Staff training? Check. Nametags ready? Check. Ready to do a great job? Check. Campers are here? Check. It is my first day of camp and I am ready to put everything they taught us into action. I will be the hero and the campers will love me. I am their role model, right? I am older. I know more. I am mature, and I am ready!
Hold on just a minute. There is an interesting paradox about being a camp counselor. Yes, you know how to do more things than your campers, but one of the important roles of your job is to help the campers develop leadership skills. If you do everything for them, they likely will not learn as much. So as much as you want to lead, part of leading is facilitating others to learn to lead. It is a delicate balance, so be patient with yourself as you learn this skill. If you become more confident about turning over leadership to your campers while still being the leader, you will see them beam with the excitement of learning to lead, which is a quality of an emerging superhero!
Set the Stage
It is important to know what to expect from your campers. One quick tool is to think about how old they are and predict the typical behaviors, skills, and challenges of that age group. There will be individual differences, but it provides a good starting point. Think about what is important to them and what they are worried about at this age. Then you can brainstorm ways to show the campers that you care by asking questions and paying attention to them.
Build on the legacy of your camp. What is the philosophy and the main goal of your camp? What are the traditions? Helping campers see they are a part of something bigger is a great tool. Use the phrase: “Here at Camp [put in your camp name], we [insert what you need them to do].” You can say things such as, “Listen to each other and try to help each other because it is important to include everyone,” or “Laugh at things that are funny, but not things that are hurtful,” etc. You can help campers see that just as in a comic book or superhero movie, they can act differently at camp and try out new superpowers. The campers won’t always express it, but they care about what others think, and even though they act out, they have a need to be accepted.
One of the coolest things we can do is experience success and breed that feeling in others.Think about these scenarios.
Share the Goal
Taylor is an excellent soccer player and quickly becomes frustrated when Jameco continues to mess up the pass play or lose the ball. It is clear to everyone that Taylor is great and Jameco is not.
What if you go over to Taylor and say, “Hey Taylor, do you remember how excited you were the first time you scored a goal?” Taylor will probably grin. That’s when you respond, “How about we work together to give Jameco that feeling?” Taylor might react by saying, “Sure, but how? No skills in that department!” It is an honest assessment, so you can compliment the honesty, but state that the phrase might be hurtful and then share your plan.
Or Taylor might immediately see the positive options that you can brainstorm together. Those options might include:
- Ask Taylor to think like a coach by running some drills for everyone.
- Change the traditional rules so that points are scored for passing as well as making goals — talk about a high-scoring game!
- Ask Taylor to have as a personal goal that Jameco scores; then Taylor’s focus is on supporting Jameco’s success.
The campers are talking all at once, excited about the opportunity to create a skit for the camp. But it is chaos. Jamie and Sasha clearly both want to be in charge. Everyone wants to share ideas, but no one wants to listen to the ideas of others.
What if you call “Time-out” (using your most upbeat voice)? That should get their attention; then you can say, “I am so glad that all of you have ideas. Let’s get organized and create a great skit. How can we proceed? Who wants to lead our discussion?” If the same campers volunteer every time, thank them for volunteering, and call on another camper to give it a shot.
It is time for the group to be at the next activity/lunch/assembly and your campers are all over the place. Some are tying their shoes, changing clothes, teasing each other, but none are paying attention. With younger campers, you could have a line leader who rotates each day. If the campers are too young for this idea, suggest playing follow the leader to get from one place to another. From there, have a race to see how fast the campers can get ready.
The key with middle school and high school campers is making sure they know the drill so you are not nagging and can count on them to do the right thing. Then if they don’t, it is a simple: “Who remembers what we need to do now or where we go next?” Try a synchronized count off or a special call/cheer for just your group. Have a plan and do not put yourself in a power struggle by threatening to take away a privilege. If that happens the campers will feel you are taking over, and while you are the current authority, the campers still want you to be the counselor, not the authoritarian. A threat puts you in a corner because if you do not follow through with your word, the campers will not take you seriously. Be proactive with your group and your goals by having a game plan.
Follow Through with Actions and Words
One key to success is practice. Remember that “perfect” is not a realistic goal; we want to practice to get better. Superman did not become famous by saving only one person. No, the legend spread contagiously as more superhuman acts were accomplished. It will take multiple times for campers to see that you are serious about letting them lead. Only then will they begin to trust you as they gain success and learn to react calmly when they fail.
Yes, campers and counselors alike will fail sometimes. We can all learn from both success and failure, so don’t be afraid. The key is to learn what we can from mistakes and the situation. If we dwell on the failure (theirs or ours), we are too afraid to try again. By reflecting and talking with you, the campers will realize that you would not let them make their first attempt at leadership with a task that would hurt anyone. The campers’ trust will grow in all aspects.
Skills get easier each time you and your campers use them. Lifting a weight might seem impossible the first time, but the more you practice with the weight, the stronger your muscle becomes. Leadership is like a muscle — the more you use it, the stronger your skill set grows. As campers gain confidence, compliment them on how much you have seen them grow.
A common challenge for new counselors is a reaction of frustration when campers are disrespectful. For example, not listening, mocking, and generally acting like hooligans. When we give campers a chance to be leaders, it not only increases their leadership skills, but it builds their empathy for other leaders. Working to get their peers quiet increases the chance that the next time they see you trying to get people quiet, they will try to help, or at the very least quickly be quiet themselves. They will see the situation from the other side.
All leaders have something that makes them weak. Think about what really frustrates you and be ready to react with calm.
Parents and youth leaders set themselves up for trouble with the word “okay.” You have likely heard a parent say to his or her child, “We are going to run errands now, okay?” Is it really a choice? The word “okay” implies a yes or no response. So only ask “Okay?” if there really is a choice to be made. If it is time to go to lunch, say, “Let’s go to lunch.” Don’t tag “okay” at the end and it will be clearer to the campers that they need to follow a direction.
Last-second Superhero Tip
Know when to ask for help. Most caped crusaders have a side-kick, so use your peers and supervisors to help brainstorm. Ask for feedback and then use that feedback to learn. Tell your supervisor the situation, what you did, what the outcome was, and together brainstorm options for the future. The next time something similar happens you will have more ideas to adapt — more stars on your cape. And you can learn new ways to let the campers be the hero and wear the cape.
Questions to Ask Yourself and For Discussion
What is your plan to quickly get to know each camper as an individual?
Your goal is to learn who will need more support to become a part of the group and who you can support to be a leader within the group. Plan group games and pay attention to remembering something unique about each camper so you can ask them about it later. If you get to meet the parents, pay attention to how they act; there is a good chance the camper will have some similar behaviors.
How can I get the ball rolling?
Once you have identified that a camper has a leadership opportunity, talk with that camper about what should happen next and coach him or her through leading the transition. You can rehearse by saying, “Okay, pretend I am a camper.
What are you going to do and say?
What are examples of very small leadership opportunities to give campers? Call on a camper to check to make sure everyone is together and ready to go to the next activity. Get everyone quiet for an announcement. Share the rules for the next game. Sort the lost and found. Ask a camper to check on how another camper is feeling about camp. You can set the camper up for success by alerting him or her ahead of time that you will ask him or her to take this step sometime later in the day.
What happens if it blows up in the camper’s face?
In the moment, jump in with a light-hearted, “Put me in coach, I have an idea,” or “Tag-team, I have an idea.” Warn the camper that you might do that if he or she needs help, and also that he or she can call on you by saying, “Hold on, counselor (your name), what idea do you have? Bonus: This demonstrates that it is good, rather than embarrassing, to ask for help. You can debrief with the camper later and help him or her be ready for the next time.
How do I celebrate success?
Be low key as you begin so other campers do not feel jealous of your attention given to the other camper. It can be as simple as a high-five or thumbs-up to acknowledge he or she did well. Then, as you are walking to the next activity, you can touch base and ask the camper how the leadership opportunity went —what worked well and what could have been done differently. Celebrate withthe group but move on — and give detailed praise to the individual later.
Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts.
Meriwether Burrell is a junior at Samford University majoring in Marine Science. Her first job as a camp staff member was with St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center, and she has volunteered with youth in Jamaica, Romania, and South Carolina.
Sara Beth Burrell is a senior at T. L. Hanna High School. She has served as a volunteer day camp leader in Romania and South Carolina.
Gwynn M. Powell, PhD, is Park, Recreation, Tourism Management faculty at Clemson University. She has been involved with local and national ACA, has two decades of camp experience in the USA, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey and serves on the Board of Directors for the International Camping Fellowship. She loved collaborating with her nieces for this article.