The Doldrums of Camp: Overcoming the Mid-Summer Slump

July 11, 2017
Tori Barnes

As a camp director, when the middle of the summer drew near, I found myself gathering my leadership team to prepare for a possible journey through "the Doldrums." In the children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, a young boy, endlessly bored by the world around him, gets stuck in the Doldrums — a colorless place where nothing gets done, nothing ever changes, and no one is allowed to think or laugh. If your campers or staff are looking bored, and camp is feeling less colorful and exciting, then you may be stuck in the Doldrums too. Here are some ways you can overcome the mid-summer slowdown.

Spark some memories

Take your staff back to the moment they decided to work at camp this summer. What did they want to accomplish? What did they want to experience? For most, the desire to make a positive impact on campers and trying something new for themselves are the ultimate driving forces to working at camp. Don’t let the Doldrums fade these memories or stop them from making new ones. Share stories of the impact your staff have made so far. Read a parent or camper evaluation story daily at a staff meeting, print out the great feedback on your social media channels for them to read, and ask a CIT to share a testimonial with the staff of their experience at camp. Re-spark the passion they started the summer with by showing them the proof of their hard work so far.

Give yourself a break

Resting and recharging are critical tools to staying energetic and excited all season. To keep the pace of summer, taking care of yourself is the first must — meditate for five minutes, take a short solo walk, read a book. Then give the same opportunities to your staff. Find a way to give them extra time off in their schedule, let them sleep in a little later, cover their duties for an hour, take care of their laundry, plan or prep a portion of their activities for a day. Being tired and low energy may be a root cause to the lack of motivation you are seeing around camp.

Make room for the real world

The unique atmosphere of camp exemplified by campfire skits or cool days by the pool can sometimes collide with the realities and pressure of the “outside world” at this point in the summer. Camp staff are starting to think about registering for fall classes, finding a new place to live once camp is over, making travel arrangements, applying for internships, and more. Keep staff present in their work by acknowledging these realities and giving them the time to take care of these basic needs. Give a “back to life, back to reality” coupon for an extra two hours off, make it easier to connect online to make arrangements, and just be aware and supportive of this natural phase in the summer.

Create the unexpected in daily routines

The first time you do something it’s magical and exciting, but by the 117th time it can lose the charm. Challenge your staff to continue to create moments of firsts for the campers. Schedules and routines, may become just ho-hum, so introduce some unexpected moments into camp life. Create a photo scavenger hunt complete with prizes (a great way to get some social media shots too!), teach a new game or song daily, eat lunch somewhere new or different for a day, ignite random acts of kindness to go viral among camp staff, add some gourmet treats like flavored syrups or creams to the coffee bar one morning, play a staff only game, create a surprise “Main Street Electrical Parade” floats for a campfire or evening event with only a bulk order of glow sticks and some cardboard. The possibilities are endless.

Utilize your returning staff

In The Phantom Tollbooth, the young boy finally escapes the Doldrums with the help of a friend who has been there before. I relied on this same type of experience from my leadership team to brainstorm and create these unexpected moments, and spark some memories for our staff. We focused on the mundane routine of the morning walk to the dining hall. By now, they’ve done it dozens of times. So, we painted a poster (think pep rally style) for each of our seventy staff members, and lined the redwood trees up to the dining hall with their posters. The staff reacted as if they were stars on the Hollywood walk of fame, and the campers loved finding their rock star counselors names hidden amongst the trees. It reminded the staff that they belonged at camp, and was worth more than the weekly salary they made. These are the moments that make them think and laugh and escape the Doldrums of summer. 

Tori Barnes is a staff member of the American Camp Association. Her experience includes twenty years of day and resident camp directing, with focused work on leadership and development. 

Photo courtesy of Camp Scatico in Elizaville, New York.