While many risks can be managed through decisions regarding such things as facilities, equipment, requirements for participation, and policies, it is primarily through the day-to-day decision-making by staff that a camp has the most capacity in establishing control over risk. In large part this is because most accidents involving campers occur in program, living, and common areas — typically when campers are (or were supposed to be) under the supervision of frontline camp staff such as cabin counselors, program staff, and activity area supervisors. This makes sense because frontline staff spend the most time directly with campers, during program activities, mealtimes, overnight, etc. While the number of camper-contact hours may increase the opportunity for an accident to occur on their watch, the reality is most camper accidents occur as a direct result of frontline staff making poor decisions, specifically in areas of safety or supervision, putting campers at risk.

One common contributing factor is that camps typically employ high-school and college-aged staff who have not yet developed good decision-making skills because the frontal lobes of their brains are not yet fully developed. The frontal lobes play an important role in higher psychological processes, such as:

  • planning
  • decision-making
  • impulse control
  • understanding consequences of actions or behaviors
  • reasoning

Mature adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of consequences. Teens and young adults process information with the amygdala, the brain’s emotional part. As the adolescent brain cannot fully understand cause-effect relationships, they are not yet equipped to evaluate the consequences of actions or weigh information, such as risk, the same way adults do. Think of the brain like a computer: they can’t run the software without the proper hardware. Expecting teenage or young adult staff to recognize hazards or make cause-effect decisions in a supervisory rule is often unrealistic — and unfortunately often leads to serious errors in judgment and camper injuries. Good judgment isn’t something they are biologically ready to excel in. Further, younger adult staff may simply have limited experience in decision-making due to age and life experience. For some, this may also be a consequence of “helicopter parenting,” wherein they simply have not had the opportunity to learn or practice decision-making skills. As such, without appropriate guidance and instruction, they often make choices without a clear understanding of the consequences or the impact those choices have on the camper(s) and/or the camp. As most accidents that occur in camps are preventable, it is critical for directors to train camp staff in decision-making before expecting teen or young adult staff to care for other people’s children.

The following discussion touches on the key staff decision-making topic areas that most often arise when camps experience accidents/incidents, and which directors are encouraged to cover in staff training:

  • Understanding cause-effect relationships; every decision/action has a consequence
  • Active supervision and its importance in accident prevention
  • Making decisions to modify activities and/or supervision (i.e., such as when there are changing environmental conditions or to meet the specific needs and abilities of the campers who are participating at that time)
  • Making decisions regarding personal conduct, including time off away from camp, and the potential impact and consequences to the camp, campers, and themselves
  • Empowering staff to say no to campers and not give in to camper pressure when safety is an issue

Newton’s Third Law of Decision-Making

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction when applied in a decision-making context equates to “every decision, choice, action — and lack of action — has a consequence.” If staff make a poor decision, they get a poor outcome. If staff decide not to act on something when they should, they or the camp will have to deal with the consequences of that decision too. The following training activity is designed to help staff understand the correlation between their daily decisions and how they impact the campers’ experience, safety, or the quality of the program.

How: Staff identify decisions they will have to make every day at camp. In pairs or small groups, have staff make a list with two columns. In the left-hand column, they should list every decision they might make in a typical 24-hour day at camp. Day camp staff should include commuting times and choices made for their after-hours time. The intent is to make the list as exhaustive as possible, so it should include things like when they get up, when they take their shower, how and when they will wake their campers, what time they depart the cabin for meals, what time they come in on their night off, etc. After they have completed their decisions list, in the right-hand column have them list the possible consequences of each decision. Then discuss how these consequences impact the campers, the camp, other staff, as well as themselves. During discussions, be sure to include that some consequences are more serious than others, but a less-serious consequence does not imply that something didn’t happen as a result. So, while it may not be life or death that campers were late to breakfast one morning, other decisions may have very serious consequences — such as not getting a camper their medications on time.

Be Where the Action Is

From the pool to the playground, all the standard operating procedures in the world become irrelevant when staff aren’t actually supervising the participants. The following training helps staff better understand supervision concepts like physical proximity to campers, the importance of paying continual attention, and how consistently implemented effective surveillance strategies are critical keys to preventing injury.

How: Have staff identify where campers are physically located in various program activities, living areas, or other “camp life” (Where is the action?). They then must decide where they will be physically located to supervise the campers in that activity/location/event (Be where the action is). They will then justify and defend their decisions by answering a series of questions for the rest of the group or a panel of judges. Questions can be formulated based on the specifics of the camp program, activity conducted, and clientele served. For example:

  • What types of camper behaviors are they looking for?
  • How are they keeping track of campers?
  • Are they moving around or staying in one location?
  • How long will it take them to respond to a camper from that distance?

This activity can be conducted on site by physically moving staff to each location, demonstrating (or observing) where campers will be located, and allowing staff to physically move to where they think they should be positioned and justify their choices. Or it can be conducted as a classroom activity using photographs and/or diagrams. In this case, prepare ahead by taking photos or creating detailed diagrams of camp program and living areas/buildings. Be sure to include inside cabins, shower houses/restrooms, any areas where campers “hang out,” and meeting places such as arrival/departure spots. One way to organize this activity is to “follow the camper day” (from arrival to departure for day camps).

Factors That Impact Supervision

Supervision should not be static. Many variables at camp can (and often should) impact how an activity or group is supervised. Campers themselves often have a great deal of impact on the staff’s ability to properly supervise an activity; they may also influence emergency response. For example, a group of six-year-old nonswimmers requires a different type of supervision in the pool than a group of 13-year-old swimmers practicing for swim team. Camper age or skill level may impact their ability to follow instructions, attention span, desire to learn, and their physical or mental ability to execute or master skills. Campers with varying abilities or medical conditions may require activity modifications, increased supervision, or specialized equipment.

Even the same activity — such as swimming — when conducted in a different environment may require different levels of supervision, such as to accommodate for the differences in water visibility between the clear swimming pool and the murky waters of the waterfront. Changes in weather or physical conditions at activity locations can also create a need to modify an activity.

Even though activities and participants are never static, frontline staff often are not empowered to make responsive decisions. Such decisions might entail increasing the number of staff supervising an activity or responding to variations due to facility conditions, weather, capacity, equipment usage, or other unforeseen conditions that may alter the manner in which an activity is conducted and/or supervised, including limiting where activities take place, or in responding to issues such as participant fatigue, skills ability, etc.

How: Evaluate each activity separately. Provide staff with a three-column grid. In the far-left column, list camper and activity variables that are applicable to your camp’s clientele and the specific program activity being evaluated.

Examples of camper variables include such things as camper ages, physical abilities, mental abilities, mental/emotional/social health, skill level/experience, condition of participants, etc.

Examples of activity variables include such things as number of campers participating at the same time, proximity to supervision, access to emergency care, equipment used, condition of facilities, weather, visibility (for supervision), temperature(s), known hazards, etc.

The center column is for the staff to list possible impacts for each variable in the first column to how campers participate. For example:

  • Type of supervision required
  • Campers requiring accommodations
  • Campers’ abilities to “self-rescue” in an emergency
  • Type of emergency equipment required
  • Number of staff required
  • Need for skills assessment
  • Camper attention spans
  • Curriculum taught
  • Length of instructional sessions

The right-hand column is for staff to list how this will impact their decision-making and how they will supervise the campers.

In the third column staff may include such things as:

  • Increasing the number of staff
  • Putting more staff in closer proximity to participants
  • Lowering the number of campers in the activity
  • Changing and/or modifying the program
  • Recognizing injury-
  • producing behaviors
  • Exceeding minimum operating standards

Have staff work together on completing the columns and discuss. The intended outcome is to help staff learn to make decisions that increase staff supervision/control to its maximum, while meeting the needs of the specific campers in their care and decreasing risk to participants as much as possible.

Make It OK to Say No

It’s not unusual for a young or inexperienced staff member to make a judgment call based on what is popular and attractive to the campers instead of stopping to consider what is appropriate or safe. It can be difficult for young staff to tell campers they can’t do something, especially when trying to be popular with them. Staff may also be concerned with upsetting a child’s parents by not allowing them to do something. However, in the interest of safety, camp operators need to make it OK for staff to tell campers no and to help them find ways to do so. Safety should be the top priority for staff in all decision-making, actions, interactions, and activities. Staff should always enforce rules and regulations to prevent injuries rather than succumbing to camper pressures.

When it comes to camper safety, staff may need help in consistent limit setting. Frontline staff should be trained in acceptable ways to say no or otherwise deny or deter campers, such as offering an acceptable alternative, as well as in using a calm, explanatory approach in redirecting campers to a more appropriate activity. Staff may also need training in how to respond when campers try to manipulate or negotiate with them. Boundaries around safety are nonnegotiable, so let staff know that effective camp staff set appropriate limits and that saying no is part of the job description.

Personal Behavior and Consequences

When caring for other people’s children, staff conduct that fails to establish or maintain an environment that supports the physical and/or emotional safety and well-being of campers must be addressed immediately. For some, the social aspects of working at summer camp can be a significant challenge — especially for young staff living away from home for the first time. For example, staff may return to camp from a day off impaired/under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Or they don’t understand how to make responsible decisions to stay healthy and fit for work for the duration of the summer season. As young staff often make choices without a clear understanding of the consequences or the impact their choices have on the camper(s), and/or the camp, this is a critical area of conversation for directors to have with their staff. (The Newton’s Third Law of Decision-Making activity can be utilized to help facilitate the conversation in this area.)

Develop Easy Evaluative Tools

Consider creating decision-making guides, checklists, or other tools for staff. Staff can use this information to help in their decision-making. If what they are thinking of doing checks all the boxes they can proceed, or if they totally missed the mark, they know not to do it. Evaluation questions to utilize might include:

  • Was safety thought out from the beginning?
  • Were worst-case scenarios considered?
  • Are campers free from physical harm?
  • Is safety equipment being used?
  • Are rules in place to prevent campers from being injured?
  • Do you observe anything that could cause injury?
  • Do campers feel safe emotionally?
  • Is the activity appropriate?
  • Is the activity something the campers enjoy (or is it something fun just for the staff)?
  • Did you think before you acted?


What Would Their Grownup Say?

Possibly one of the easiest and most effective tools for staff to evaluate their decision-making is to imagine if the campers’ parent(s)/guardian(s) were standing right there watching. Would they make the same decision? Would they say the same thing? Would they behave in the same manner? The rule being if you wouldn’t do it with a child’s parent watching, then you shouldn’t do it at all.

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, MA Ed, has more than 25 years of professional experience working within the camp, youth development, and education fields with for-profit and nonprofit camps and organizations. Diane is the owner and director of Chef Camp, a residential culinary immersion program for teens, and CEO of Frog Pond Consulting, providing integrated solutions to help meet ever-changing marketplace challenges for universities, private schools, camps, recreational facilities, and nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at dianettyrrell@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy of URJ Camp Harlam, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.