Often there is mystery around what being a camp counselor really is or means. But if we take a moment to reflect on what kids (ages 5 to 95) need from their caregivers, the secret mission is not so secret after all.
Imagine asking a group of young people the question, “How can adults show you they care?” What do you think five- to six-year-olds might say? Now think back to when you were that age. What was it that you needed from the adults in your life?
The Search Institute (2013) posed that very question to a kindergarten class, and here are some of their responses:
- “Notice me and smile.”
- “Ask me about myself.”
- “Be honest with me.”
- “Empower me.”
- “Ask me to help.”
- “Make time for me.”
- “Surprise me.”
- “Believe in me.”
- “Respect my choices.”
- “Help me make decisions.”
- “Listen to my stories.”
- “Catch me doing something right.”
- “Let me act my age.”
- “Be silly with me.”
- “Play with me.”
- “Ask for my opinion.”
- “Trust me.”
- “Help me be my best.”
Read through the list again slowly. Say each phrase out loud. Did anything strike you about a specific response? Which of these did you need most as a young person? Which of these will be easiest/hardest for you to do this summer at camp?
“If you wait until you are really sure, you will never take off the training wheels.”
In the spirit of including the youth perspective — along with a dose of humor — each section of this article begins with a quote from author Cynthia Copeland Lewis, who wrote Really Important Stuff My Kids Have Taught Me (1994).
It is safe to say that every single item on the preceding list is needed in some way by all ages. If we keep this premise at the heart of our mission as camp staff, in many ways, our job is relatively easy. We know exactly what we need to do.
Your mission this summer will become Clear (with a capital C). We will look at how to build connections, community, and creative moments by making intentional choices and exhibiting curiosity. When conflict is seen as a growth opportunity and there is commitment to the job, you will be well on your way to taking off the training wheels with confidence.
“Remember everyone’s favorite color.”
Making connections with campers is the first step to showing you care. Regardless of their age, you, too, were in their shoes at some point in the course of your development. Remember what it was like to be 7, 12, or 15. Find out who they are and what makes them tick. Spend time getting to know them. Ask questions and then stick around to hear the answers.
Your job during the first few hours/days of a camp session is to gather information about the individuals in your group and the group as a whole. Be a detective. You don’t necessarily need to remember everyone’s favorite color, but do try to discover what makes each person unique and special. Make note of your observations and interactions. (It may even be helpful to write them down.)
The often silly “ice breaker” games that you play in staff training will come in handy to catch tidbits of what a person likes or doesn’t like. What they enjoy doing or would rather avoid. What they are open to or may need some encouragement to try. Pay close attention to what is said and not said.
“If you want to make a friend at the beach, build a really large sand castle.”
Not only will you be connecting with the campers in your group, but you will also help campers connect with each other (which happens organically when building a sandcastle). This is how the random individuals of similar age or activity interest who happen to be attending camp this summer can evolve into more than just a group. With your guidance, they can become a cohesive community, working and playing well with one another and having heaps of fun.
Start by having campers find out what they have in common, then venture into discovering differences. This can be as simple as challenging campers to match up with a partner and ask questions to find one or more nonphysical, nonobvious commonalities. Encourage pairs to focus on something other than hair or shoe color. (Saying they both breathe oxygen also doesn’t count!) Camper duos may discover that they were born in the same month or enjoy playing volleyball. If one camper likes basketball and the other prefers soccer, the commonality is that they both like sports. After finding two or three things in common, they can switch partners.
A great activity for helping campers learn and appreciate differences is using a version of “Human Treasure Hunt.” Place campers in groups (cabin or day camp groups are perfect for this), and give them categories with points attached; pets, for example. Award groups points for finding out how many different kinds of pets/animals are represented. If two people in the same group have a dog, it only counts once. The camper who lives in a rural area and has chickens, cows, rabbits, ducks, etc., becomes the hero by racking up points for the team.
Other categories could be home state (or town) and birthday month. Include bonus point opportunities for being born outside the US or having a birthday on a holiday. Sharing instruments played, languages spoken, and sibling status also work well. The final category can be years at camp (added points to anyone who is new this year).
The more diverse a group is, the more points they collect. This activity is a fun way to introduce differences and to appreciate what each person brings to the table (even if this is a camper’s first time at camp). It is the start of having a common shared experience from which to build upon. It is the foundation of a really big sand castle with room for everyone to participate. Nothing beats seeing the smiles and laughter exchanged when campers begin to feel they belong.
“Lunch tastes better out of a Power Ranger lunch box than a brown paper bag.”
As camp consultant and professional mentor Jeffrey Leiken has been known to say, “Camp is all about making ordinary moments EXTRAordinary.” This is easier than you might think. Look around. Use your imagination. Invite campers to use theirs. Did you ever look up at the sky and point out cloud formations that looked like people or letters of the alphabet when you were a kid?
You can do the same thing with trees or rocks. Try leading a search for trees that resemble animals or other interesting objects. The elephant tree has a curved trunk. The octopus tree has branches reaching in all directions. A rocket tree is very tall and comes to a narrow point, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa is not the straightest tree around.
Reach in your backpack and pull out two objects. Ask campers to find a way to “mash” them together into something new. These moments don’t have to be over the top or cost money. Think of how much better your cheese sandwich and apple slices taste when they come in a Power Ranger lunch box rather than a brown paper bag. What your campers will remember is the time you took to be silly with them.
“If someone has a black thing on their tooth, tell them.”
You have a choice of whether or not you tell the person about the thing on their tooth. There are ramifications either way. The person may be relieved or embarrassed. As you may expect, there are a lot of decisions to make in the course of a typical day at camp with varying levels of consequences. The more intentional you are, the better the outcome. Go with the choice that benefits the camper; it will give you a win every time.
You can choose to be early, on time, or late. You can hang out with other staff or spend that time seeking out the camper who needs a friend because they are sitting by themselves. You can invite a camper to help and learn something in the process, or you can do it yourself because it’s easier. You can tell stories mostly about yourself or ask questions to hear others’ experiences. You can be in the game or sit on the sidelines. You can ignore an unkind comment or offer the speaker some coaching on how to do it better next time. You get the idea. (And you know the better choice.)
You can also be thoughtful about teaching campers the process of making decisions (and respecting their choices when they do). Your intentional choices help forge connections, build community, and make that cheese sandwich taste a whole lot better. Your choices determine the impact you make.
“Even babies like to grab things just beyond their reach.”
Babies and puppies have one thing in common. They are curious. They often look at things for the very first time and want to know more. They look up. They point. They put it in their mouths. This summer is a good time to summon your inner curiosity on a regular basis. Ask “Why? and what if?” Put judgment aside. Grab for things out of your reach. Be open to what a given moment is teaching you about a camper or fellow staff member.
Kids (and people in general) do well if they can. Not doing something may mean they can’t (yet). A stressor, barrier, or misunderstanding may be getting in the way of their success. Summon your detective cap again to determine if a certain need is unmet or learning a skill would be beneficial. Consider how you might help or support an uneasy camper.
A clock may help a cabin that is getting up too early. Connect a camper needing a friend with a buddy or introduce an activity that includes the entire group. Work with a camper who may not be able to do a forward roll, get up on skis, or hit the target (yet). Who knows, you may find a really cool butterfly while looking for tadpoles!
“A Band-Aid always makes it feel better.”
It would be naive to think there is no conflict at camp. Expect it. Disagreement will happen. It is normal. A camper borrows something without asking. A peer says something because you are late. Again. Camp is the perfect ecosystem to practice how to navigate conflict — your own and your campers’. Whether you embrace discord or try to run away from it, don’t let it get the best of you. Friction is a wonderful opportunity for growth.
There will be a time during the week or session when things don’t go so well with your group. Something is “off,” and you aren’t quite sure what it is. Or maybe you know exactly what it is but would rather not deal with it. This is when you dig deep and find something for your group to do that pulls them together instead of apart.
Have them invent a machine that would benefit camp and in which everyone has a role. Ask them to give the machine a name. Then invite other groups to do the same and turn it into a unit or camp-wide event.
See how campers get along. Help them work through disagreements without taking over. Set them up for success. Remind them that a Band-Aid (a temporary solution) can be good for healing their own and the hurt feelings of others. Once things have been patched up, the other side is a little sweeter than it was before.
“Anybody can skate on smooth ice.”
This is a biggie. You signed a contract and want to see your commitment through. You want to be “all in” for camp for the long haul. Good or bad. Easy or hard. Fun or not fun. Regardless, there will be times when you don’t feel like it. You will contemplate throwing in the towel.
Just remember that camp also made a commitment to you. Reach out to your supervisor and ask for support, advice, or coaching. Take advantage of the resources that have been made available to you. Recognize that temporary setbacks are just that. The ice will be smooth again.
“Look at the footprints you’ve made.”
You know in your heart that you are making an impact. You will see the difference you are making each and every day. You know with absolute clarity that your not-so-secret mission is to be a Champion (with a capital C) in the eyes of your campers. Training wheels? What training wheels? You’ve got this!
- What choices will you make that foster connection and building community within your camper group?
- What stressors, barriers, or other obstacles do you anticipate may get in the way of your campers’ success?
- What is your typical reaction to conflict? Do you embrace it or run in the opposite direction? How might you see it as a growth opportunity in yourself and with campers this summer?
- Who can you turn to when you need support? What other resources are in place to help you be successful?
- Who was a champion for you in your childhood? How can you be that person for the campers in your care this summer?
Lewis, C. L. (1994). Really important stuff my kids have taught me. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.
Search Institute. (2013). How to Show Kids You Care. youtube.com/watch?v=QTepg6h1_AU
Kim Aycock, MST, has several decades of experience developing young people with skills robots are unable to do. While blending the talents of a master teacher with the knowledge of a seasoned camp expert, Kim ignites the learning for varying levels of camp pros worldwide through her interactive and innovative presentations. Kim speaks at regional and national conferences, contributes regularly to Camping Magazine and ACA blogs, and serves as co-chair of ACA’s Staff Recruitment and Retention Committee.