Meaningful moments can create lasting memories anywhere, anytime. A big part of the camp experience is the way these moments happen and who they happen with. When campers do something for the first time, make a friend, or challenge their comfort zone, they expand their skill set. While there is no universal formula for creating moments that matter, you will find many occasions to create such magic for your campers this summer.
While it’s true that special events provide a lot of spectacular memories, routine tasks such as putting boats away, hanging up costumes, or feeding animals can be equally effective in creating transformational moments. Average staff go through the motions of leading and ignore these more mundane growth opportunities for campers. Great staff look to enrich experiences by fostering connections that can serve to make even the most menial tasks memorable.
Georgetown psychology professor Rachel Barr says the best way for children to learn to effectively tell their own stories is to talk with them about what is happening in the moment. “These conversations teach the child how to encode and organize their memories and to tie them to other people and experiences” (Clark, 2020). When camp people tell stories, they capture the moment by referencing:
- What happened
- How it made them feel
- Who was there
- The emotions involved
- Where it occurred
- What the circumstances were that led to the experience
Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, says what’s important is the way you react to a situation — how you interpret information and behave as a result. Core beliefs — beliefs about who you are, other people, and the world around you — drive this action. These convictions determine how you perceive yourself and to what degree you feel worthy, competent, successful, and liked. Knowing your core beliefs can help you determine which ones are negative or unhelpful, because those can be detrimental to your self-acceptance and self-esteem (Brock, 2019).
Negative early experiences such as bullying, problems at home, or rejection by peers can all contribute to unhealthy beliefs. These impede your ability to formulate healthy judgments and can lead to relationship and social problems. The way to control the unhealthy decisions you make is to reflect and question how and why your negative beliefs came to be and what you can do about them. Then you can identify what specifically affects your behavior and replace those destructive ideas with more positive responses that are both useful and effective.
This transformation process takes time, courage, and the commitment to work on changing your core beliefs. Camp’s structure makes it a good place to implement needed behavior changes. When you struggle to find a positive way to act in a certain situation, look to fellow staff and supervisors for advice. They can often offer understanding, options, and a different perspective.
Have you ever thought, "What if I'm not good enough to do this job?" or "Everyone else is better than me" or "What if nobody likes me?" These core belief questions are indicative of low self-esteem. But you can work to replace such thoughts with ones that are hopeful and positive at camp. How? Take stock of your many successes during the season. Do you lead campers to their next activity on time? Take charge of table cleanup in the dining hall? Help to plan an activity? Master your routine responsibilities as a camp counselor? These are all victories that say something positive about your abilities.
If this is your first time working at camp, you may struggle with the core belief of feeling like an “outsider.” If your thoughts are saying, “I don’t fit in” or “I feel misunderstood,” talk to your camp leader about assigning you a defined responsibility that can help integrate you into the staff culture.
In simple terms a “decisive moment” is a meaningful experience that stirs emotion. The emotion you feel may be excitement, empowerment, fright, sadness, or a whole host of others. A decisive moment is personal, so the reason it has meaning to you is likely different from somebody else’s why, but the growth potential it provides may have more universal applications.
People who capture moments — like photographers and writers — seek ways to captivate their audience through pictures or words. Most camps have a few staff who seem to know instinctively how to do this. They see opportunities to point out something unusual or create a teachable moment that captures the campers’ imagination. These gifted staff are the fortunate few who have mastered the connection between a camper and an experience. They recognize the magic of the moment and use it as a training tool to emphasize an ability or to illustrate a point.
While camp will create some memorable moments by virtue of the overall experience, you may need help to identify what prompts less obvious opportunities. Begin by thinking of quietly significant experiences you have had and determine why they were important life lessons. If you can articulate a meaningful experience’s what and why, you can duplicate it in other areas of life.
The easiest way to build your memorable moments tool kit is to start with what matters to you. When you experience an event that makes you happy or think on a deeper level, pay attention to the circumstances and what made the activity notable. Capture the moment in a mental picture and include atmospheric conditions, what senses were involved, and how it made you feel. For example, if someone tells a great story at a campfire, think about how you got there. Was it windy? What did you smell? Did you see stars? Who were you seated with? All these factors were a part of that experience, and any one of them might help to make it memorable.
When you are first getting to know your campers, try using camp places or activities in your examples to build a unified foundation. Give a place where a group activity happened a catchy name (“Froggers’ Field” for the meadow where you went looking for frogs) or create a ritual that helps to solidify an experience (a secret handshake before heading to breakfast each morning just for members of your cabin) — as long as you include a why that makes it important to them. This is a great time to use your collective personal experiences to expand their comfort zones through mystery, imagination, or emotion.
Just pointing out an opportunity to learn is not as powerful as making it personal. Casually participating in camp activities equates to superficial relationships; you will be judged on your lackadaisical effort. Great staff participate in everything. Avoid letting a little fatigue or embarrassment keep you out of the game. The most memorable experiences are often those that cause discomfort (positive or negative). Campers will mimic your example and have more respect for you if you are honest about what intimidates you.
Common examples of areas where heightened responsiveness affects self-awareness include:
- Horseback riding
- Ropes course
- Performing on stage
- Playing sports
- Leading a song
If you participate in activities that are outside your comfort zone, all emotions — both positive and negative — can play a big part in meaningful participation. Talking to a camper just before they do something for the first time is a great way to assess and address their predetermined assumptions.
When a magical moment presents itself, the way you frame the subsequent conversation matters. Staff who have a high aptitude for knowing how to effectively communicate are able to put the event into proper context. Both big and small moments need to be framed with three components:
- What you see
- How it pertains to the person or group
- What its value is
If you create a narrative to define a moment that communicates meaning and insight, your campers will likely remember it — and you increase the potential for a lasting positive impact. Be sure to tie action to purpose, and stay focused on the emotionality of the moment for the greatest payoff.
One big caution for framing conversations: avoid taking negative connotations from camper responses. How your campers think and respond will greatly depend on their age. The big secret here is to listen to what they are saying. Their statements will reveal useful information and define thinking you can help to redirect. For example, in response to telling your campers about an upcoming zip line experience a camper says, “I don’t want to go on the zip line. It’s dangerous, and I could get hurt.” Before you respond, think about how to reframe the event for that camper. Your response could be, “Have you heard the amazing stories the other campers are telling about their experience? Why do you think they’re so excited?” Stick to the moment and focus on managing risk in a controlled environment, not the insecurities of the unknown.
A Memorable Moment — A Reflection
I recall an evening that started like any typical overnight program for day campers. Regular camp was over for the day, and the remaining 100+ campers were spending the night. They and the energetic staff of 25 were looking forward to eating dinner. Temperatures were in the 90s, everyone was tired and hungry, and dinner was only a few minutes away.
The people helping to prepare dinner for this optional activity were not regular kitchen staff but a combination of specialists and senior campers who had asked to be part of the prep process. One such camper was a sarcastic, know-it-all, 14-year-old boy named Steve who came to camp with a long history of living in foster homes.
As the volunteers began to take the food out to the picnic area, I reminded them of the very tight spring on the screen door. I didn’t want anyone to have an accident. Steve stacked way too many potato salad containers in his hands and headed toward the door. I said, “Please be careful, that’s all the potato salad we have.”
Steve shouted back, “Shut up, I know what I’m doing.” Just then the door slammed and the full containers flew in every direction.
Time slowed down as we watched the containers hit the ground one by one and the potato salad go splat all over the floor in a beautifully choreographed motion of mayonnaise mayhem. The staff stared at the mess then looked at me in shock as they wondered what to do about the hungry campers not far away.
“Will someone please help Steve clean that up?” I asked.
Steve defaulted to his survival instincts and said, “Go ahead, send me home. Yell at me. Or call the cops and have me arrested. I don’t care what you do; I’m used to it.”
Much to his amazement, in a level voice I simply asked him, “Do you know where we keep the mops?”
That moment of showing calm in the kitchen with Steve paid off in ways I never expected. He ended up participating (somewhat) in sports, swimming, archery — and he even learned how to saddle a horse. In his own way, he bonded with a few staff and even managed a few smiles along the way.
A few months after camp I received a letter in the mail from Steve. In broken sentences and misspelled words, he thanked me for not kicking him out of camp. Toward the end of his two paragraphs, he said no one had ever given him a chance to succeed. When he dropped all the potato salad and was treated with respect, his life changed. He was more respectful to his peers, had enrolled in school, and had made it three months in the same foster home.
He signed his letter, “Love, Steve. I hope to see you next summer.”
Here’s to you and to the many meaningful moments you will share with your campers this summer. They will matter more than you know.
Photos courtesy of Outpost Summer Camps, San Diego, CA; YMCA Camp Carson, Princeton, IN; Camp Fire Alaska — Camp K, Alaska.
- What creates a meaningful moment?
- What are two core beliefs that are important to you?
- What is one memorable moment you’ve had in your life? Why did it stick with you?
- Can you describe one method for capturing moments?
- What are the three components for framing an event?
- Brock, L. (2019). Recent Posts. Wellness & Purpose. wellnessandpurpose.com/https-www-wellnessandpurpose-com-the-importance-of-making-happy-memories-recentposts/
- Clark, C. (2020. May 19). Parenting. The Washington Post. Washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/05/19/science-backed-ways-create-lasting-memories-your-child
Greg Cronin, MPA, CCD, CPRP, was a camp director for over 30 years and has been conducting staff trainings since the early 1980s. He is a nationally known conference speaker, consultant, staff trainer, author, former American Camp Association (ACA) National Board member, standards visitor, and corporate trainer with more than 200 clients nationwide. Greg has trained thousands of camp staff on youth development and leadership. He has appeared on TV, radio, and Capitol Hill as a spokesperson for the camp experience and is a frequent contributor to Camping Magazine. Greg is featured in ACA’s By the Expert book series with chapters on leadership and staff training. To book Greg for staff orientations, trainings, and workshops, please call 703-395-6661 or email email@example.com.