Move from New to Normal: Be the Friend You Want at the Beginning

J. Joy James, PhD, Lisa Olsen, MS, and Gwynn M. Powell, PhD
May 2018

One of the best reasons to go to camp is to experience something new. Yet, at the same time, some of the unpleasant feelings experienced while at camp might be because we are new! It is a paradox. It is solvable. Those of us who are returning need to welcome the newbies into the feeling of being one of us.

One of the reasons people grow at camp is that often we move out of our comfort zone (those things that we know) into our “growth zone” (things we are willing to try). Taking this step implies we are willing to be new at something. Our reaction to the new aspect can determine whether we panic or grow in our lives. We personally can ease the transition or heighten the panic. Comfort in trying new things can be impacted by the people in our lives, determining how we react.

What does all this have to do with camp? People who are new to camp can be in both the panic and growth zone. Camp has many aspects that are outside of what is normal when we are at home. While that is part of what returning staff love about it, it can be quite daunting to a newbie! While we do not want to lose all elements of surprise in a staff member’s first experience, there are some intentional steps experienced staff can take to help new people (both campers and staff) feel a part of camp.

One of the main ideas of camp is growth through new experiences by taking a child from familiar surroundings and people into a new setting. Both resident and day camps have aspects that are new — by design. Newness is a strength and a tool to help us all grow. Be on the lookout for the moments, the in-between times that allow people to feel included or excluded. Camp’s formal structure of camp supports learning the ropes, but it is during the gap times that we want to look around and see who we can connect.

The magic of camp is hard to explain to those who have not had an experience. We assume others “get it.” Returning staff and directors can’t always recall their apprehensions about camp as first-timers. Don’t get us wrong, camp directors and staff understand and plan for first-timers’ experience in the big things like imparting camp culture and how to sing songs and play games. However, it is the little things or the private moments for a newcomer to camp that can make or break the experience.

As a new staff member, you are likely still moving through your own growth zone, but you have enough time under your belt to give you more of an insider comfort than the brand-new campers arriving on the first day. You likely have your bearings on the physical layout of the camp. You likely know a handful of people, if not more. You likely understand the main outcomes your camp seeks to accomplish with campers. It doesn’t really take that much for you to feel more like an expert than your new campers. Allow that knowledge to give you confidence. You do not have to know everything to help someone else adjust and feel welcome. You just might surprise yourself with how much you already know.

We can begin to shape our understanding of the little things to keep in mind by using the framework of what is “camp normal.” Many things that are normal at camp are quite different back home. It helps everyone if we are up-front about the expectations and norms of camp.

Maslow’s Hierarchy

Let’s explore the cultural norms that are taken for granted by experienced camp people and organize them from the perspective of levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy: physical needs, safety, and social belonging (Maslow, 1943). These are often things people don’t know when they arrive at camp, so helping them learn the ropes can make them feel more comfortable, whether new camper or staff member. By looking at little things we take for granted at camp, we can begin to help new people learn how things are done.

Social Belonging

Luckily, most camps do a great job of friendship building with both campers and staff, but here are some little things that can make a difference.

  • Smile and check in with new people: Just a simple conversation can start building connections.
  • Invite people to join: Don’t assume they have friends or something to do.
  • Family connection: If a staff member, how can they connect with home? For campers and staff, how can the camp’s routines help them adapt to being away? For all, even returning staff, look out for any signs of homesickness.
  • Time off: Help staff find ways to get away and do interesting activities.
  • Ask questions: Create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable with asking questions.
  • Mealtime talks: Facilitate conversation by connecting people, or sit with different people at each meal.
  • Be playful: Build rapport by being playful during unplanned moments (brushing teeth, walking to dining hall, etc.).
  • What else can you do to help others fit in?

Physical Needs

Simple, basic knowledge about when and where goes a long way.

  • Personal needs: Where is the bathroom, and where do you take a shower (some facilities might be different based on rural versus urban experience, etc.)?
  • Digital connection: When and where is it okay to use digital devices at camp? Are any campers and/or staff experiencing withdrawal from digital devices?
  • Air conditioning (or lack thereof): Are your campers used to the climate? Have articles of clothing to share, and encourage a variety of water/fluids.
  • Food: What if you or someone else doesn’t like the food? Are snacks allowed in between meals?
  • Outdoor camp settings: What will you encounter when walking/hiking in the woods? What is poison ivy? What is a tick? Is this a sting or a bite? How do you keep it from being infected?
  • Personal space expectations: What about extroverts and introverts? Are there ways to get time alone?
  • What other worries do you have?

Safety

Answering the unanswered questions can help you stay focused on what matters at camp.

  • Personal health: Help set the pace and know where to go for help if sickness or sunburn occurs. Where should medications be stored?
  • Personal security: How safe are you at camp? Where should you keep your valuables? Without your phone, how do you get help?
  • What other worries do you have?

The goal with this list is to think through what might cause worry and how, as returning or new staff, we can inform people so they can concentrate on the work of creating a caring camp community. The camp director and team have planned an intense staff training that is inclusive, informational, and fun. But what makes the big difference? You! Doing little things for others in the unplanned moments builds strong community ties and lifetime friends. In those moments, the differences can be mitigated by a fun, playful activity that does not have very many rules. When people can play with each other, they begin to see their commonalties rather than the differences. Play becomes a shared language of all. Help make the new people feel at home so they love camp as much as you do. If you think back to your first experience at camp, you will likely remember someone who bridged the gap for you. Be that somebody for the new person!

Are You a Returning Staff Member?

Are You a New Staff Member?

Think back to the first time you set foot on camp property. Think about how it felt to see everyone hugging others, except you. Think about when you felt out of the “in” crowd. Think about how you were frustrated that you just weren’t in the know. Now think about how you are feeling on returning this year. Sure, you are super excited to see friends you have waited all winter to see again. Sure, you want to know what is new and what has stayed the same. Sure, there is a little part of you wondering if this summer will be as great as last summer. And there is a hint in the back of your mind that it won’t be the same because so and so was not able to come back. All of this is normal. Your challenge is to be the brave person, and look beyond your returning friends to welcome someone whose face is not familiar. Taking that step to welcome a new staff member will not only help them feel welcomed, but will be helpful in your own personal growth.

Your challenge as you arrive at camp is to be the brave person, and stick out your hand and say, “Hello, my name is . . . .” Often, that is all it takes. Don’t take it personally if the returning staff want to hang out and catch up a bit; you will quickly become part of their world. Look for others not immediately engaged and welcome them.

Photo courtesy of Camp Twitch & Shout, Winder, Georgia.

Reference

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96.

J. Joy James, PhD, has been involved in teaching, resident camps, and environmental education for over 20 years. Currently, she teaches recreation management as a faculty member at Appalachian State University.

Lisa Olson, MS, is a doctoral student in Park, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University. Her research interests include camp and youth development.

Gwynn M. Powell, PhD, is on the faculty in Park, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University. She has two decades of camp experience in the USA, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey.

Additional Resources

  • “Camp and College Parallels: Crucibles for Transition-Linked Turning Points,” by Olsen, Powell, Bixler, and Garst (2018), in the Journal of Youth Development, 13(2)
  • “Preliminary Models of Risk and Protective Factors for Childhood Homesickness: Review and Empirical Synthesis,” by Thurber and Sigman (1998), in Child Development, 69(4)
  • “Interaction between Learning and Development,” by Vygotsky (1978), in Readings on the Development of Children from Scientific American Books.

Discussion Questions

  1. What can I do to help new people feel welcome (even if I am one of those new people)?
  2. How do the values we share as a camp community suggest we treat each other?
  3. How do the goals we have for campers translate to us as staff members helping each other learn how to do our jobs?
  4. We only have the chance to be new one time. What do you see through your “fresh eyes” that can help improve camp?