Communication: Up, Down, and Sideways

Kim Aycock, MST
May 2017
Photo courtesy of Asbury Hills Camp and Retreat Center, Cleveland, South Carolina.

With so much communication being driven through mobile devices today, it is imperative that you know how to have meaningful face-to-face interactions at camp. You will not be texting your campers this summer to tell them where to meet you after lunch or what to pack for their canoe trip. You will not be meeting with a supervisor or director via your smartphone for a performance evaluation. Discussing camper strategies with your co-counselor will not take place using some form of social media. Rather, you will be connecting and communicating face-to-face with campers, leaders, and each other this summer. So now is the time to make sure you can effectively form connections and communicate successfully up, down, and sideways within your camp's organizational structure.

Let's face it, some interactions will be easier than others this summer. You will find various people — whether a camper, one of your supervisors, or a peer — more outgoing and approachable than others. Camp Twin Lakes in Georgia teaches staff that "every interaction is a transaction" and investing in each person is important. That is good advice to follow because if we truly take the time to connect and listen to each person with whom we interact in a typical day at camp, we will forge stronger and deeper relationships all around.

Your Campers

How do you effectively connect with and invest in school-aged youth? The first and easiest way to do this is to learn your campers' names. While this seems obvious, the importance of learning names cannot be stressed enough. This is usually more challenging as the summer progresses, especially, if you have new campers every week or two. You will practice many fun and creative ways to remember names during staff training. Being successful at connecting with campers means learning the names of those in your immediate group, those riding on the bus you chaperone, participating in activities you teach, sitting at your table during meals, participating on your team, etc.

The next step after learning names (or possibly as a way to help you remember names) is to discover something unique about each camper. Some campers will readily tell you everything about themselves; others will take longer to get to know.

Listening is paramount to connecting and communicating with every person you interact with this summer, but especially with campers. Author Stephen Covey's quote, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply" comes to mind (2004). How can you truly tune in to campers to show them you are giving them your undivided attention instead of waiting for your turn to take control of the conversation? To be an active listener, get on the campers' level (kneel or sit if you are towering over a camper), repeat back or summarize what campers say, and ask questions to clarify or learn more. There are different kinds of questions to consider when communicating with campers depending on the situation at hand (see sidebar on page 66).

Your Fellow Staff

In addition to investing in campers, you will also need to communicate effectively "sideways" with your staff peers. Maggie Howe from Gwynn Valley Camp in North Carolina uses a PVC-pipe model to show how the communication pipeline works with her staff. This visual is called a "PVG pipe" and is made of three concentric PVC pipes that are green (outer), yellow (middle), and red (inner). The green pipe represents problem-solving (P), the yellow pipe corresponds to venting (V), and the red pipe denotes gossip (G). Howe teaches her staff to recognize the difference between problem-solving, venting, and gossip in their communication with each other. The problem-solving pipe is green and the go-to technique that should be used most frequently between staff because it is the most productive. The venting pipe is yellow and should be used with caution, and the final pipe is red because gossip at camp should be stopped and avoided, if at all possible.

The green pipe represents a problem- solving conversation between staff because it allows for a problem or concern to be stated so that the others involved understand the situation. Once the problem is laid out, the discussion quickly moves to brainstorming possible solutions. By collaborating with other staff, new approaches to a problem surface, different perspectives are uncovered, and ways to replace any negativity with positive energy are given.

A conversation can easily turn into a venting session if no solutions are discussed. Yellow pipe communication should be used with caution, especially if complaining about a particular issue or situation continues down a negative path and is not productive. Venting, however, can be positive if it helps a person release built-up frustrations and move forward into a positive state and problem-solving mode.

Staff communication that is strictly gossip is never constructive and should be discouraged altogether. The model's red pipe reminds you to put on the brakes when staff communication goes in this direction.

Imagine that you have a camper who is consistently the last person to be ready and causes the entire group to repeatedly be late, and your own problem-solving efforts have not rectified the group's lateness. You could voice your concern to other staff members to see if they can offer suggestions based on their own experience with this issue. Chances are, your peers (or camp leaders) will have creative and positive suggestions to motivate the late camper to move more quickly. If you get stuck on the tardiness of this camper and continue to complain about him or her to other staff and never work towards a solution, you are venting without moving on to a positive path. Repeatedly telling other staff how lazy and slow the camper is, sometimes in front of other campers, is gossip and is not an acceptable form of communication at camp.

Your Supervisors

Another important line of communication to establish this summer is with your supervisors or camp leaders/directors. While these are the people who have hired you (and can also fire you), their job is to help you be your best so you have a good experience this summer. Chances are, if you are happy with your job, then the campers in your care will be happy too. Keep in mind that generational differences may influence communication ease with your superiors as well the organizational structure at your camp. Getting out of your comfort zone to have face-to-face conversations with head counselors, unit leaders, program area specialists, assistant/associate/executive directors, and camp owners will assist you in getting questions answered, necessary clarification, or valuable feedback that will help you excel at your job. Many people at camp will be happy to support you as needed — all you need to do is ask.

Communication "up" the chain at camp should be a two-way street. You should feel comfortable asking questions when you have them and empowered to make certain decisions on your own (as long as the safety of your campers is your number-one priority). One of your biggest frustrations at camp this summer will most likely be the schedule. It will be smooth sailing if it is a clear day and everything goes according to plan. But it can be challenging when the weather becomes inclement or the schedule changes unexpectedly. During these times, remember that there is usually more than one right way to do something. Going with modified activities or a full-out, rainy-day plan can both be good ways to handle weather that changes midday. Preparing a plan B ahead of time is a great way to alleviate stress and go with the flow when things don't go according to schedule.

If you have ever been delayed on a flight, you can understand the importance of good communication. When communication is open, the pilot or someone on the flight crew announces that there is a delay, tells the passengers why there is a delay, and then gives periodic updates and an estimated time of departure (even if it changes multiple times). When passengers are not given any information about a delay, they tend to get anxious, restless, and even angry. This example demonstrates two different ways that communication may be delivered by camp leaders.

At camp, while it may be frustrating for you as a staff member, circumstances may occur when it is impossible to get the word out to all staff at once. The urgency of a situation or proximity to the source often dictates how quickly you will find out certain information. Also possible are times when camp leaders truly do not have any more information than you do and are unable to provide you with next steps until they know more. No matter how carefully your directors study the local radar, predicting how rain will impact the day's activities may be tricky. Or maybe a parent has not returned a phone call that would give much-needed answers. Or there is a delay at the doctor's office and updated medical information is not available in a timely manner. Being patient during such times is critical to the overall mood of the camp community. Voicing any frustrations in the presence of campers will only add to the sense of unrest for all involved.

Camp Champions in Texas adopted "fearless communication" as their motto during a recent summer. The idea was for staff to be proactive and unafraid to communicate directly with campers, leaders, and each other. "A lot of problems would never be problems if we could talk to each other instead of about each other" (anonymous) is a quote that accurately sums up the idea behind fearless communication at camp. Asking questions is a great way to do this with campers, taking a problem-solving approach is a productive method for communicating challenges with your staff peers, and maintaining two-way communication with camp leaders will serve you well. Because the majority of camp communication is face-to-face and not through a mobile device, it may feel a little strange at first. Taking the time to invest in each person will enable you to communicate effectively up, down, and sideways this summer.

Questions for Communicating with Campers
The first type of question provides an avenue for learning about campers on a deeper level and going beyond their name, hometown, and favorite flavor of ice cream. Another question format encourages campers to think in a forward direction about their camp experience. This can be useful in helping campers who are struggling or who may be homesick turn the corner because they are focusing on the positive aspects of camp rather than the negative. You may also encounter situations that afford the opportunity to coach a camper when things aren't going well or there is a disagreement between campers. This set of questions will assist you in those conversations when you are helping a camper problem solve and weigh his or her options for how to handle a situation. Finally, there are questions that promote thoughtful reflection on the camp experience and are good to ask throughout a longer session or near the end of a session or season. The questions listed are a useful place to start because they will allow you to go beyond a one-word response and to invest in each individual.

Going-beyond-the-surface questions (Stock, 1998):

  1. If you were asked to give adults some advice about how to play and have more fun, what would you say?
  2. Of all the nice things someone could truthfully say about you, which one would make you feel the best?
  3. When was a time you were generous to a stranger just because you wanted to be nice?
  4. If you could grow up being famous and successful, what would you like to be known for?

Positive-thinking questions (Vannoy, 1994):

  1. What was the highlight of your day?
  2. What was the best part about (capture the flag, campfire, hiking to the moss garden, etc.)?
  3. What did you enjoy in (tennis, sailing, archery, etc.)?
  4. What are you looking forward to tomorrow?

Problem-solving questions (Vannoy, 1994):

  1. Was that the result you wanted?
  2. Are there other ways to handle the situation?
  3. Who will benefit or be hurt by your decision?
  4. What are the consequences of your choice?

Reflection questions (Camp Wingate-Kirkland, 2017):

  1. Imagine you are writing a letter to a parent or friend. What are three good things that happened in the past week you would like to tell them about?
  2. What is one thing you think would improve your group's experience as a whole?
  3. Think about one person who has meant a lot to you. What has he or she done to make your summer better? What qualities does that person possess that make you want to be around him or her?
  4. Imagine you are a camp expert. What advice would you give to your counselors to ensure the last day(s) of camp are terrific? 


Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are ways to show campers that you are invested in them? What questions can you ask to get to know them beyond a surface level?
  2. What is the difference between problem-solving, venting, and gossiping when communicating with your staff peers?
  3. What is your role in maintaining a two-way street of communication with camp leaders?


Camp Wingate-Kirkland. (2017). Balancing questions. Personal communication. Covey, S. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. Stock, G. (1998) The kid's book of questions. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Company, Inc. Vannoy, S. (1994) The ten greatest gifts I give my children: Parenting from the heart. New York, NY: Fireside.

Kim Aycock, MST, has more than 30 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 website: Kim may be contacted at

Photo courtesy of Asbury Hills Camp and Retreat Center, Cleveland, South Carolina.