In the Trenches
by Bob Ditter
Here in New England the late summer days of September and early October
comprise a season unto themselves. Cooler at night, with warm, dry days,
earlier evenings and the bounty of the harvest at its peak, it is a time
for renewal and reflection. Late summer is a slower time for most camp
professionals, even those with a thriving shoulder season, as the engagement
with post camp groups seldom matches the intensity of camp sessions. Like
educators, for camp professionals September is often the start of a new
year. Unlike educators, however, who have new classes and students to
contend with, it is a perfect period for reflection, with an eye toward
carrying forward the best of the just completed season.
Camper-Counselor Success Stories
One practice I strongly recommend is taking the time to record specific
examples of breakthroughs or positive experiences that campers had this
summer while they are still fresh in your mind. Like the thirteen-year-old
boy Jake,* diagnosed with ADHD, who had a terrible experience the year
before at another camp, but this year, his first at your camp, made two
solid friends and had the summer of his life because of the careful preparation
you and your staff did before he arrived.
Were you to write down the details of this situation, you would be sure
to note how you had a trusted returning staff member call Jake before
camp; how that counselor found out what Jake's interests were and
connected him to a few of the other returning campers in his group via
the Internet (so they could, with their parents' permission, share
their interests and stories about camp by e-mail); and how you had the
boys' head counselor in Jake's unit speak with his parents
and his therapist to gain insight about what strategies might best work
with Jake if his ADHD started to get the best of him at camp.
Then there is nine-year-old, Sara, whose mother had given birth to a
new baby just before Sara came to camp. Terribly homesick for six days
straight, one of your innovative female counselors, with your permission,
had Sara's mother e-mail the camp some pictures of the baby, which
Sara's counselor gave her to use as part of a "girls'
circle show-and-tell" sharing during rest hour. Under the guiding
hand of the counselor, the sharing circle grew into a sharing time for
all the girls, in turn strengthening the bonds among them, which not only
helped abate Sara's homesickness, but also increased their feelings
At the end of the session the girls created a booklet, which they each
got a copy of, with all the things they had shared as a way to mark their
friendship and their time at camp. There were stories and poems and drawings
and other mementos the girls had included that became their own group
Great Counselor Initiatives
You might also record things your counselors did during the summer that
you want to be sure to share with your staff next summer as an example
of the fine practices you hope to see in all your staff. Too often camp
directors share only the negative behaviors or mistakes of counselors,
giving staff an earful of frustrated and fretful examples of poor counselor
What every crop of new staff can use are clear, specific examples not
only of the breakthroughs campers have had, as suggested above, but also
the sincere efforts of their predecessors, such as the male counselor
who practiced what I call "building momentum" as a way of
getting his twelve-year-old reluctant campers out of bed every morning.
First getting himself and his co-counselor up and dressed just before
reveille, they put on music and got the less resistant campers out of
bed first thus creating "momentum" that carried over to the
more retiring members of their group.
Or the day camp group leader who, in an effort to keep a wandering camper
with the group, allowed him to carry her clipboard and whistle and lead
the other campers from one activity area to the next at transition time.
When other campers protested that they, too, would like a turn at this
honorable role, the quick-thinking counselor gave her meandering camper
the job of selecting who should take his place, thus retaining for him
a different special role as a reward for staying with the group.
Another important note to make before too much time has elapsed is a
list of your best staff performers from this season. Consider having them
think about friends from back home or at their college or university who
they think would fit well into your camp and be strong additions to the
staff next year. Experience shows that staff that are strong performers
and feel valued by a camp, especially if they themselves came initially
as outsiders and developed a fondness or strong positive connection to
the camp, will only refer friends whose personalities and work ethic they
think would complement the values and principles of that camp.
Given their newly established high positive regard for camp, they take
a personal stake in which of their friends would also be effective performers.
Anything less would be a bad reflection on them! Through this "filter
of concern," new members referred by current staff often have a
work ethic and level of commitment similar to their friends.
I know of one camp in Pennsylvania that several years ago had one counselor
from Nova Scotia who proved to be an exceptionally fine member of the
staff. He was asked to refer friends from home who would enjoy the camp,
fit in, and be good workers. Because this counselor had developed a warm,
positive feeling for the camp, he took this request seriously and only
referred people he thought would be successful there. Even though he was
given a bonus for each staff member that was hired — a factor some
camp directors would consider a conflict — the people he referred
have consistently been great performers. Today that camp has a significant
number of staff members from Nova Scotia who consistently perform at a
high level and add spirit and character to the camp.
Refining Your Camp's Mission
Late last May I heard the startling fact that over six thousand children
in the United States had been expelled from preschool. Were preschool
children really so wild or was there another explanation, I wondered?
What I subsequently learned was that preschool, once a place for children
to learn how to play, get along with one another, and become accustomed
to being away from their primary caretakers for several hours at a time,
were now required to learn the alphabet, count, know their colors, and
be able to spell their name. It would seem that play has been abandoned
for early academics!
Camp professionals know that play is more than just fun; it is a medium
for helping children develop coping skills. For it is through play that
campers learn to wait their turn, ask for help, accept instruction, support
others, manage and get beyond their fears and apprehensions, recover from
setbacks, tolerate frustration, and experience mastery and success.
In other words, play is how children learn to cope, to know they are
more than what they happen to be feeling in a given moment, and to become
more civilized and resilient. Knowing how to count to twenty and spell
your name before kindergarten, while useful, does not build these coping
Interestingly enough, six thousand preschool children have already told
us they would rather not be in a place where play and all its lessons
are not offered. Why else would they kick up such a stink so as to get
thrown out?! A well-devised, well-guided camp program teaches —
in a fun and memorable way — coping and resilience. So rest up,
camp folks, because there is obviously still a lot of work to be done!
*Author's note: Examples are composites of actual
situations I have encountered this summer at camps across the United States
and are used for illustrative purposes. Names of campers have been invented
to protect their privacy.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for Bunk1.com
and can be reached via e-mail at BobDitter1@aol.com
or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by
American Income Life Insurance.
Originally published in the 2005 September/October
issue of Camping Magazine.