If you’ve been keeping up with our Research 360 blog, you’re well aware that ACA recently announced a new partnership with ACA, New York/New Jersey in conjunction with the 5-Year Impact Study which will focus on camp staff experiences.
To summarize, although the Impact Study began with specific research questions in mind regarding campers, (i.e., how does the camp experience prepare campers for future success in college and career?), it has now evolved to include similar questions for camp staff. In light of this new aspect of the study, I wanted to encourage camp professionals to examine their programs and how their camp may (or may not) be focusing on staff development and success. For most, the overarching goal of camp is to provide positive experiences for campers; however, we must be aware that camp is a context in which our staff of emerging adults are growing and developing as well.
There are many research articles discussing staff growth and development, but it is important to consider how camps are facilitating this experience for staff. I wanted to take a moment to review an article by Mat Duerden and colleagues published in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration in 2014. The article is titled “The Impact of Camp Employment on the Workforce Development of Emerging Adults.”
For the study, 21 people who had worked at a variety of camps were interviewed in focus groups. They were asked questions about their experiences working at camp and how these experiences impacted them in their current lives. After reviewing the data, the authors found that leaders gained four major skills during their time at work: interpersonal, communication, problem-solving, and leadership skills. There were four main factors that may influence emerging adults’ development while working at camp and two that may hinder this development. Take a look at the table that summarizes the themes from the study.
Let’s take a look at those skills for a bit. Most camp professionals can think of examples of learning those different skills personally, but also seeing young staff developing in those different areas as well. We won’t spend much time on the skill development aspect today, but what I’d like to point out (and what the authors pointed out in the paper) is the different overlap present in what was found in this study and different frameworks of skills that are needed for success in the workplace. Communication skills may be conceptualized as oral communication, interpersonal skills and social competence or teamwork/collaboration have some overlap as well.
You get my point — many of these terms are different sides of the same coin. It seems pretty clear that working at camp may provide youth with skills needed later on in life, which is fantastic! Now that we see that emerging adults may learn practical and important skills while working at camp, how do we help facilitate this skill acquisition?
As you see in the first table, four ways were identified in which camp helped facilitate staff workforce development: intrinsic motivations (developed through working with kids and making a difference), being forced out of their comfort zone, the camp community as a whole, and receiving feedback. Although some of these aspects may seem inherent in camp in general, I encourage you, during your summer planning, to take the time to think about specifically how you will ensure each of these occur this summer for your staff. Here are a few suggestions.
- Working with kids: provide opportunities for leaders to work with a range of campers, not only the children in their cabin or group. This may help them identify what age group is best for them and help to develop the intrinsic motivation for future work with kids.
- Working with kids: suggest that staff write journals and reflect on what their favorite experience working with campers was each session/day/week.
- Making a difference: ask campers to write letters to staff describing instances where their leaders helped them.
- Making a difference: always report positive parent feedback to the staff as a whole, and specifically to the staff who impacted the parent’s child.
Out of Comfort Zone
- During training, ask staff about their background and comfort level in different areas of camp (e.g., Have they ever done archery before? What is their arts and crafts experience?) and follow up to make sure they are trying activities they never have before, or may not be the most familiar with.
- Partner new and returning staff with the intention of the returning staff member being a mentor and guide. Instruct the returner to ask questions about what the new staff member would consider to be his/her strengths and weaknesses. Provide opportunities for staff to build on their weaknesses, like speaking in front of a large group or leading an activity they never have before.
- Camp is hard work and a lot of young staff have never worked this hard before in their entire lives! Ask your staff to complete weekly reflections on what was the hardest thing or most rewarding thing they did that week.
- During your start of summer training, emphasize how important it is to work as a team. Provide real-life camp examples of how all staff must work together in order to ensure campers have the best experience possible. For example, do a “day in the life” of a camper, from the initial registration to saying goodbye at the end of their stay — how many camp staff would this child and their family have the chance to interact with? How does each individual staff member have the opportunity to impact a camper’s experience?
- Celebrate the different, separate groups on camp. Find unique ways to appreciate, for example, the junior counselors, the senior counselors, the kitchen staff, the lifeguards, etc. separately (e.g., a cheer at the all-camp meeting or song dedicated to this group at the camp dance). Everyone deserves to feel part of the larger camp community, but also part of a smaller team.
- You know the basics: specific and timely are importance aspects of feedback, but also try to provide feedback in a variety of forms. Verbal comments (director to staff member) are nice, and written notes from you are good, but encourage your staff to provide one another with feedback too. It doesn’t always have to come from a supervisor or camp director; in fact, it might be more meaningful if it comes from someone else!
- Make it positive and negative. Accurate feedback will help to develop staff members’ intrinsic motivation and vice versa. If young people care about their job and the impact they are having, they want to know what they are doing well, but also what they need to improve on. On the other hand, in order for staff to become intrinsically motivated they need to feel like they are doing something well.
Let’s talk about the two themes that emerged in relation to hindering staff development while at camp: losing focus and poor camp management. Although losing focus is a bit harder to influence (not sure what I can suggest that might influence camp crushes), poor camp management is certainly something we have some control over. Below are some suggestions of how to deal with poor communication and overscheduling.
- Meetings, meetings, meetings! Even if it’s just a five-minute meeting, make sure you touch base each morning with your leadership team. Sometimes you might have a few important pieces of information to pass along, while others may be just to check in. If you make this meeting a routine, it’s much easier to stick to it.
- As a camp director, carry a notebook with you and write yourself a to-do list, including who you need to talk to and about what. If you ever find yourself notebook-less, there might be a problem. How will you make sure you remember to pass along all important pieces of information to the correct people?
- Communication shows respect and trust. It’s pretty likely that you have more knowledge and camp experience than many of your staff — that’s how you became a director! Keep in mind if you are telling others important pieces of information and asking them to do things, it shows you trust them to get the job done. If you are trying to do everything on your own, why did you hire your leadership team in the first place?
- We all know that staff can get burnt out easily, especially when they are overworked or nearing the end of the summer. Think proactively and hire extra staff (or recruit returning staff to come back and help out in the last few weeks of the summer) so that you can give everyone well deserved downtime! Prevention is the key when it comes to burnout.
- Consider making some schedule changes when it seems staff are nearing their breaking point and might need a break. Bringing in outside entertainment (e.g. a magician or variety show) might not be such a bad idea if some of your counselors could use an extra break.
- Keep in touch with your staff members. Ask them how they’re feeling and what you could do to make their job a bit easier, and take those suggestions for what they are! If one of your counselors says they’re having a rough day and would benefit from a shower and a phone call home, see what you can do to get them a bit of time away. Camp directors definitely have their hands full, but keep in mind that everyone needs an extra break sometimes.
Camp is a fantastic place for growth and development, not only of campers but young staff too. The skills they learn while working in this context prepare them for college, career, and life! Based on the literature, it’s clear that there are some things camps are doing well to facilitate staff workforce development, and some things that we could be doing better. Take these suggestions and consider if any of them would work for you and your team, or come up with your own to address how to facilitate an environment rich in opportunities for staff development. This summer consider not only your camper development program, but also your staff development program.
Duerden, M. D., Witt, P., Garst, B. A., Bialeschki, D., Schwarzlose, T., & Norton, K. (2014). The impact of camp employment on the workforce development of emerging adults. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 32(1), 26-44.
Victoria Povilaitis, a research assistant for ACA, is a doctoral student at the University of Utah and has worked in the camp industry in a variety of roles, including staffing coordinator, athletic director, and sports coach.
Photo courtesy of Camp Cedarwood in the Adirondacks in Corinth, NY
Thanks to our research partner, Redwoods.
Additional thanks goes to our research supporter, Chaco.