The Art of Noticing

Cori Miller, MSW, and Linda E. Erceg, RN, MS, PHN
March 2019

A strong focus on mental, emotional, social health (MESH) elements within the camp community has triggered both strategies to cope with MESH concerns and an emphasis on making camp a more MESH-resilient experience for campers and staff. In support of this, the following information is provided by Cori Miller of URJ Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania. A social worker by profession, Miller works full-time for her camp and focuses on MESH concerns. She is particularly interested in building staff skills, because these frontline folks have day-to-day interaction with campers in both activities and cabin life. That being said, the comments you’re about to read may also help staff supervisors — head cooks, waterfront managers, unit heads, and so forth — be more effective as they coach the “art of noticing” as well as taking action on those observations.

“If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” A quick search of this quote defines it as “a philosophical thought experiment that raises questions regarding observation and perception” (Wikipedia, 2018). But for me, the parallel to the art of noticing, which I believe is the greatest tool we have in supporting kids in the camp setting, is undeniable. If you notice something and don’t do anything about it, is it worse than never noticing it at all? Considering that you can’t do anything about things you don’t notice, it would seem that the importance of the noticing is obvious and relevant as we consider what has changed for kids outside of the camp gates. It requires that we be more intentional than ever about what happens within them. The current demands on children should force every system of which children are a part to strive for excellence in the art of noticing — and taking action on those observations.

In a culture that often defines people by the number of summers spent at camp, as a relative newcomer, I don’t measure up. I can easily spout the value of camp as a place where kids can be their best, as a bubble where kids can build resilience and grow personally, as a place to develop 21st-century skills, and I believe it all. I also know that the years I spent working within the child welfare, educational, and mental health systems before entering the camping profession expedited the amount of time it took me to realize the value and importance of making sure we do camp right, particularly with regard to training our staff to support the campers. Past experience was the springboard that catapulted my efforts. Camps have endured for years, still described almost exactly as they were at inception — but the rest of the world is different, kids are developing differently, and parents are being forced to parent differently. In camps’ quests to develop the whole child and help them flourish all year, camps must do it differently too. One step toward this end is thinking about camp as an environment where not only are things noticed, but something is also done about what is noticed. If we, as camp professionals, truly want to change the trajectory of kids’ lives, this is essential.

We have to see and respond to what is right in front of us, especially when we consider the increased vulnerability we see in many of our campers. Even those campers who may be able to navigate camp with ease and grow independent and build resilience within camp gates could struggle outside of them where the demands are often different and perhaps greater. Perhaps on the idyllic grounds of a residential camp, where little goes unnoticed, what happens there can sustain and inform kids during the months when life isn’t as simple for them.

Camps must be sure to:

  • Train staff to understand that the art of noticing is the greatest tool we have in supporting children at camp. How do we give staff this understanding? How do we get staff to notice? First, we need some buy-in. Demonstrate how you can miss what is right in front of you by including training on selective attention, optical illusions, perspective, and perceptions during staff orientation. This provides staff with a fundamental awareness of just how easy it is to not notice. Train staff to be detectives and figure out who each child is by noticing everything possible.
  • Ask staff (instead of relying on them to bring the information to you) and encourage them to report what they are noticing. Give staff a place to share with you what they have noticed. Put it in a staff handbook, on a daily log, and ask during evening staff meeting. Weave it into the fabric of your system of collecting information about what is happening at camp.
  • Teach staff to act on what they have noticed and explain how to use their verbal tone to convey support rather than judgment. Camp staff are determined, passionate, knowledge-driven employees who sometimes simply need some “easy” language to put a plan in motion. When staff aren’t sure what to do about what they’ve noticed, suggest they say something like “I noticed you weren’t participating,” or, “I noticed you were upset during rest hour.” Encourage staff to share their actions with others or seek suggestions from peers and supervisors when they are unsure of how to respond. Ask staff if they need help deciding what to do next if you notice indecision. The support can provide camp leadership with a window into the thought process of staff and guide supervision efforts.
  • Teach staff the ABCs of working with kids — the art of listening, being a good listener, and collaborating. Training staff in these areas could be as simple as three phrases: “I notice . . . ,” “I hear you . . . ,” and “I don’t know what to say or do, but we are going to find someone at camp to help us with this.” Camp staff don’t always need to know exactly what to do, but they should trust the camp’s support structure and seek out assistance when needed. If we are creating the right culture with our staff, this gives us a great opportunity to mentor, support, and develop young staff to do their jobs well.
  • Make sure staff understand that doing nothing about the things they notice isn’t aligned with taking each opportunity at camp to teach children to be their best and creating a community where children feel safe and valued. To bring messages like this home with more impact, consider adapting your staff performance appraisal tool to include a statement such as “How effective is the staff member with not only noticing MESH behaviors, but also in acting on their observation?”

Noticing someone’s experience is empathy in the rawest sense. In a world where kids spend the majority of their time seeing inaccurate portrayals on social media of someone’s experience, noticing is the way to label real experience, comment on it, and ensure that camps are places of positive action in response to noticing both the good and the bad. This is not “helicopter camping” but rather predicated on the belief that our young, passionate staff members can often persuade and guide with much greater agility than a parent. This type of empathy and validation can have tremendous impact on everyone.

It’s also important to delicately balance helping kids feel supported with allowing them to advocate for themselves and work through challenges. This is universally important for all kids, and doing this right is the difference between enabling and empowering campers. At camp there is a vested interest in providing a safe space for kids to grow and build resilience. Camps should strive to be communities that notice everything so they can play a role in helping youth thrive within camp gates so they can survive outside of them. We can’t always control what happens to kids, but we can control how we respond to it. Noticing is the first step.

Reference

Wikipedia. (2018). If a tree falls in a forest. Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_a_tree_falls_in_a_forest

Cori Miller, MSW, is a licensed social worker. Prior to her work at URJ Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania, Cori worked with children and families in residential, community-based, and school settings providing individual and family therapy and extended assessments to provide level of care recommendations. Cori is also certified by the National Council for Behavioral Health as a Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor.

Linda Ebner Erceg, RN, MS, PHN, is the program coordinator for Bemidji State University’s Certificate in Camp Nursing (MN). Her experience includes more than 30 years as a year-round camp nurse for Concordia Language Villages and deep experience in working with camp professionals to address camp health needs. She currently chairs ACA’s Healthy Camps committee where her time at camp as well as her former role as executive director for the Association of Camp Nursing now contribute to her educational and research activities.