Bob Ditter
July 2018

Dear Bob:

I am a camp director at a sleepaway camp in the Midwest. We have multiple sessions of two weeks each throughout the summer. At the start of each session I notice that our staff almost seem like the proverbial deer in the headlights when the new campers arrive. After all we cover during staff training they almost don’t know how to connect comfortably with their new crop of campers. Do you have any ideas that might help?

Muddled in Michigan

Dear Muddled,

Your email hits on a common theme among directors I have spoken with around the country. It is almost as if, with all their preoccupation with screens, young counselors have forgotten the simple ways to connect with campers and put, as I call it, “money in the bank” with them!

I have a simple word of advice for you and your counseling staff: “SMILE.” Here’s what it means:

S stands for, “Say the name of each of your campers every time you speak to them.” The sweetest sound to any camper is the sound of their own name as spoken by their counselors. By following this easy-to-remember tip, counselors get practice learning the names of their new campers, and the campers feel more connected to their new counselors.

M stands for, “Make eye contact.” As we know, and as you mentioned in your email, young staff members have often spent many hours looking at screens. The “language of facial recognition” (Zimbardo, 2012) has been all but lost on many young people. Gently reminding them to make eye contact will, again, help them establish a better connection to their new campers.

I stands for, “Introduce campers to each other using their names.” This gives counselors a chance to get the campers to mingle while having another chance to learn the names of their new crew. It is both an easy action step and a way to memorize names. The advantage here also is that counselors are now promoting an activity that campers can pick up and carry on their own by talking among themselves and learning about one another’s interests.

L stands for, “Learn what each camper is looking to get out of camp.” This directive is also a natural progression in forming a relationship with each camper. It can also promote a low-risk, high-gain conversation among new campers: What are the activities they are most excited about? What are some things at camp they have never done before? What parts of the camp day do they enjoy most? Again, this easy-to-remember pointer is like “starter dough” for counselors who are forming new connections to their campers and serves as an easy way for campers to connect with one another.

E stands for, “Encourage each camper to make a new friend.” Making a new friend takes time, but this suggestion gives counselors a direction that will give them a focus that can carry them for many moments during the first few days of each new session.

I preface this little “lesson” by saying to the staff that of all the things they may have heard about during staff orientation, the most important is their ability to successfully connect with and form relationships with their campers. The SMILE format is simply an aid to help that process along.

Dear Bob,

I am going to be a counselor at a camp in California this summer. I heard you speak at the spring conference in Palm Springs and wanted your advice about something. I have heard a lot about how camp helps kids develop character, but I am not so clear about how I might help that along this summer. Do you have any tips for me?

Thanks in advance for your help.

Michael Y

Dear Michael,

Thanks for your thoughtful question. I have a little device I use with counselors that may help you reinforce the valuable lessons many campers learn without even realizing it. I call it “NAME it!” This is what it stands for:

N stands for, “Name the behavior you see.” For example, if you see a camper trying very hard to overcome a fear or to master a new skill in just about any activity — basketball, swimming, rock climbing, and so on — you might say, “Wow! You were really trying! I could see how hard you worked on that!”

Example 2: “I noticed you stayed behind to help J find his/her tennis racquet.”

Example 3: “I could see you were working really hard not to lose your temper back there.”

Example 4: “Even though you have been homesick for these first few days, you keep making friends and going to activities.”

A stands for, “Affirm the behavior you just named.” In the first example, you might say, “I am so impressed! You should be proud of yourself!”

Example 2: “That was really helpful and kind of you.”

Example 3: “You did a really good job in a tough situation!”

Example 4: “I really admire you for that!”

M stands for, “Make the connection between the behavior you just called out and the character trait it exemplifies.” So again, in the first example, you might say, “That’s what we call grit!” Or, “That’s what we call perseverance!”

Example 2: “That’s what we call kindness.”

Example 3: “You were showing really great self-control!”

Example 4: “I’ve been really impressed with how you have been keeping positive!”

E stands for, “Encourage campers to keep striving for those traits!” The simplest way to encourage your campers to keep trying is to praise them and to challenge them. Doing that might sound like, “Let’s see how kind we can all be to one another this week!” Or, “Let’s see how hard we can all try to be positive!”

One of the other things I recommend, especially with younger campers or campers who are newer to camp, is to keep a “list of firsts.” Every day, preferably at the end of the day for day camp and at bedtime for resident camp, I have the campers sit in a circle and share something they have done that day that they’ve never done before. It might be to go off the diving board, try out for a play or a sports team, make an innovative craft project, make a new friend, offer help to another camper, and so on. Whatever they tell you, you write down on the list. After each camper shares, this offers you the opportunity to praise them and basically follow the “NAME it” formula — name the behavior; affirm the behavior; make the connection to the character trait of value; and encourage others to follow the example.

Happy Camping!


Zimbardo, P. G., & Duncan, N. (2012). The demise of guys: Why boys are struggling and what we can do about it. TED Books.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.