Every child is unique. Every camp is unique. So, unique approaches when responding to the needs of children in camps are essential. Summer camps were started to support children during out-of-school time (Ozier, n. d.) and to offer survival skills for children to thrive in the real world, outside of the immediate relationship of their families. Summer camps are a valuable resource for all children, especially those who have a learning disability and have experienced trauma or situational factors such as homesickness and bullying.
Take for example Jameson Camp, a camp equipped to work with campers dealing with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. One week during camp, a child with Autism had trouble dealing with the camp rules. The child would frequently get upset and run from the counselors. The child was given consequences for their actions, but, at the beginning of the week, the child did not want to listen. The child needed to be reminded of the need to take time outs, especially time away from the rest of the group. As the week went on, however, the child did not need any reminders and would listen to the counselors. The counselors began to understand the reason for the child’s outburst, as the child stated at one point, “I just want to see my mom.”
It was hard to realize that the child was acting out simply because he could not express his feelings in the appropriate way. Instead, the child got upset and would not listen to the counselors. This child came to camp with difficulties dealing with consequences, and after he experienced camp, he showed an understanding of consequences for his actions and began to express feelings to the counselors. This was an amazing moment to realize the impact a counselor has on a child’s life and equally how much a child can change the lives of counselors. This is one example of the ways campers leave a lasting mark on your hearts and how these experiences change our own lives — as well as the camper’s life — forever.
As counselors, we must understand that in addition to sporting and outdoor activities, camps provide respite for parents and children while fostering new learning environments for behaviors to be learned, practiced, and enforced. We can teach children the value of good behaviors now, because in the real world, away from camp, certain behaviors may result in long-lasting repercussions. You can help campers with challenging backgrounds improve their behaviors in a safe learning environment.
Benefits of Camps for Children with Challenging Backgrounds
It is important to know that what is done at camp does not always stay at camp — especially positive behavior skills learned while there. The importance of positive relationships with people outside of family life can be experienced at camp (ACA, 2006). Many camps, especially those geared primarily to children with challenging backgrounds, offer some additional benefits such as giving support, offering possibilities, and demonstrating conflict resolution with the help of the camp community to improve children’s vision for their future.
Children can make a difference in their own lives with the support of a counselor who has a dream of helping campers change their lives from the camp experience. For example, counselors should encourage campers to take advantage of leadership opportunities and experiences. As one former camper reveals, “This year at school, I was class vice president. And if I did not go to camp, I would have not even thought of trying for a high spot in my school. Camp teaches you so many things that you use in everyday life” (ACA, 2006, p. 8).
The importance of positive adult mentors in a child’s life cannot be emphasized enough. As a camp counselor, you are a mentor who can improve campers’ abilities for society such as “support, positive values, positive identity, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, and social competencies” (Search Institute, 2007, p. 1). Children’s improvements can be seen over time, and the camp environment can give a child a safe place to learn from experiences.
One of the biggest things that children with challenging backgrounds can learn at camp is conflict resolution. Campers might not know how to respond to conflict when they first come to camp — but as a counselor, you can help guide them through it. Conflict will always happen in a group with different points of view and different needs. According to Brahm (2003), there are seven stages of conflict resolution, including “latent, conflict emergence, conflict escalation, hurting (stalemate), de-escalation (negotiation), dispute settlement, and post-conflict (peacemaking)” (para. 1). All of these stages can manifest at camp, although the order can be different and some stages might not happen (Brahm, 2003). According to Shelton (1999) and the U.S. Department of Education (2010), camp counselors teaching by example can be a wonderful way to show campers what to expect or how to deal with conflict on their own. Teach your campers by example — let them know the consequences of certain actions and show them the appropriate way to deal with conflict.
The outcomes from attending camp can vary in the social, emotional, cognitive, and value realms. As a camp counselor, it is important to understand these potential outcomes and do your best to support campers in the formation of these new skills.
Social skills are associated with children being able to make friends, lead activities, be more open to others, and continue friendships (ACA, 2006). For the most part, social skills increase after attending camp. Peer relationships and social comfort showed improvements six months after camp ended. Camp counselors can enhance children’s lives by supporting them to learn how to work with other people. Bundy, Ellis, and Roark (2008) reported children improved these skills after returning to the same camp for one to five years after the first camp experience.
Campers’ cognitive skills are associated with learning new activities and being able to critically think about situations in their lives to protect the life around them (ACA, 2006). Overall, camp improves campers’ cognitive development, specifically in “adventure and exploration” (ACA, 2006, p. 12). This area had the top scores after camp ended, but six months later, the scores returned to their original state (ACA, 2006; Thurber, Scanlin, Scheuler, & Henderson, 2007). This decline illustrates that environment plays a big part in improvements. During camp, it’s important to encourage your campers to learn new things and explore, because when they return home, they probably return to their (less adventurous) routine.
Emotional well-being can be associated with campers feeling good about themselves and being able to accomplish their goals due to the support of others (ACA, 2006). Children at camp that have good experiences can improve their emotional well-being after going home. According to Michalski et al. (2003), children improve their emotional well-being at camp and show improvement over children who do not attend camp. When kids feel good about themselves, it has a positive effect on their lives and the lives of those around them. Increase your campers’ emotional wellbeing by helping them accomplish goals and overcome challenges at camp. Understand that these small “wins” at camp will carry over into their lives outside of camp and help them in relationships.
Values are associated with learning about ourselves and deciding what activities are appropriate or inappropriate in our own lives. Spirituality means looking into the deeper meanings of life and being able to choose the right path, even though it can be a difficult decision (ACA, 2006). Parents of campers have reported seeing improvements in both areas and believed there was continual growth in their children after six months (ACA, 2006; Thurber, Scanlin, Scheuler, & Henderson, 2007).
Campers tend not to notice the growth in values and spirituality at camp — which might be due to internal struggle in their lives. But because the children do not notice the difference, their behavior changes naturally — which actually makes a huge impact on them. As their counselor, you should be a model of values and/or spirituality. Your campers will notice your actions — whether consciously or not — and start forming their own values and spirituality.
As a camp counselor this summer, you will be able to have fun with your campers — but it’s important to remember that campers are also learning important social, cognitive, emotional, and values skills while at camp. Foster the development of positive behaviors in your campers, and give them more than just fun — give them the opportunity to make healthy life choices, now and in the future.
American Camp Association. (2006). Youth development outcomes of the camp experience. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/research/enhance/directions 
Brahm, E. (2003). Conflict stages. Retrieved from www.beyondintractability.org/essay/conflict_stages/?nid=1068 
Bundy, A. T., Ellis, G. D., Roark, M. F. (2008). The more campers attend the same camp, the more they increase their competence, friendship skills and independence. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/sites/default/files/images/research/connect/presentations/2008/More_Campers_Attend_Same_Camp.pdf 
Michalski, J. H., Mishna, F., Worthington, C., & Cummings, R. (2003). A multi-method impact evaluation of a therapeutic summer camp program. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 20(1), 53-76.
Ozier, L. (n. d.). Camp as educator: Lessons learned from history. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/campmag/1009/camp-educator-lessons-learned-history 
Search Institute. (2007). Discovering what kids need to succeed. Retrieved from www.searchinstitute.org/developmental-assets/lists 
Shelton, M. (1999). Problem solving at camp: Creating win-win solutions. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/campmag/9905/problem-solving-camp-creating-winwin-solutions 
Thurber, C. A., Scanlin, M. M., Scheuler, L., & Henderson, K. A. (2007). Youth development outcomes of the camp experience: Evidence for multidimensional growth. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 36, 241-254. doi:10.1007/s10964-006-9142-6
U.S. Department of Education. (2010). Teaching conflict resolution. Retrieved from www.wate.com/Global/story.asp?S=371955 
Jennifer Rumple has been a physical therapist assistant for seven years and is graduating from IUPUI in Indianapolis, Indiana, in August 2012 with her master’s in social work. She has worked two years at Jameson Camp, which focuses on character development.
Carolyn Gentle-Genitty, PhD, is a student-centered research informed instructor, social scientist, truancy expert, published book and journal author, and assistant professor at Indiana University School of Social Work.
Originally published in the 2012 May/June Camping Magazine.