a best practice at many camps around the country and can add immensely to any camp's culture by being incorporated as a regular feature into the existing program. It may be helpful to think of them not as meetings but as mini-activities. The five different mini-activities are as follows:
Group or Cabin Meetings
Group or bunk meetings as described here happen once or even twice a day. They are brief (five to ten minutes), regular check-ins with simple ground rules. Campers come to expect the meetings and to look forward to them because they are done at the same time each day. The ground rules are easy:
Campers sit in a circle or huddle. It helps if each group or cabin has its own object, like a conch shell or a large pinecone, to pass around while people are speaking. This adds a bit of ritual to the gathering and puts the group's stamp on the meetings. Facilitated by a counselor, the meeting has a simple focus, yet offers a useful pause to the pace of the day. The following are the most important points:
Briefing Before and Debriefing After an Activity
This is an extremely effective practice that all specialists and cabin or group staff should be trained to do. The purpose of the meetings is to lay out the goals and focus of each activity before it begins and then to take the last five to ten minutes at the end to debrief. The following is a format that a specialist or activity leader might follow while briefing campers on what they are about to do:
While the activity progresses, staff interact with and observe campers so they can make comments at the end of the period about the following:
This gem of an activity comes from Ira Seinfeld at Camp Lokanda in New York. Done with a full unit, like lower boys camp, it is a group activity that takes place at the same time each day and reinforces such camp values as friendship, cooperation, and support. Campers are assembled in a safe, somewhat enclosed place such as a gazebo or a deck. Counselors announce the activity, and campers raise their hands to be called on. Once called on, campers s