Dear Bob,

We often have campers who, no matter how carefully we try to place them in a group, just don't seem to fit in. Most of the time a camper like this will simply keep a low profile or just not participate as strongly in the program as other campers. While we worry that they aren't getting as much out of camp as we might hope, they seem to do okay. Sometimes, however, they can become the targets of ridicule from the other campers or destabilize the group by preventing them from being a more cooperative unit. Either way, we were wondering if you had any ideas about how better to integrate campers like these into their group.

 — Worried in the Woods

Dear Worried,

The problem of the camper who doesn't "click" or fit in with other members of her group is a perennial one at camp. A camper who is shy or socially awkward may be rejected by his or her peers and can potentially set up tension within the cabin or group. I recommend something called a Play-Date at Camp*, which is a technique that can be used at day or resident camp to help a youngster gain a foothold in a group.

Not all children are comfortable in large group situations. Some feel overwhelmed or shy in a larger group and tend to make friends more easily when they are with a smaller number of kids. Play-Date at Camp is designed to help campers such as these.

To get started, a counselor has a private talk with the camper who is struggling to fit in or make friends. After acknowledging her feelings, get her to think about who she would spend time with if she could choose one or two campers out of the whole group. You have to be careful here because some children will choose the most popular camper. While this is understandable, it may not be the most realistic move. Help the camper choose one or two campers from the group with whom you think she has a more realistic chance of becoming friends with initially. What I say to a camper is something like, "I can certainly understand what might make you pick Emily. After all she is very popular. Let's start with someone whom you might have more in common with first and then go from there."

The next step is to find a time when you can take the two or three campers on the "play-date." The activity itself should be something that can be easily arranged and is active or just a lot of fun, like baking cookies, roasting marshmallows at a campfire site (boys in particular love making fires), or going to the water park or swimming together (as long as they can be in a group by themselves with the counselor away from other campers). If the campers are younger, and there are animals on camp, going to visit and feed the animals is also a good choice.

Setting up and executing the play-date is usually pretty easy to do. (Some scheduling issues will need to be sorted out with the unit director or head counselor so that the other campers are adequately covered while the one counselor is with the small group.) What is more challenging is managing the expectations of the shy or awkward camper.

It is critical that the counselor takes time to explain to the camper that while they are at the activity together, they will probably all have a great time, but that in all likelihood the one or two kids she goes on the play-date with will go right back to their other cabin friends once they return from their time together. Explain that it takes time to make a new friend and that the play-date is designed to help them get started. It is not going to make them instant friends. Preparing the camper by adding this bit of caution and explanation will help the camper be less deflated when they return and the other two campers do exactly what you said they would do — join back up with their other friends.

Another complication of the playdate is when other campers find out about it. You can just hear their complaint! "Hey! How come we don't get to do that?" My answer is simple: "Maybe sometime you can!" What I mean is that it makes sense to schedule a few play-dates — maybe three a week if you can manage it — and vary the kids whom you ask to come along. Doing so would not only include other campers, it would also expose the shy camper to more kids in smaller groups.

Once the shy or socially awkward camper has an initial fun experience with two other campers, it is critical to build on that "foothold" by, for example, starting a game of cards during rest hour with one or two of the campers who went on the play-date and then inviting the shy camper to join in. This step will help reinforce the friendships that may have started on the play-date and may even begin to slowly widen the circle of friends. If a counselor is thoughtful or creative, she can probably find a number of ways to initiate a small-group activity and invite that camper to join her and other campers.

Several camps currently use play-dates as a stock technique to help campers fit a little better into a group they might otherwise not get connected with. It has another benefit, however, which is that it helps counselors get to know their campers better! In fact, many camps use it proactively and build play-dates into their schedules so that counselors have at least one small group experience with campers during which they make a stronger connection with them than they might if they primarily related to them as a whole group. Counselors have told me they frequently learn things about their campers on play-dates they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to learn. In an age where campers spend a lot of time back home and in school looking at screens, having a more concentrated personal experience with a caring adult just makes sense. It also makes for a more meaningful, impactful camp experience.

*"Play-Date at Camp" © 2011 by Bob Ditter

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.