When you agreed to work at camp, you immediately made the decision to have fun, challenge yourself, and change lives. While the format to accomplish this will be provided for you by your camp, the implementation will not. This will come from you in the form of dedication and effort. How much commitment you choose to give is important because campers don’t always come to camp knowing how to succeed.

The contents of your brain consist of many parts, and the limbic system helps you to manage a whole spectrum of emotions. At camp, be prepared to multitask and make decisions based on a constant need for assessing emotions like fear and love. Camper actions will frequently change group dynamics, so your reaction in relation to the new behaviors will establish the expectations moving forward.

Processing Secrets

I’ve asked past staff to tell me what some of the issues were that campers or other staff brought to camp. While there were some outlying issues, most comments fit into these categories:

  • Problems with relationships
  • The need to be accepted
  • Stress as it relates to time management
  • Pressure to conform to conflicting expectations
  • Lacking the knowledge of how camp life and individual skills can work together
  • Feeling disrespected
  • Not having a mentor

Because you cannot predict what someone’s triggers, thoughts, or emotions will be, knowing the following four processing secrets will help you begin this summer with an increased ability to resolve issues.

Secret One: Develop Relationships

Your success as a staff member is directly proportional to how good you are at developing relationships. The more you get to know your campers (and fellow staff) and understand any fears or issues they may be experiencing, the more equipped you’ll be to help them expand existing comfort zones by overcoming uncertainty. This is a challenging task, because identifying individual issues can be time-consuming, but any progress you make will increase your chances for connection.

Once you are aware of some of the issues your campers are carrying, you can implement some strategies to help them cope with the issues and maybe even find resolution. Many campers live a life focused on their phone, television, or the Internet, which only allows for a superficial or limited level of positive affirmation. At best, working on relationships becomes intermittent because of the lack of importance placed on social graces. This poses a serious problem for you, because what campers need (to feel valued) and how they relate (by text or email) do not always provide a sound foundation for relationship building.

So, what can you do to help campers overcome some of their existing behaviors long enough to replace them with healthy alternatives?

  1. Understand that campers discover more when they are motivated to participate by counselor lead, inspiration, and enthusiasm.
  2. Practice collaborative rehearsal, which connects the meaning of new knowledge with what they already know. This is where you can teach the proper steps to clean a cabin and then transfer the same process to animal care. Or you can spend one-on-one time with a camper working on a skill or behavior, which then translates into an important contribution to the group.
  3. Predict campers will learn interactively with others when they are constructing knowledge together. When you intentionally have campers work together to accomplish a specific goal, their desire to resolve problems internally often becomes a collaborative exercise with a higher degree of understanding.
  4. Carefully mix interactive activities with short intervals of passive listening. Too much talk (especially on a hot or cold day) will cause attention spans to waiver.

Secret Two: Fun and a Sense of Accomplishment Are Strong Motivators

Many campers come to camp without the necessary skills to fully participate. The data on this topic is very revealing. Researchers found the primary motivation for youth participation in sport and exercise is intrinsic motivation, which has a stronger emphasis on fun, enjoyment, skill development, and challenge than other motives. Intrinsic motivation refers to participating in any form of physical movement for the inherent fun and pleasure, whereas extrinsic motivation refers to participating in an activity for contributory reasons, such as external rewards or demands (Roychowdhury, 2018).

Camp life is not a simple formula of having fun and being acknowledged. It is a complex, interactive experience each camper must go through on their own. Because you know the motivation behind play is pleasure, use this to your advantage. Carefully guide campers through activities knowing the active pace of camp may be vastly different than what they are used to. When appropriate, search the activity schedule for opportunities to give campers the freedom to be creative, make up rules, form friendships, attain skills, learn games, deal with adversity, and practice leadership.

The national guidelines for physical activity state children between ages six and 17 should do 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-physical activity daily. This may not seem like a lot, but only one in three children are physically active each day (President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, 2019).

Because of ridged schedules, technology, and a lack of opportunities to be in a self-discovery environment in their lives at home, some campers struggle with activities or unstructured time at camp because they don’t often experience it. Campers acclimate well when the schedule stays within their comfort zone but struggle when activities or living situations push their limits of tolerance.

  1. You can be effective in helping campers to participate by modeling the right behavior.
  2. Search your own experiences to identify in which areas you can lead, help, or follow.
  3. Find a way to participate in activities through teaching, enthusiasm, support, demonstration, or explanation.
  4. Help campers who feel inadequate participating even if it requires you to come out of your comfort zone.
  5. Explain to campers that it’s OK to not always reach their goals, and offer some other ways to measure success.

Secret Three: How You Communicate Matters

Regardless of how old you are, part of your camp success will be based on how well you are respected by other staff. If you want to be respected as a person, think about how and when you respond to situations. Some people always want to immediately react to a statement because they feel they are right. The single most important part of communication is listening. So, the mantra you can always be right, or you can have friends often applies to many camp situations. Getting your point across effectively is a combination of:

  • Being polite
  • Eliminating disrespectful behaviors
  • Not making excuses
  • Offering to help
  • Showing the capacity to change

Good strategies for communication begin with your ability to put ideas into context.

  • Intentionally give other people a purpose to listen beyond saying “because I said so.”
  • Be prepared to provide your rationale as it relates to the situation. Follow up with options to resolve concerns by showing tangible evidence that you heard what was said.
  • Choose appropriate times to hold critical conversations. Knowing when to speak up and when to let a comment slide will go a long way toward promoting peace and avoiding individual agenda bias.

Secret Four: A Mentor Is Magic

Look for a mentor or someone who you can relate to when it comes to processing ideas. Not all camps have mentor programs, but they all provide opportunities for leadership development. Find someone who can provide feedback throughout the summer. Remember, when someone gives you constructive criticism — whether in a few words, a humorous reflection, or a philosophical way — it is a gift.

Because camp life is tiring and rewarding at the same time, having someone who shares perspective and makes you think is valuable. A good mentor will:

  • Share experiences
  • Strive to deepen connection by recommending personal actions
  • Help you stretch beyond your
  • comfort zone
  • Provide guidance when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory

You will learn things from your mentor that will make the magic of camp last for a lifetime.

Being an Effective Counselor

Being an effective counselor in 2019 means you know the importance of developing quality relationships, tapping into campers’ intrinsic motivation, practicing respectful communication, and recognizing the wisdom a trusted mentor can provide. Using these secrets in your daily life at camp will empower you to make good decisions and help campers find all the treasure camp has to offer.

Discussion Questions

  1. How will you model effective communication for your campers?
  2. If you notice a camper is upset about not reaching a goal, how will you help refocus the camper’s attention on other measurements of success so they don’t lose sight of the fact that trying matters?
  3. How do you think finding a mentor could benefit you? What specific skills would you like to work on with a mentor and why?

Photo courtesy of Flying Horse Farms, Mt. Gilead, Ohio


President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. (2019). Physical activity guidelines for Americans. US Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved from hhs.gov/fitness/be-active/physical-activity-guidelines-for-americans/index.html

Roychowdhury, D. (2018). Functional significant of participation motivation on physical activity involvement. Psychological Thought. Retrieved from psyct.psychopen.eu/article/view/255/html

Greg Cronin, MPA, CCD, of GC Training Solutions, is a certified camp director, former ACA National Board Member, 29-year ACA section board member, author, and staff trainer. With over 35 years of staff training experience, he works with camps, schools, churches, and businesses all over the country. To find out more about dynamic staff training, request a list of workshops, or to reserve dates, please contact Greg directly at 703.395.6661 or email gregcroninva@gmail.com.