Almost everyone who has ever been to camp can quickly tell a story about something they did, learned, or observed that had a profound impact on their life. How do these experiences happen? Who creates them? Sometimes, through the magic of the camp, situations that create a lasting memory just happen. Occasionally a series of events build to a dramatic conclusion, which can lead to a truly life-changing experience. So how can you be more intentional in creating inspirational memories?
As staff, you have the perfect opportunity within your group or specialty area to facilitate an attitude or mood that maximizes the camper experience. Fortunately for you, camp is the ideal community to promote experiential learning. Experiences or lasting memories can happen any time and any place during the session, so be alert. Remember, each camper will process information differently.
The group setting (day camp, cabin, or activity) needs to intentionally be guided by your input. Learning is a social process that never stops and often activity outcomes are altered by peer influence, not just environmental circumstance. Your chances of seizing teachable moments will be greatly enhanced if you strive to establish personal relationships with each of your campers.
Put campers’ needs first and encourage active participation by leading with energy and enthusiasm. Set the tone on day one by implementing appropriate norms for the age/stage of campers with whom you are working. Outline general expectations and be sure to include some basic safety guidelines.
Any time camp life creates a situation where learning and experience intersect, you have a chance to make a lasting memory. Being able to recognize these moments — which could be as small as a word or well-timed smile — will allow you to build on important group development concepts while meeting individual camper needs. Be consistent in implementing these critical ideas because it sets the tone for individual and group growth.
Set Group and Personal Guidelines
Implement group guidelines that promote a physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional circumference of safety. These rules will allow your campers to use their past experiences with current environmental conditions to incorporate both expected and unexpected changes. The payoff in applying this technique on a regular basis is reduced camper resistance to change and an increased positive attitude toward personal achievement. Research on this topic suggests an interactive, hands-on group approach can be very rewarding, and experience-based implementation methodologies can be used to “create new rituals, to learn new procedures, to test these in a safe environment, and to protect them” (Geurts, Culuwe, and Stoppelenburg, 2000).
The most important part of building meaningful connections is listening. Talking for the sake of talking does not automatically increase camper opportunities for making memories. Often the magnitude of the moment or the significance of the achievement will stand on its own merit, but campers also can have monumental personal moments over seemingly mundane events. Don’t judge what is important to them, but pay attention and support each camper’s experience based on the inherent value of the activity. You never know when a camper’s aha moment will come, so just be open to all the possibilities.
While conducting staff orientations, it is commonplace for me to hear a staff member share a personal experience or reflection that elicits powerful images through meaningful camp connections. Regardless of the reason for sharing the story, the result validates what we do. Inspirational memories are the verbal translation of a thought, feeling, or experience someone had that profoundly impacted his or her life — such as what happened when he or she was homesick, made a friend, accomplished a personal triumph, or celebrated a personal achievement. Other times the reflection takes on a far deeper meaning and staff are visibly moved in recounting how facing a fear, understanding a complex social situation, or reaffirming a belief forever changed a camper’s life.
So how do memories happen?
Your brain naturally clusters or organizes thoughts by groups. This way your mind can quickly put similar experiences or observations into categories. This “semantic network” model suggests certain triggers activate associated memories. This is why places in camp evoke memories related to things that occurred there (Geurts et al, 2000).
You can make time for intentional growth in every scheduled camp activity. Knowing how your campers process information will help you to recognize potential inspirational moments. And because younger campers will not have reached the age of reason, it is important you know the basic ways they will interpret experiences. Most campers process information in a three-stage progression:
- What they actually do in camp — it gives them a basis of reality: daily routine, group or cabin interaction, activity schedule, infirmary visits, special events, etc.
- Using these experiences, they build or create new ideas — either real or made up — which will translate into very different behaviors depending on their age, for example: learning a new skill and teaching it to another camper or overcoming inhibitions to produce unexpected results.
- Campers test their new theories and the results act as guidelines for future decisions, such as re-evaluating and then changing a personal philosophy because of increased self-esteem.
In his research on learning cycles, D.A. Kolb (1984) identified four ways people process information. “Thinking” and “feeling” are perceiving dimensions while “doing” and “watching” are processing modes. Each pair is opposite on the continuum, and camper learning patterns can be very confusing because overlap between preferences can occur. This is why you see some campers being apprehensive one minute and aggressive the next.
- Make sure you present opportunities for each type of learning — thinking, feeling, watching, and doing — throughout the day.
- Ask the campers to think up a group cheer instead of dictating a ready-made one. Examples include: making up a group cheer or introducing a group project.
- Try easing into some activities using the senses. For example: Blindfold campers and have them use their sense of smell to guess menu items.
- Intentionally ask everyone to hold back and watch a situation before speaking — you can even coach them ahead of time and point out things to look for, such as specific steps in a dance.
- Finally, certain activities are tailor made for just doing without a lot of prompting, such as clean-up or free swim.
When you implement Kolb’s learning styles, you perpetuate the essence of camp. In understanding the importance of applying these simple techniques, you cultivate camper relationships by personalizing interactions. Essentially, you are transferring knowledge while strengthening connections in a nonthreatening way.
Internal and External Stimuli
Because they have so much fun, most of your campers don’t realize how much information they are absorbing. Inspirational memories can come from internal parameters (stimuli controlled from within or process oriented) or external parameters (environmentally controlled or content driven) depending on what you are doing (Ruben, 1977).
Internal decisions include nonspecific, generic approaches to activities. What campers say, how they do it, and their desire to be a part of something are examples of process-orientated decisions. External parameters deal with order and following rules or specific guidelines. Together they form the boundaries you need to use when leading your group.
Putting It All Together
You increase your chances of creating intentional memories if the external objectives you have for teaching activities match the camp goals for learning.
Consider this scenario: Campers have the opportunity to learn new swimming skills at the lake. What do you do? First, ask yourself what the campers are being asked to do. Participate. Then, because of your relationship with the individual campers, you will know their learning preferences (think, feel, watch, or do). That will help you control the parameters which, in this case, will be external. Assist the campers to understand the new skills by using teaching techniques that match their learning style. This may take a bit of extra work, but it is well worth the effort. Remember, you are trying to purposefully make a connection.
You can further increase your chances of creating a lasting memory by adding another crucial step. Review, or debrief from, the activity to maximize the transfer of meaningful information. The more times you can closely relate accomplishments to learning traits, the better your odds of creating an effective outcome. It is important for you to explain how an activity’s “success” was due to the campers’ ability to process information and effectively apply it to a learning situation.
Debriefs can be one on one, small group, whole group, or any combination of staff and campers who shared a common experience.
You may want to elicit responses just after an activity or, in the case of a day or multiday special event, you may choose to hold off until campers have had time to reflect on their experience. For casual “talk while we walk” debriefs, general discussion or a question/answer session may be appropriate. Quick circles where everyone speaks can be effective, or you may need a sit-down discussion to properly assess an activity.
Regardless of your methods, the dual purpose for this critical exercise is to evaluate the experience and create transition. Converting activities to life lessons is one of camp’s most treasured benefits. This process not only helps you with selecting future activities, but it ensures multilevel learning will occur long after the camp session has ended.
Working at camp gives you the perfect chance to help children create lasting memories. Camp’s experiential learning opportunities will empower you to create an environment that perpetuates powerful experiences while achieving meaningful life connections.
Photos courtesy of Green River Preserve, Cedar Mountain, North Carolina.
Geurts, J., Caluwe, L., & Stoppelenburg, A. (2000). Changing organizations with gaming/simulations. Germany: Elsevier.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Ruben, B. (1977, June 2). Toward a theory of experience-based instruction. Simulation and Games. (Vol. 8, No. 2; p.214). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Greg Cronin, CCD, of GC Training Solutions is a certified camp director, former ACA National Board member, and staff trainer with over 30 years of staff training experience. He works with camps, schools, churches, and businesses all over the country. To contact Greg directly, please call 703.395.6661 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.