Developing a Growth Mindset in the Summer Camp Environment

Tony Oyenarte and Kat Harlan
March 2019

Whether you are a first-time counselor or veteran staff member at a summer camp, it can be difficult to nail down the step-by-step process of how to grow professionally within the field. You may be all the way at the top as director, but if you are not open-minded about constant growth, are you really living your life to the fullest? Offered here are a director’s and a counselor’s perspective on how to be a competitive and competent individual, no matter what your position in the camp field.

A Director’s Perspective on What to Know and How to Grow

Changes in the Hiring Culture

Being a director of a summer camp — like being a principal of a school, CEO of a company, or a president of an organization — is all about building up and supporting the people you hire. To make sure your staff and organization are functioning effectively, you need to do certain things to help make your seasonal summer staff feel prepared, appreciated, and a sense of purpose. Creating a culture of commitment and accountability for your staff begins the second a potential staff member clicks on your website to find more information before they even consider applying.

This is true today more than even ten years ago. As young professionals and millennials are just entering into their careers, and especially when they are seeking advancement, they are weighing more options than just a salary or title. They care about where they live, the cost of living, and their relationships. They wait it out until they are serious about their decision.

The Onboarding Process Is Key

We have to be much more aware of the onboarding process and of the culture in which the people we are hiring grew up. Young employees in most fields will make a change in their workplace or even their career for a lot of different reasons, and it is less and less about the salary. In fact, 25 percent of employees have had five jobs by age 35, according to a CareerBuilder survey (Landrum, 2017), and 50 percent of employers expect new hires who have recently graduated to stay with the job for two years or less (CareerBuilder, 2014).

Working for summer camps is the perfect example of an opportunity to provide a meaningful and purposeful lifestyle that starts before you’re even an adult. Starting as campers, growing up through a CIT program, and then going to camp as a staff member for the first time, the anticipation for what’s next in your life at camp never stops. It pulls you in, and you never want to let go until you think you have to. This dream is fueled by the experiences you have, but also the people you meet and the relationships you make along the way.

Personal Board of Directors

I was first hired as a director at a very young age, and I didn’t truly understand the culture of the administration above me. The hiring team didn’t look at my age or my experience, but instead took a calculated risk on me and knew to mentor me because of my skillset and passion for working with children in the outdoors.

The term “networking” didn’t have as much oomph behind it when I started my career, but I have learned that my knowledge base and experience has been truly enhanced by the relationships I have made.

Every opportunity to meet someone new in our field is a chance to build a relationship, a mutually beneficial connection. You will grow by surrounding yourself with your own personal board of directors. The more you reach out and pull in the people who will help guide you, the more you will be exposed to different opinions and ideas that will expand your way of thinking. Listen and ask questions, gain trust, be receptive to advice, and reciprocate with your own knowledge. Growing is learning, and growing our own mindset is crucial to being relevant in our world today.

Committing to Growth Mindset

So how does this apply to your staff? As much as we preach committing to a growth mindset for ourselves, we must encourage it for our staff as well. As humans, we are constantly influenced by the messages and relationships around us. To realize and embrace this is what it means to have a growth mindset (Dweck, 2016).

We have to learn how to provide and receive feedback, and then follow up to see the results of putting feedback into practice. The pointers do not have to be formal. Any opportunity to give feedback, whether it is positive or corrective, allows for a culture of growth. Counselors should not be afraid to ask for a formal evaluation. When it is appropriate, directors should be confident and not hold back in giving constructive criticism and allowing for peer facilitation.

Every new project or daily task is a way to get better. Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden wrote in his book, A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring, “Mentors are all around us; they are everywhere we look. Anywhere there is a sharing of knowledge or a teaching of experience, there is a mentor” (Wooden & Yaeger, 2011). Successful leaders are learners, and the learning process is ongoing and a result of perseverance and discipline.

As directors, or as counselors moving into leadership roles, we gain confidence by developing and nurturing our personal core values that are intertwined with our professional lives. By identifying our personal board of directors and mentors that we trust, we can receive external affirmation about our professional values and the ideals about which we are passionate.

A strong mentor/mentee relationship, while it may get closer or drift apart, is a lifelong bond. However, younger generations are all about the “now” and have a habit of focusing on the instantaneous world we live in today. While specific defining moments are important, and opportunities may seem fleeting, as mentors we need to have a vision that is not myopic. We must have an overarching and long-term view of the past, present, and future. We must realize that while a new hire, a returning staff member, or a chance to add to your team may not work out right now, we don’t know what the future holds. Our mentees may become our peers. They may become part of our personal board of directors as we continue to be part of theirs.

A Counselor’s Perspective on What to Know and How to Grow

Embracing Diversity

It is on staff at summer camp that we learn so much about how to weave ourselves into the ebb and flow of a group dynamic. We realize there are different leadership styles that work equally well with the right execution. My generation of millennials grew up knowing that we were valued and important even, if we were not the loudest or most opinionated of the group. The idea of being a leader who helps others lead garnered more respect than being a leader who outshines everyone else. We understand the importance of having allies, not isolating ourselves.

As millennials, we understand you can be different levels of both introverted and extroverted. There is a need for diversity within every group of people — different personalities, goals, and values. The more we open our minds to other perspectives, the more we learn about our own.

Find Your Community

One driving force behind the desire to be on staff at summer camp is knowing that you are going to develop a lifelong bond that you cannot find anywhere else. When you become a camp counselor for the first time, you have joined a community. Even on the first day you arrive, you and your new coworkers are connected by the same feeling of anticipating the unknown. Summer camp provides a place for a group of people to know they are safe and supported no matter where they come from or what beliefs they hold true for themselves.

While diversity is so, so important, summer camp staff members are connected by similar interests such as the outdoors or working with children. This built-in, shared interest allows for an easier and more natural integration into a staff of summer camp counselors.

As Idowu Koyenikan said in his novel Wealth for all: Living a Life of Success at the Edge of Your Ability, “There is immense power when a group of people with similar interests gets together to work towards the same goals” (2016).

21st-Century Skills

We learn so much inside the classroom from childhood through college graduation, but when we find ourselves immersed in a community dedicated to developing soft skills, we often find we become more like experts than students.

It is said that if one wants to learn a language, they shouldn’t just open a book, but place themselves in a culture that speaks that language.

This same philosophy can be applied to soft skills. If you want to learn how to be compassionate, develop a strong work ethic, or acquire good communication skills, immerse yourself in an environment that teaches these skills with hands-on experiences.

Realizing Our Potential

The summer camp community is the perfect place to get an in-depth crash course in these 21st-century skills. Summer camp provides training and time to practice these skills during staff orientation, a means of performing and executing before and throughout the summer, and opportunities for affirmation and evaluation. Summer camp provides a clear ladder of hierarchy from CIT or Junior Counselor to cabin counselor to leadership staff, and so forth, all the way up to director. The titles of your camp or program may be called something else or look a little bit different, but you can essentially see the same progression across all summer camps.

Everything about summer camp teaches us to strive to be our best, to set goals, to overcome fear or vulnerability, and step out of our comfort zone. Summer camp has this impact on staff members as much as campers. Hopefully, we learn to get over ourselves and look at exactly what our ideals are for our own benefit and not anyone else’s. At the very least, we spend time at summer camp getting to know campers and staff from all over the world and listening to new perspectives and different views. We apply the life skills we teach at camp to our own lives so we can grow, develop our ideals, and build relationships.

As a counselor, I learned more and more about being professional and customer-
service oriented when it came to our campers and their parents. I learned how to be respectful of my fellow staff’s ideas and leadership styles. I got better at public speaking by taking notes from my peers and mentors. I got a chance to learn that, being 4'11", I have to make an extra effort to be outgoing and mature to earn respect and undivided attention.

Honestly, as a year-round camp professional, I’m still working on all of these things. But aren’t we all? To grow, we need to regularly take an inventory of what our own ideals are and if we are practicing them. We need to think about what relationships we could invest more in amongst our peers, and we can’t let an opportunity to receive feedback and grow pass us by. So we learn to be uncomfortable every now and then, and we embrace it, realizing it is only temporary. Whether or not it is temporary because we strive and succeed to incorporate new habits into our lives, or because we give up after a while, is up to us.

Cultivating Relationships and a Growth Mindset at Camp

The growth process is all about the strength of our relationships. Just as trees in nature, our passion begins as strong roots that grow over time. Each branch of our tree gains strength as we nurture our relationships and growth mindset. With a commitment to developing a growth mindset philosophy and cultivating relationships with our staff and colleagues, we have the power to influence the entire culture of the summer camp community.

Photo courtesy of Liberty Lake Day Camp, Columbus, New Jersey.


CareerBuilder. (2014, May 15). Nearly one-third of employers expect workers to job-hop. Retrieved from

Dweck, C. (2016, January 13). What having a “growth mindset” actually means. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Koyenikan, I. (2016). Wealth for all: Living a life of success at the edge of your ability. Fuquay-Varina, NC: Grandeur Touch, LLC.

Landrum, S. (2017, November 10). Millennials aren’t afraid to change jobs, and here’s why. Forbes. Retrieved from

Wooden, J., & Yaeger, D. (2011). A game plan for life: The power of mentoring. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Tony Oyenarte and his wife Stacie are the directors of Camp Lochearn for Girls in Post Mills, Vermont. Tony became the director of a residential summer camp and outdoor education center at the age of 25. With more than 20 years of children’s camp experience, education, and youth development, Tony enjoys learning about the best practices of leadership training at summer camps and within related fields. Tony has been actively involved in the ACA as past president of ACA, Southeastern, and is currently in his second term on the ACA National Board as vice chair.

Kat Harlan is the registrar and camper specialist for Camp Lochearn. After five years as a camp professional, Kat hopes to use her experience to communicate the value of working for summer camps to college students or recent graduates, and expand young professionals’ minds to consider a career in camp and youth development.