It's a beautiful July morning at Camp Nevva GoHoma. Let's get out of the office which we know is like Grand Central Station with campers, staffers, specialists, administrative personnel, parents, (and sometimes grandparents) coming and going, USPS, UPS, FedEx drivers arriving and departing, phones constantly ringing, faxes flowing in and out, e-mail messages overf lowing on your computer screen, dogs meandering through the building — and take a Walk About . . . .

Over at the tennis courts, we see Daniel Federer and his staff actively engaged in teaching a variety of tennis skills to small groups of campers spread out on many different courts — with the exception of campers in the oldest group, the Zuma's — who are refusing to participate. Out on the athletic fields, Barry Hamm and his (very) large staff are teaching soccer, softball, and field hockey skills to three large groups of campers.

Down at the water front, Boatin Dridock and his staff are taking advantage of this unusually picturesque day to teach campers sailing, canoeing, and waterskiing skills. Sandy Torres and her assistants are instructing a number of campers in different parts of the swimming area (many of whom are huddled on the docks wrapped in towels). The staffers are also dealing with a handful of campers who are complaining about the temperature of Lake Greenmuck.

The sound of music coming from the dance studio lets us know that campers are practicing their routines under the watchful eye of Ima Russianova. In the rec hall, Davida Mamet and the counselors assigned to theater are helping campers master their parts for an upcoming camp show, a full scale production of "Camp: The Musical," which we've just been told will be filmed by the local PBS station. Jamie Taylor, who is currently performing over at Tanglewood, is sitting on the deck of the dining hall teaching a small group of campers the finer aspects of guitar playing.

Up at the stables, Sol "The Mayor" Eastwood and two of his staff are working with a posse of campers dressed in western gear who are preparing to ride on one of the camp's riding trails. Further up the road, Edmunda Hillary and her OLS staff are teaching campers climbing techniques that they will need to master before they can climb the newly installed climbing wall, Trail-to-the-Sky. Jeff DeSoto, the camp's director, is meeting with a group of campers who are preparing to set off on a three-day hike to explore Dark Forest State Park.

In the creative arts shed, Jillian O'Keef fe and her staff are teaching jewelry making, birdhouse building, painting with watercolors, tye dying, kite construction, and pottery making to six groups of campers. Meanwhile, the Chipmunks have been pulled from their activity and have returned to their cabin where their counselor, Pru Dent, is providing remedial instruction in bunk cleanup.

If we were to look at video sequences taken during the rest of the day, we'd see instructional encounters taking place everywhere throughout the camp. If we paid attention particularly to staffers, we might glimpse a shadow of their school years as learners and the influence of their teachers as they now go about fulfilling their teaching responsibilities here at camp. Looking at campers, we'd probably be aware that they, too, have been exposed to teachers who embrace many different teaching philosophies and have many different teaching styles. When we take into account all this variability, we might wonder what steps could be taken to increase the likelihood of more meaningful experiences for campers and for staffers throughout the summer.

Let's go back a few weeks to a rainy Thursday morning during the first week of this summer's staff orientation. It's the first session in the morning. We know that just about everyone experiences orientation as similar to cramming for finals, which, among other things, means that most people's attention spans are very limited. Furthermore as you look around at the 128 "pillow faced" staffers gathered around you in the dining hall for a session on teaching, you recognize that some staffers have not yet physically adjusted to being at camp (or they were up too late last night).

As you stand there, your mind races around and through the vast amount of information you will disseminate to staffers and the long list of topics you must cover during these pre-camp days. At this important moment, you want to impart to this gathering of staffers a reasonable and realistic approach that everyone can reach into as they carry out their teaching responsibilities this summer.

One such approach is what we call "positive learning."


Learning is both a social and a personal experience. We all learn and are inf luenced by others in a variety of social settings such as camp. Yet, we each process knowledge, emotions, and experiences individually. Learning takes place when meaning is added to our experiences in life. The purpose of positive learning is to intentionally set up optimal conditions for individual, group, and community learning at camp by carefully selecting and focusing on positive physical, social, and emotional conditions in the camp environment.

We know that not all experiences are positive. Sometimes, what we learn is negative. Example: A camper is repeatedly taunted, provoked, and harassed over time by one or more campers in his/her bunk. Other campers in the bunk passively stand around and observe this behavior. This situation constitutes a negative learning experience not only for those directly/ indirectly involved but also for the whole community. The conditions in this cabin either intentionally or unintentionally provide the conditions for what campers learn: Bullying is acceptable behavior. On the other hand, when a deliberate choice has been made to establish a climate in the cabin where respect and the right of everyone to feel welcome and safe is encouraged, and that bullying of any kind is not allowed, positive learning has occurred.

Positive learning takes place within the space of a triangle. The three legs are comprised of the teacher (counselor), the learner (camper), and the material to be learned. This space is negotiated and requires willingness, trust, and commitment from both counselor and camper.

While there are some things that kids will want to know for personal reasons, much of the time, campers will not care to know until they know we care. Building positive relationships is crucial. We must first create an atmosphere of trust. Building a whole group community that encourages and accepts different ways to participate and contribute is an important ingredient in this process.

Respect is worthy of conversation within the camp community as a whole and within each cabin so that everyone can share what is meant by "respect." We look for a consensus (75 percent – 85 percent agreement) about a set of actions that conveys "mutual respect." Some actions are pretty universal, such as keeping safe personal space, belongings, and the freedom of expression that ends where the next person's rights and dignity begin. Differences in the perception of respect can be generational or cultural. For example, is interrupting disrespectful or not? Is refusing to participate? We all have to agree upon what respect means in this community. Everyone must commit to live and learn together under the umbrella of mutual respect. This is how we build both individual capacity and a fair and safe camp community.

Positive learning begins with making the effort to find out who campers are, their histories, backgrounds, current issues, what they like and don't like, their learning styles and, very importantly, their concerns, worries, and level of comfort as they navigate their way through various camp activities.

Positive learning takes into account developmental differences. Here's a shortcut for understanding and organizing the multi-layered process of development within the camper population. Let's start by grouping campers into three clusters: Youngers (age seven to nine), Middlers (between age nine and eleven), and Olders (age eleven plus).

If we were to throw all of the words and phrases we could think of that describe each of these three groups up on a large blackboard, and then look for common themes, we would find that these words and phrases, by and large, cluster around four concepts: Relationships, Mastery, Self, and Community. Campers in each of the three clusters are, for the most part, focused on challenges in one of these four areas and then, to a lesser degree, developmental challenges in the other three areas. Here is a visual representation.

Let's take a look at some principles that interconnect with one another and can guide counselors in the process of planning, implementing, and assessing positive learning.

Guiding Principles

You must know them to grow them.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to learning. Not everyone learns like you do. There are a variety of effective learning st yles or kinds of intelligence. There are different ways to attain knowledge and assess that learning has taken place. Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist, has identified the following eight clusters of abilities or "intelligences" that all of us possess — though the strengths and weaknesses among our patterns of abilities differ:

  1. Linguistic intelligence (words)
  2. Logical-mathematical intelligence (numbers and reasoning)
  3. Spatial intelligence (space)
  4. Musical intelligence (sound)
  5. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (movement)
  6. Interpersonal intelligence (interpersonal relations)
  7. Intrapersonal intelligence (self knowledge)
  8. Naturalistic intelligence (using the natural world)

Campers come in dif ferent sizes and shapes, from diverse backgrounds, and possess a variety of talents and interests as well as ways that they learn. They differ in terms of how quickly they learn material; they will both process and progress at different rates. The rate may depend on how the instruction is designed.

As a counselor, you will need to develop different ways for boys/girls to learn skills and for both you and your campers to assess progress. This means that you will need to differentiate your sessions, using a variety of learning styles and developmental levels, not only the ones that worked best for you as a learner. You will need different ways to assess progress, and you will need to help campers with the tools of self-assessment, so that they can move towards becoming independent. The hardest campers for you to reach may be the ones whose learning styles are the most different from yours. It is your responsibility to reach each camper.

Some campers will learn well, but process what they have learned more slowly. You may have been a very quick learner when it came to archery or ceramics, for example, but you will need to be patient and provide enough wait time for others who process well but require more time to "get it." If two campers set different short-term goals for themselves, success will look different for each of them.

It is important to value campers who show courage and take risks with something new or something that is not easy for them to do. Your job is to nurture courage, make the place safe enough for campers to take risks, and then to acknowledge their efforts when this happens. When you do this publicly, the whole group is learning a value of the community.

Consider someone who is not a terrific swimmer who tries a new stroke and makes an awkward first attempt to swim a lap. You can acknowledge the value of summoning up courage and risking doing something new in front of the group — taking a risk and trying.

Your actions can either reinforce or negate respect for differences in kinds of intelligence, talents, and learning styles by doing or not doing the following:

  • getting to know each of the campers as whole individuals
  • personalizing activities, expectations, and goals
  • providing choices that fit each camper, developmentally, with respect to interests and learning styles
  • building a group community in which different ways to participate and contribute are encouraged and accepted
  • modeling trust, providing safety, and practicing good listening skills

Learning, to be effective, must begin where the learner is, not where you assume he/she is (or would like him/ her to be!).
As a counselor, you will need to ask what you are assuming or taking for granted. You will need to begin with an accurate assessment of where the camper is and how he/she learns most effectively. In other words, you are looking at current skill levels, emotional availability, and learning style strengths. What are campers bringing in terms of background knowledge and experience? How can they be open to and then integrate new knowledge and skills?

You might have a group of twelveyear- olds and assume they know all the rules or steps in an activity. Too embarrassed to admit they don't, a few may just disengage or resist whatever you are trying to teach. By going back over the steps or rules and checking for understanding, you can make the space safe enough for them to engage and learn.

Telling isn't teaching and listening isn't learning.
We all learn through direct experience and continue this process by then adding meaning to that experience. The neural pathways for learning in the brain are deeper when actions and experiences are connected to the words and images. Talking about drama isn't the same as performing; discussing the positions for lobbing a tennis ball isn't the same as holding a tennis racket and trying it out physically. We all learn by doing, but only if we can add meaning to enhance "the doing" for the next time. This makes your framing time in briefing and debriefing the activity very important because this is where the meaning is added to the experience. Campers may make these connections while discussing the learning with each other.

The learning cycle involves designing thoughtful lessons comprised of Whole-Part-Whole components.

  1. Teaching the whole child
    The camper brings his/her whole self to camp, and to effectively help him/ her learn, you have to first look at the whole individual: the cognitive, emotional, and physical components.
    Taking this into consideration, you can concentrate on the smaller tasks for mastery in your instruction for that lesson.
    After focusing on some single skills, you will want to spend time working to integrate those skills into the whole project and life of the child. The camper then hopefully possesses a new skill and a more confident attitude.
  2. Teaching the whole lesson
    During each lesson, each week, each season, learning begins with a meaningful whole. The whole is something coherent and important. This may be a dramatic production, a whole camp competition (such as Olympics), or an important strategy, stroke, or personal goal. It begins with a meaningful image and shared purpose of what and why you are doing what you are doing. (You have already done the work outlined in the previous guiding principle "Learning, to be effective, must begin where the learner is, not where you assume he/ she is . . . .") Campers need to see the big picture and the goal of the activity, so that they know the purpose and can move in the direction of the goal. They need to be able to visualize it and see the need to work towards it.
    In the second phase, you break the overall goal into manageable and learnable parts, differentiating tasks for various learning styles and providing a variety of experiences with the smaller skills or steps.
    Learning the small steps should always end in a meaningful activity. Campers come to a final activity with an enhanced skill set — having added meaning to their initial understanding of the whole experience.

You may talk about a baseball game as the initial whole. You then work with campers to practice the skills of batting, fielding, and running. They come back to play a game with an enhanced view and skills for what it takes to play a game. If you only practice the parts or start with the parts, campers may never establish a sense of purpose or a commitment to work towards the goal of the game. An important goal will be for each camper (or group) to be able to say: "I (we) know more now than when I (we) started this lesson."

We all learn best when we are motivated and actively engaged.
An effective strategy for motivation is your authentic encouragement rather than praise. For encouragement to be effective it has to be specific and realistic. The camper's confidence increases when the acknowledgment is based upon real evidence and realistic expectations. Campers need genuine encouragement along the way so that their performances add value for themselves and to the group. When you provide this feedback, you are acknowledging that you know and appreciate each camper as a whole person, that you have made an effort to find out each camper's specific skill level and how each camper learns best. The message: You care about helping each person in the group grow and develop.

When campers seem unmotivated or disengaged, fear of something may be the source. Campers may be afraid of being publicly shamed, embarrassed, or that they will feel incompetent, socially rejected by others in the group, or physically uncomfortable in their own bodies. This fearfulness may be due to a prior negative experience. Your job is to create a safe and inclusive space for learning at many levels, a relaxed kind of alertness, so that campers feel safe enough to be courageous and learn something new in the company of other campers.

You hold a dual level responsibility as a teacher: building individual skill and performance as well as building and sustaining a caring camp community of learners who work as a team.
Your role as a counselor is very much like that of an orchestra leader: to encourage and support each musician (camper) to play as well as he/she can, and at the same time, to listen to the overall sound of the orchestra (cabin, activity, camp community), and to find ways to balance these two spheres.

Learning is personal and social, intellectual and emotional. So far, much has been said about supporting and extending the individual's learning. The growth and development of the culture of the group and being a member of a team or community are also important camp learning experiences. You are a more mature guide to the values and goals of the group. It is your responsibility in building a collective relationship to practice dignity, empathy, justice, fairness, and the value of individual contribution regardless of capacity. These are the principles of camping in a democratic system. Moreover, the learning of the group or team is a shared responsibility. It isn't something you impose as the counselor. It is how campers need to interact with each other on a daily basis in every area such as the dining hall or free time.

Attitude is everything; so pick a good one!
Attitude is a renewable energy source, and you will need to recommit to yours often to sustain your own positive energy and commitment to learning. A positive attitude embraces many qualities and attributes such as: support, enthusiasm, passion, optimism, curiosity, loyalty, nurturance, integrity, cooperation, tenacity, peacemaking, joyfulness, and inclusiveness.

More is caught than is taught at camp.
The boys /girls are watching you and learning from you every where and all the time. They will not only pick up your formal style as a teacher of tennis but also your personality on field trips and when you are tired, etc. In a sense, you are always on, and you need to be aware that you have power and influence. Does what you say generally match what you do? How do you care for yourself? How do you relate to others? Do you take risks and allow yourself to be vulnerable? Are your expectations for yourself and others high and also realistic? Are you willing to try new things where you are not yet competent? How do you respond when you don't get your own way?

In a significant way, you are the sum of such choices, and yours will either help or hurt each camper and the whole climate at camp. Just as you want to help boys/girls make positive choices, you have many opportunities every day to practice this skill as a learner.

Bruce Muchnick, Ed.D., is a l icensed psychologist in private practice based in Glenside, Pennsylvania. His work includes psychotherapy with youth and grownups, management consulting in a var iety of organizational settings, and a "specialty" in camp psychology. He is the founder and managing director of Summer Camp Resources, P.C., a group of experienced professionals who provide a variety of organizational and mental health services to camp communities. You can contact the author at 215-885-1428 or by e-mail at

Penny S. Bryan, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, Orange, California. Her areas of focus are: leadership, schooling, and curriculum that build capacity for democratic and aesthetic principles and practices. Such experiences develop positive learning and critical and creative expression for positive growth and change. She is also a member of the Summer Camp Resources group. The author can be reached by e-mail at

Originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.