Building Camps That Care About Kids — Second in a Series of Four Articles

We've all heard the story of Chicken Little. The falling acorn had Chicken Little convinced that the sky was falling. She gathered Henny Penny, Goosey Poosey, and Turkey Lurkey to go and tell the king. A silly little fable. Perhaps. But it is telling that there are several versions to the fable. Some have Foxy Loxy luring the little band away never to be heard from again. Other versions have the king's hounds and hunters arriving to scare away the fox and save the day. Still other versions have the smart fox pointing out to Chicken Little what was really happening.

Whatever moral you may draw from the story, consider the truth that perceptions create their own reality. Many camp directors perceive camp as safe. After all, there are accreditation standards, risk management plans, safety regulations, and certifications for staff. But those things are invisible to campers and do not, in and of themselves, create a safe environment for youth. Campers come to camp with a duffle bag full of hopes and fears, of uncertainties and concerns about whether they will make friends and be accepted, and whether they will be physically and emotionally safe.

Eighty camp directors who participated in the ACA Youth Development Benchmark Survey in 2004 learned that campers perceive safety quite differently from camp administrators. When asked if they agreed with statements such as "I feel safe when I am at this camp" and "I feel respected by the staff at this camp," only one-third of the campers responded in ways that demonstrate they are consistently reporting the presence of the important elements of physical and emotional safety.

Michelle Gambone, president of Youth Development Strategies, Inc. (YDSI) (ACA's partner in this study), indicates that "a sense of safety is basic and critical to youth. Its absence can have profound effects on their choices and decisions . . . . When young people do feel safe, they are less likely to participate in too many high-risk behaviors that can derail or delay healthy development (Innovations 2006)."

In the last issue of Camping Magazine, the Community Action Framework for Youth Development (Gambone, Klem, & Connell 2002) was briefly described. This framework starts with looking at where we want youth to be as adults: economically self-sufficient, able to sustain healthy family relationships, and contributors to their community. For these outcomes to be achieved, youth need to receive healthy and continuous doses of four critically important supports and opportunities:

  • Multiple supportive relationships with adults and peers
  • Physical and emotional safety
  • Challenging and engaging activities and learning experiences
  • Meaningful opportunities for involvement and membership

We learned last issue that camps did extraordinarily well in providing multiple supportive relationships and with intentional efforts were able to increase youth reports of supportive relationships. This article explores issues of safety and some lessons learned by the PIP camps that all staff may want to consider.

The Challenges of Safety

Camp directors were surprised (not pleasantly) that campers' perception of safety was quite different from their own. Within the twenty-three PIP camps, 41 percent of campers reported optimal levels (meaning they were consistently receiving this support in camp) of physical safety, and 61 percent of campers reported optimal levels of emotional safety. When looking at safety overall (where campers needed to report optimal levels of both emotional and physical safety), only 32 percent of campers were in the optimal category. These results mirrored findings from the benchmark study ACA conducted in 2004 with 80 camps and 7,600 youth. In that larger group, optimal levels of safety were reported by only 30 percent of youth. While this result in camps resulted in a higher percentage than is reported by youth in other types of school and after-school programs, directors were not satisfied. What caused these safety concerns?

Camp directors consistently perceived, in the spirit of Chicken Little, that their campers would report high levels of safety. However, pointed discussions with campers revealed that there were aspects of the camp experience that were unsettling for youth: a new environment with new people. It was beyond the familiarity of their home and school.

Sandra Publicover of Camp Winnetaska, an agency camp in Massachusetts, reported, "In our day camp, we had plenty of safety rules in place. After all, we are Girl Scouts through and through, but we hadn't paid enough attention to the two hours girls may spend on the bus each day. We knew we could do better at creating a safe environment on the bus and greeting them on arrival—being sure no one was alone. We worked to create inclusiveness, a welcome atmosphere, and respect for everyone." All of these efforts go to creating that envelope of emotional safety.


  1. Respect for yourself, for others, for creation, for others’ property, for sacred space at camp
  2. Safety watch out for each other
  3. Relationships be open to new people and learn how to live together in community
  4. Commitment to Growth learn about yourself, others, new skills, and let others grow at their own pace
  5. Fun! – Have a positive attitude and be open to having fun and being surprised!

Those thoughts were echoed by Phil DeLong and Joe Van Tassel at Camp Gray, a religiously-affiliated camp in Wisconsin. To create this sense of a safe place, they developed "The Big 5—The Firm Foundation". These principles were painted in circles on the dining room floor, were posted throughout camp, and became the preamble to each cabin's written contract that was established by campers each week.

Pat Smith of Camp Wawenock, an independent camp in Maine, indicated that she and directors June Gray, Andy Sangster, and Catriona Sangster focused on the significance of the number of campers who affirmed the importance of their counselors "being there"—in the cabin with them at many times of the day. The older campers said the counselor wasn't really needed for problem solving, but helped them understand the interactions in cabin living. The campers appreciated the relationships and the influence the counselor has on the cabin family group. This is an important part of campers' safety—their counselor helping them to understand the interactions in the group and working closely with the campers.

Other PIP directors indicated they had lots of safety efforts in place, but the campers often didn't understand the rationale for camp rules and procedures. One camp inventoried everyone's belongings on arrival. From the campers' view that was one way to see that they went home with everything they brought to camp, while the camp also saw it as a way to double-check for unsafe things that did not belong in the cabin such as cell phones, weapons, or medications.

Campers did not understand the importance of certified staff, safety equipment, or even rules about bullying. Sometimes these discussions need to be held very deliberately with campers to help them understand the camp community in which they are now immersed.

Making Camp an Even Safer Place

In speaking with directors, two approaches to creating physically and emotionally safe environments were foremost:

  1. The quality of the relationships in camp among all campers and all staff.
  2. The judgment exercised by staff.

If we could develop an inoculation to assure these two approaches would occur, we would be millionaires. These simple concepts are quite complex when it comes to making them happen. Intentionality is the key to both. Without intentional planning and efforts to make these two concepts central, they will not happen effectively. In the PIP project, we learned that to create positive change in camp, administrators cannot just address the "weakness" or the "problem" that is identified. There must be a concerted effort to create the change necessary to address these issues across camp structure (S); policies (P); and activities (A)—it's the SPA approach.

The SPA Approach

Let's look at three areas to see how we accomplish the SPA approach to the best of our ability.

Structure as It Relates to Safety
How much staff knows about campers as they arrive is a foundational concept to creating safe environments. All three of the PIP camps described processes for getting to know campers. There are multiple ways to accomplish this task. Don't just pull a single idea and expect it to transform your camp. The important thing is to listen to your campers and staff, and find the structure issues that work for your clientele, site, and philosophy. Some of this work occurs before campers even come to camp. This is a matter of getting information from campers about what they want to do at camp as well as asking parents what they think their campers want to do or need to experience at camp.

Other camps addressed structure by looking at ratios and responsibilities of staff during free time. The addition of supervisors during free time can give staff an opportunity to get to know campers better and to take action on potential situations (such as bullying or exclusion of some of the campers) before they become a problem.

Creating structure from information (knowing about campers before they arrive), supervision (having the right people in place at the right time), and modeling how you want staff to relate to campers is an important first step. Can you say that when each child arrives at your camp someone is ready to greet them and already knows key information about the camper?

Many camps are now requiring camp staff to be present in each resident camp cabin after taps. This step provides an extra level of safety for campers both in moderating behavior and in being immediately available should a problem arise.

Some camps require all camp program staff to live in a cabin. This expectation underscores the family relationship of multiple roles in the family, and everyone caring for each other.

Philosophy and Policy Issues That Relate to Safety
Camp Winnetaska would describe this concept as being sure counselors understand their role. Counselors should not come to camp just to teach horseback riding. They need to come to camp to help youth grow. Riding is the means, not the end.

Camp Gray talked about the culture of their camp program. They hire (or re-hire) only those staff who can model the "Big Five" all of the time. These five concepts are not a catchy motto. They are a way of life for every person at camp. These values create a structure that surrounds campers and staff with safety and support. Each decision made in camp is filtered through this structure of values. Can you evaluate every decision or action in camp based on seeing them through the eyes of what your camp values?

Camp Wawenock would say that camp is more than a community, it is a family. We live with our families a long time, and we need to learn how to make them effective units. The camp family, whether a cabin group, unit, or an entire camp, needs to learn to look out for one another the way a good family does. Safety starts and ends in the camp family with every member having a role and a responsibility.

Activities That Relate to Safety
For staff, "activities" are interpreted in this article as those issues that relate to staff hiring and training. First, it is important to recognize that training begins with the interview. The questions you ask and the information you share set the tone for potential employees to understand and experience what is important to your camp. Leaders at Wawenock visit with camp staff during the year, because camp staff is part of the family. We visit family members; therefore, we visit camp staff. We need to learn what is happening with staff. Are their goals changing? What are they learning that has application to camp? What have they been thinking about in terms of improvements at camp or ways they would like to grow through camp experiences? What ideas do they have for the summer?

This interest in your staff is modeling behavior at the most basic level. It establishes camp culture and demonstrates the way relationships between people should happen in camp. The Wawenock directors plan at least three conversations with all staff (new and returning). These conversations reinforce with staff the message to communicate to campers:

  • I am important and valued as a person
  • My ideas matter

Once the administrators place the counselors and staff in this type of relationship, they can expect that the counselors will understand the role they are to have with campers.

PIP directors indicated time and again that staff training does not end once campers arrive. Quality camps have committed themselves to ongoing training throughout the summer. Yes, it is challenging to figure out how to maintain safe programs while asking staff to attend additional training. However, it is not reasonable to expect that the eighteen- to twenty-one-year-old staff (or older) will absorb all the material covered during precamp training. Staff need to practice skills (not just hear about them). They need situational experience to develop judgment and maturity. These skills may be accomplished in unit-sized groups rather than the entire staff, but continual practice and reinforcement are the only ways people get better at their jobs.

Directors in the PIP group also talked about the content of staff training. Some camps use staff training to be sure that counselors have activity skills needed to assist or teach programs. The best practice would be to hire staff with technical skills you know are already strong and use staff training to sharpen their teaching skills. For example, how do they handle groups of campers of different ages? How do they establish expectations? How do they motivate the uninterested? How do they help the camper who is afraid or whose skills are well below the other campers in the group? How do staff build skill progression so that mastery is achieved? These types of tasks are the real work of precamp training. Staff need to practice teaching scenarios to gain the confidence that they will make wise choices when working with youth.

Basic to All of Us

The number of campers who were optimal in physical and emotional safety was surprisingly lower than camp directors expected. While the percentage of youth in this category was higher in camps than in other youth programs, camps can do even better.

There is much to be gained from going beyond satisfaction surveys as a means to camp evaluation so that we can get at how our staffing and program addresses the need that is basic to all of us: safety (Maslow 1943). Forty-three percent of the PIP camps significantly improved the percent of youth having an optimal experience in safety at camp in just one year. Many of them were really focused on seeking improvements in other areas we will discuss in subsequent issues: skill-building and youth involvement/engagement.

Before you conclude that "the sky is falling," talk with campers about their experiences at camp. Look at your structure, policies, and activities, and plan some intentional strategies to address safety in camp.

Questions to Ask Campers Before Camp

  1. What was the best thing that happened to you this year?
  2. What are you most looking forward to doing at camp this summer?
  3. What things have changed for you this past year? (New pet, new school, best friend moved away, etc.)
  4. What is the most important thing in your life? (Friends, hobbies, family, your faith, your school activities, etc.)
  5. What do you want to be called at camp? Do you have a favorite nickname?

Have them e-mail this information back to camp and let each counselor learn important things about their campers before they arrive!

Safety — What Worked?
In the camps where safety improved, some strategies were structural while others involved relationships among staff and campers. Some typical safety strategies were:

  • Installing lights outside cabins, camp entrances, and retreat centers
  • Ensuring clear, open communication about safety
  • Having campers participate in setting cabin rules and camp rules and assisting in developing consequences for rule breaking
  • Having older campers mentor younger campers
  • Consistently enforcing rules and codes of conduct
  • Creating up to six camp-wide rules/expectations that are used with all age groups

Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review.

Marge Scanlin, Ed.D., executive officer, research and intellectual resources for the American Camp Association; June Gray and Pat Smith, directors, Camp Wawenock; Phil DeLong, director Camp Gray, and Joe Van Tassel, assistant director, Camp Gray; and Sandra Publicover, manager of contracts administration Patriot Trails Girls Scout Council.

Originally published in the 2006 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.