Communication Strategies to Create a Positive and Safe Camp Environment

Sarah Paver and Zachary Wahl-Alexander, PhD
March 2018

Researchers have postulated that counselors express lowest perceived competency in their ability to develop camper relationships, handle conflict between campers, and feel limited in their ability to provide a safe camp environment (Wahl-Alexander, Howell & Donahue, 2016). These perceived limitations could directly impact not only camper attitudes, but the entire camp community. Fortunately, there are some simple communication strategies to assist counselors in their ability to create a positive experience for campers and promote a safe camp environment.

Co-creating Camper Rules

While, clearly, guidelines are needed at camp due to the quantity of individuals in one space, creating positive rules can actually lead to a less controlling atmosphere. Having campers help in the creation of these positive rules aids in promoting a positive culture in which campers feel secure while simultaneously fostering a safe environment. To ensure the highest level of buy-in from campers, rules should be co-created with counselors avoiding an authoritarianism approach. This presents an opportunity for campers to feel heard and leads to rules they understand and to which they are more likely to adhere. Counselors can facilitate these conversations by:

  1. Introducing why rules are important
  2. Encouraging a camper-led discussion focused on what specific points in the day need rules
  3. Discussing why certain rules are needed at certain times
  4. Asking campers to discuss rule possibilities to alleviate specific issues
  5. Aiding campers in choosing a rule that best fits the situation
  6. Continuing this process until all necessary rules are created

Directors can model comparable conversations with their staff during orientation by allowing counselors an opportunity to co-create their own guidelines. This exercise will offer staff an understanding of how to facilitate future conversations with their own campers, ensuring higher levels of success. Directors who are hesitant to give such power to their staff may wish to provide counselors with a list of rules they want campers to come up with themselves to help circumvent this uncertainty. While this practice is not recommended for young or inexperienced staff members, allowing campers a voice will lead to higher levels of responsibility, leadership, and a stronger adherence to the rules.

Clear Expectations

Initially, directors need to establish clear expectations for all staff members to ensure they are on the same page throughout the summer. Likewise, it is imperative that counselors provide campers with specific guidelines for their behaviors while at camp. Setting clear expectations from the beginning of camp provides campers with a better understanding of what is expected from them. Once these expectations are outlined, counselors are able to more thoroughly hold them responsible for their actions. Counselors can establish clear expectations by:

  1. Explaining why certain rules are put in place and the campers’ role in creating these rules
  2. Discussing exactly how the counselors want campers to act in specific situations
  3. Clarifying why specific behaviors must occur
  4. Talking about ramifications if specific behaviors do not ensue

Providing campers with a clear outline helps illustrate what is expected of them while concurrently framing future conversations if these behaviors do not occur.

Listening and Communication

At camp, it is typical for ten to 15 campers to live together under one roof, which practically guarantees that disagreements between the youth will arise. It is the bunk counselor’s responsibility to stress the importance of active listening and communication to alleviate conflicts that transpire. Teaching campers how to utilize these skills will help form a tight-knit community and create an environment where all campers feel welcome to share their thoughts and opinions. Counselors can promote active listening and communication by facilitating specific nighttime activities in the bunk. One example of how to promote these skills is a game called Compliment Telephone (Frank, 2013). In this activity, campers form lines of four or five and must whisper a compliment to the person behind them. The next person in line will repeat that compliment by adding another compliment to the person behind them. This transpires until the last person must state all the compliments they have received. This simple game incorporates both skills, however is more powerful when counselors debrief immediately following the game by:

  1. Explaining the importance of active listening skills and communication
  2. Asking campers how the task would be difficult without effective communication
  3. Relating these ideas back to camp life and their home lives as well (school, sports, family, and friends)
  4. Asking campers how they can better communicate with each other in camp
  5. Explaining how effective communication and active listening can further promote a sense of community at camp

While independently this activity can prove valuable, it is instrumental for counselors to offer additional insights into the importance of these skills. If counselors ask these questions subsequently, campers will have a better understanding to the significance of listening and communication. Although these skills can help build a greater sense of community at camp in addition to reducing conflict, prompting campers to think outside of camp and into their daily lives at home can provide additional opportunities for growth.

Conflict Resolution

Summer camp is a fun and enjoyable time, but even with active listening and communicating, conflicts will still arise between campers from time to time. To uphold the safe camp environment, counselors should proactively encourage campers to resolve disputes in a productive manner. Often, counselors will quell a disagreement in lieu of helping the campers address the issue or find the origin to the problem. Small issues, which could easily be addressed, are sometimes overlooked, turning them into larger, more problematic concerns down the road.

The counselor’s primary responsibility in mediating a conflict between campers is to facilitate a discussion about communication and compromise. Counselors can emphasize the reason a specific disagreement transpired and have each camper discuss the implications and create solutions on their own to prevent similar conflicts from reoccurring. However, these resolutions must stay consistent so that campers clearly understand the compromise. It is essential to allow sufficient time to pass for campers to calm down to help future conversations be more productive. Counselors can guide campers through this type of conversation by:

  1. Explaining the importance of resolving conflict
  2. Allowing campers to explain their behavior
  3. Having campers describe how others’ actions made them feel
  4. Asking campers to provide possible solutions to the problem
  5. Co-creating a solution acceptable for both campers and counselor

Facilitating such conversations between campers is an advanced skill that develops with time and experience. Directors need to be prudent, as allowing unskilled or inexperienced staff to undertake certain conflicts might lead to larger issues. Proper training and modeling of these conflict-resolution facilitation strategies will contribute to campers’ ability to problem solve and communicate with others while leading to less conflict in camp.


Camp is a unique setting that allows youth to experience immense personal growth. Due to their proximity over the course of a summer, counselors have the opportunity to advance the development of campers’ self-confidence. Training counselors to provide ample words of encouragement and engage in debrief sessions after a failure can help in this regard. Having counselors consistently provide campers with equitable and positive encouragement will boost self-assurance and lead to better relationships being formed. Positive encouragement should occur in all facets of camp, but especially during difficult-to-manage times. For example, ongoing positive encouragement during cleanup or shower hour will foster a positive climate while simultaneously raising campers’ level of self-confidence. Frustrated counselors can raise their voices or berate campers when they are not following directions. Instead, promoting the positive, and engaging youth who are following directions with positive statements will make a drastic difference in a bunk’s climate.

Although failure is a part of life, children often do not know how to properly handle it. At camp, failures can take the form of losing a sporting competition or talent show, misbehaving or disregarding rules, or something as simple as dropping a plate in the dining room. Camp’s unique context provides counselors with a prime opportunity to help youth to learn positive lessons from failures. It is important for campers to reflect on why a failure may have occurred and what actions can be taken in the future to prevent it from happening again. Because failure is inevitable, taking the occasions to engage a child after a miscue will aid in teaching him or her how to accept future failures. Counselors can address a camper’s disappointment immediately following a failure by:

  1. Explaining that failure is a part of life
  2. Asking the following questions:
    • Why do you think you were unsuccessful?
    • What could you have done differently?
    • Why is it important to try different strategies if you aren’t successful?
    • Is this a time that it’s OK to be upset that you failed?
    • How have you overcome other obstacles outside of camp?
  3. Concluding with strategies for the future

This framework demonstrates how to provide counselors with specific insights into structuring a conversation intended to promote higher levels of self-confidence in campers.

Camp and Beyond

Summer camp is an environment conducive to camper growth both personally and emotionally, and it is crucial that camp staff utilize the opportunity to aid in their development. While some of the strategies outlined here may seem simple, many are underutilized by camp staff. Camp directors must be proactive and assume the responsibility of incorporating these communication strategies into training during staff orientation to reap their benefits throughout the summer. Once counselors learn the basics on how to successfully guide these conversations, it is imperative to follow up with ongoing training throughout the camp sessions.

The ability for camp counselors to develop these vital facilitation skills will lead to long-lasting positive relationships between campers and staff and foster an overwhelmingly positive and emotionally safe camp environment.

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Lions Camp, Rosholt, Wisconsin


Frank, L. (2013). Journey toward the caring classroom. 2nd edition. Wood N’ Barnes. Oklahoma City, OK.

Wahl-Alexander, Z., Howell, S., & Donahue, K. (2016). Summer Camp Counselors’ Self-Perceived Competency prior to, and Following Staff Training. American Camping Association 2016 National Conference, Atlanta, GA.

Sarah Paver is an adapted physical education master's student from Northern Illinois University. Sarah has previously worked as a group leader at Trail’s End Camp.

Zachary Wahl-Alexander, PhD, is a sport pedagogy assistant professor from Northern Illinois University. He has worked at Trail’s End Camp for the past five summers, and currently serves as the boys head counselor.