Parachute Pants, Pokemon, and iPods: Understanding Your Campers at Various Ages and Stages

Kim Aycock, MST
May 2014

Rewind to the time in your life when you were seven, ten, or thirteen (or any other desired childhood age). Who was your best friend at that age? What style clothing did you wear? What did you like to do in your free time? What music do you recall from that age? What was your favorite toy? What book did you enjoy reading? What device could you hardly wait to get because it was the “in” thing to have? What is your worst memory of that time in your life? What is your best memory of being that particular age?

Regardless of whether you were thinking of wearing parachute pants, playing Pokemon video games, or wanting an iPod, taking a walk down memory lane will give you a better understanding of the campers who will be in your care this summer. Even though fads and styles come and go based on the decade that best classifies your childhood, you will be able to relate to your campers by having a connection to their world through your own experiences as a child. Like you, campers grow up having memories of home and school, time with friends, and someone who is a hero in their life. Favorite toys, music, books, and TV shows are markers of any childhood. Camp is a multigenerational community, and it can be fun to fi nd out what you have in common with other staff members, both younger and older, as you relive memories from your youth and pave the way for your work this summer.

You will most likely be assigned to work with a particular age group of campers in the bunk/cabin/day camp setting; however, it is helpful to know where kids have been and where they are headed in their development. You may teach various ages of campers in their activities or sit with them during meals, so an overview of all ages will be useful. It is also possible that you will be asked to switch age groups mid-summer to accommodate a particular need of the camp. Let’s use this opportunity to “zoom in” to see how youth progress through the various ages and stages of development from early childhood into their adolescent years.

Typical Traits

Please know that while the traits given are considered “typical” of each age group, there will be campers who are not a perfect fi t to all characteristics mentioned. Each camper is unique and special in his or her own way. Age is also not a precise forecaster of maturity (Query & Levings, 2006)! These characteristics are to guide you in understanding each age group in four development areas: physical, social, emotional, and intellectual. Suggestions and recommendations for doing your best work with a given age group are also included.

Understanding Six- to Eight-Year-Olds

From a physical standpoint, this age group has better control of large muscle groups than small. Socially, they are becoming more aware of peers and their opinions, and they may have several best friends (Stewart, 2013). Boys and girls may enjoy playing together at this stage (Query & Levings, 2006). On an emotional level, six- to eight-year-olds view fairness as being nice to others so that they will be nice in return. They seek approval from adults in authority (YOU!) and are eager to please so as to avoid punishment (Stewart, 2013). They do not respond well to criticism or failure. Intellectually, kids are concrete thinkers at this stage and interest spans are short. They are naturally curious and are eager to learn and try something new (Query & Levings, 2006).

In order to be successful with this age group, routine and consistency are important to establish early on, and giving short, specific, and clear instructions will help keep them on task. It may take this group longer getting ready (countdowns are a good tool to use: “In ten minutes we will be going to free swim, in five minutes . . .”) and moving from place to place (playing “follow the leader” can be a good way to encourage forward progress). They will need extra help with jobs such as making beds, clean-up duties, laundry, etc. Try to avoid putting yourself in the position of doing tasks FOR your campers just to save time, instead of working WITH them. Taking advantage of the opportunity to teach them how to do certain tasks in the beginning will save time and frustration in the future. They may need reminders about personal hygiene, including washing their hands or brushing their teeth, and cleanliness (taking a shower). Kids at this stage can be slow eaters and may require your help cutting food.

Activities planned for this group need to be physically active and allow them to work on skills that can be successfully completed by beginners (Stewart, 2013). It is a good idea to alternate between high-, medium-, and low-energy activities and provide opportunities for campers to use their five senses to experience and explore. Offering a wide variety of activities that are short in nature is good for campers in the early childhood stage. Circling back and building on previously learned skills is also important. Finding balance between individual and small group activities is key to providing the attention that this age requires (Query & Levings, 2006). You may want to “divide and conquer” and split up the group so that campers have one counselor instead of multiple staff from which to take directions. It is OK for campers to only work on a project rather than complete it (Query & Levings, 2006), and don’t be surprised if craft projects end up being messy (Stewart, 2013)!

Understanding Nine- to Eleven-Year-Olds

Physically, this age group is very active and energetic because they are experiencing a steady increase in large muscle development, strength, coordination, and balance. You will notice that girls typically mature faster than boys. On the social front, campers who are nine to eleven generally see adults (YOU!) as the authority and will follow the rules out of respect for those in charge. Campers of this age typically prefer working in groups and identify best with the same gender. This age group looks up to older campers and will not only admire them, but also imitate what they do and say. Comparing themselves to others can be challenging for them to process and understand. From an intellectual perspective, campers at this stage have an increased attention span, but their interests change quickly. This age finds enjoyment in collections and hobbies, and they are open to trying new things (Stewart, 2013). Campers at this stage are also extremely curious and will often show this by continually asking “why” (Query & Levings, 2006).

To get the best results with this age group, routine and consistency continue to be important; however, they will be more self-sufficient and will need less help with basic tasks. Campers who are in their middle childhood years may still need reminders about personal hygiene and cleanliness, and reminders should be done one-on-one so as not to embarrass a camper in front of peers. They will look to you to set and enforce reasonable limits and keep them safe by providing and maintaining boundaries (instead of caving the moment you are first challenged by a camper on a rule you made). You can allow opportunities for this age group to feel independent by allowing them to make choices at certain times. (For example, ask: “Would you like to read a book or write a letter during free time today? Would you prefer to eat lunch outside on the picnic tables or in the dining hall?”)

It is recommended that you keep them moving and active (without solely relying on sports to accomplish this) (Stewart, 2013) and provide variety and brevity to satisfy their changing interests (Query & Levings, 2006). Campers of this age respond well to having opportunities that allow them to work together in groups of the same gender (Stewart, 2013). You may get tired of being bombarded with questions; ways to handle this include keeping them abreast of the daily schedule (“There will be a special assembly after lunch today”) and providing reasons for your requests (“We are going to clean the cabin to promote a healthy community living environment” vs. “Because I said so”). It is also good to encourage and give this age the resources to discover some of the answers to their questions on their own. To avoid campers comparing themselves with others, you can help them focus on comparing their past and present performances as an individual (“Last week you were working on a forward roll, and this week you have accomplished a front walkover!”) (Query & Levings, 2006).

Understanding Twelve- to Fourteen-Year-Olds

Youth at this age are going through many physical changes at varying rates (Stewart, 2013). Campers come in all shapes and sizes and can be extremely self-conscious and critical of themselves and each other. Socially, this group is interested in activities involving both boys and girls (Query & Levings, 2006), and they are looking more to their peers for approval than the adults in their lives (Stewart, 2013). On an emotional level, early adolescents are concerned about being liked, their friends, social graces, and their physical appearance. This group experiences emotional swings that go from one extreme to the other due to the changes affecting their hormones. They seek independence but also want and need guidance and approval from adults (YOU!). Intellectually, they are moving beyond the age of fantasy and are starting to think more about what they want to be when they grow up (Query & Levings, 2006). They have a desire to gain experience in leadership roles (Query & Levings, 2006) and explore the world beyond their immediate community (Stewart, 2013).

This age group can be self-sufficient for the most part, but when it comes to hygiene and clean-up chores, don’t take a hands-off approach. Campers at this development stage need their space for some things (getting ready for the day), yet they also need your vigilance and supervision more than ever for purposes of being proactive with any problems that could arise. Giving campers a say in establishing the rules for the group will foster buy-in and accountability (Query & Levings, 2006). Because of this age group’s tendency to tease and put each other down, it is crucial for you to set your expectations for kindness early, and tell them that you will remind them not to tease should they forget. Find ways to use peer pressure as a positive influence (being the example with your attitude and enthusiasm for camp activities is critical for having your campers follow suit!) (Query & Levings, 2006). It is also important to know that sarcasm is easily misunderstood at this age (and younger) — honesty is usually the best policy!

For optimal outcomes with this age group, planning active and fun learning experiences works well (Query & Levings, 2006). (Have you noticed a theme here? ALL age groups benefit from being ACTIVE!) Campers at this stage are ready for activities that take longer to complete and offer more complexity. It is best to avoid activities that require campers to compare themselves to one another or that are weighted unfairly through physical competition (Stewart, 2013). You can also give them the freedom to plan some of their own activities or to assist younger campers with your guidance (Query & Levings, 2006). This is a great age to encourage campers to participate in out-of-camp trips.

Regardless of the age with which you will predominantly work this summer, there are certain needs that are universal from the youngest to the oldest campers. All campers deserve your patience, encouragement, honest praise and recognition, specific feedback, guidance, support, and dedication to helping them be successful.

P.S. The author wanted braces AND glasses to be like her best friend at age seven, played school and restaurant at age nine, read all of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder at age twelve, didn’t talk much to her sister at age fourteen, and couldn’t wait to get a boombox at age sixteen to be able to listen to Journey and REO Speedwagon cassette tapes!

Hudson, D. (n.d.). 70 things you need to know about today’s kids. Retrieved from
Query, S. and J. Levings (December 2006). How kids develop: Ages and stages of youth development. Retrieved from
Stewart, J. (4 January 2013). 6- to 8-year olds: Ages and stages of youth development. Retrieved from youth_development
Stewart, J. (7 January 2013) 9- to 11-year olds: Ages and stages of youth development. Retrieved from youth_development
Stewart, J. (9 January 2013) 12- to 14-year olds: Ages and stages of youth development. Retrieved from of_youth_development

Kim Aycock, MST, has twenty-five years of experience blending the skills of a master teacher with the knowledge of a seasoned camp expert. She trains camp staff at all levels and speaks professionally at regional and national conferences. More information can be found on her Web site: Kim may be contacted at 601-832-6223 or

Originally published in the 2014 May/June Camping Magazine.

Photo courtesy of Camp Southwoods, Paradox, New York