Summer camp staff training — what exactly is it? If you take all the ideas and definitions; all the content from years past provided by the American Camp Association (ACA), the health department, and your camp or organization; and every article or other piece of commentary about what it is or how to do it, it would all boil down to a simple idea: expectations. Staff training is about what you are expected to do. The reason for those expectations is directly related to the experience every camper has at camp. Every expectation (or, in other words, every moment) should positively impact the kids' camp experience. It's pretty straightforward mathematics: Expectations + You = Camper's Experience.
What Do You Do at Camp?
What is the camper's experience? The first answer to that question is the activities, games, and programs in which they participate. Archery, swimming, fishing, the dodge-ball-like game "GaGa," counselor hunt, arts and crafts, and so on, are the kinds of things we do at camp. If I were to ask anyone, "What do the campers experience at camp?" or say, "Tell me what camp is all about," the answer would veer away from the list of activities and into a world of values, principles, and life skills. That list is comprised of making friends; trying something new; learning independent living skills, responsibility, and compassion; building community; etc.
This brings us back to the idea of expectations. I think the hardest part of staff training — and potentially the most challenging expectation — is to figure out how to create opportunities for kids to experience those life skills while doing the activities. How do we turn archery into making friends, swimming into trying something new, or fishing into learning responsibility? This is not an easy task. That is why your camp directors emphasize the importance of staff training so much and why they fill every moment with learning opportunities that are potentially useful or meaningful to you as a camp counselor.
How Do You Do It?
"Do you, and I'll do me, truly, you'll see, how real you'll be!" — Words of wisdom from hip hop artist DMX in the Funkmaster Flex (2007) song, "Do you!" What's he talking about? Sometimes we all get caught up trying to do something that someone else does, act like they act, or say what they say. That's a great way to practice new skills, but each of us has signature strengths and character traits that others copy and emulate. Whether you are creative, organized, patient, enthusiastic, empathetic, or have some other strength, the point is to use those traits to meet or exceed your expectations of yourself.
Be on the Lookout
You need to spend some time thinking about what you are good at. Maybe you already know. What feels good? What activities are you doing when time seems to stand still and outside distractions melt away? What have others noticed about you and commented on in the past? Who can you ask for an honest assessment? This is your work. No one can do it for you, and it is not rigid. Something that you used to struggle with may now be one of your core strengths.
Break It Down
The trick is to do something with the answers to the previous questions. Once you have started to notice that you really like to debrief with the kids after a low ropes element or that you shine when you are faced with a kid who won't take a shower, the next step is to really think about what the skill or strength is that is driving that good feeling and successful moment. Is it because you know how to ask good questions (active listening), or that you have no problem letting kids try things again (patience), or maybe that you can stay really calm after you have asked him to get in the shower 50,000 times (persistence, patience, and — probably — a bit of empathy). What is it?
Do It Again
Now, do you! So you're a great listener and you know how to ask questions to which kids and groups of kids respond. Where else could you practice that skill besides during a low ropes debrief session? How about at lunch, waiting back stage at the talent show, during pick up or drop off, at the canoe launch, during a hike, while making a candle, at the water break during soccer, during cabin chat, at rest hour, walking in between activities, or really anywhere else where you are around at least one camper? In fact, any skill or strength could probably be used during all or most of camp. Use your strengths to meet or exceed your expectations of yourself!
When Do You Do It?
Almost everything we do at camp is fun, inherently interesting, and engaging to campers. Not that they always participate or that they don't complain sometimes, but the entire schedule is created with their recreation or enrichment in mind. Besides that, camp is one of the few places where it is actually possible (and usually preferable) to change an activity if kids aren't that into it (although, I'm going to make the case later that there is a technique for getting kids into just about anything). Camp is flexible enough that we can get creative with the variety and choices in a given area to engage most kids. With that as the backdrop, the games and activities that you do at camp can be either 1) time fillers and a way to keep kids active, and/or 2) a means to deliver the real experience of camp.
We have games and activities kids are interested in AND serve as an opportunity for them to experience something really meaningful, but how do we turn archery into making new friends?
I am the first to admit that some of this just "happens." I hear this all the time when I start asking these kinds of questions. In fact, it has been "just happening" for most of summer camp's history. Kids get together in the woods, away from parents, and BAM! They become more independent or have a better sense of community. I don't want to take away from that. I respect the fact that summer camp — down to its molecules — can help kids experience these kinds of things. I just think that if we were all a bit more intentional about it, we could capture some pretty powerful moments and help accelerate the experience and opportunities for kids to learn and develop.
Let's take four examples and look at how this might happen: Archery and making new friends; playing the game "Secret Sender" and trying something new; going to arts and crafts and creating community; and finally, playing the game "Dead Fish" and learning about responsibility.
There is the obvious "it just happens" aspect to each of these. Maybe there are some new kids at archery, or maybe there is a camper who has never played Secret Sender, but let's explore how we can be more proactive and intentional about creating opportunities for kids to experience more meaningful outcomes along with the activity (which, might I remind you, is part of what's expected of you as their camp counselor!).
There are essentially two ways to do this. The first is to set up activities, games, and programs so that there is a meaningful outcome or challenge that addresses the life skill or value to which you are trying to expose them. For example, you could always have a group project like a collage or statue at arts and crafts. You could do camp betterment projects and decorate plant holders for cabins, paint benches around camp, or create a welcome mural. By simply participating and having some thoughtful discussion, kids would learn more about community. But what if you were looking for it? What if during every activity (and maybe just about every moment you have with campers) you were asking yourself: "What am I looking for?" What would the answers be?
You have fifteen minutes before lunch. The kids are all wound up from the morning full of a mystery scavenger hike and tie-dye dodge ball, so you do what most counselors do: You play a game to fill in the time. You choose Dead Fish. If you don't know this game, you should (don't "Google" it, it's kind of disturbing); it's pretty basic. What do dead fish do? Right! Nothing! They lay there dead. So all the campers are dead fish (are you starting to see why you should all know this game?) and the object of the game is for you to get them out by making them laugh, smile, say something, or do anything that would be construed as "not dead." When you are "out," it is your job to get the other dead fish out. The only rule is that you can't touch the dead fish. As you are playing this game, ask yourself: "What am I looking for?"
Take a minute right now and think really clearly about what the answers might be to that question. Some of the answers could be: for the kids to chill out, to make it to lunch, to stay in the same place, for a bit of quiet, and so on. I respect that. Your jobs can be tough. But what else could you be looking for in this moment? Think back to what we are trying to get kids to experience. I made the case earlier that we could potentially teach responsibility during a rousing game of Dead Fish. How? Well, what do you see? Do you see kids having to be honest with each other about whether they moved? What about kids working together to get the one kid that is really good at being a dead fish to move? Do you see anyone inviting anyone else over to help? Do you see the whole group finishing the game together? With the right comment and a simple statement like, "Hey, I noticed you guys . . ." all of a sudden you have turned this game into an experience.
What about at archery? Did you notice one camper letting the other go first (a key skill to making new friends)? Or at arts and crafts, did you notice how everyone sat down together to make the friendship bracelets (sort of the definition of building community)? During that game of Secret Sender, did you notice how the sort of shy camper asked to be "it" on the fifth round (probably something pretty new for her)?
These small moments happen all the time at camp; they happen during virtually all the activities; and they all factor into campers' experiences. What is expected of you as a counselor is to recognize these moments. You just have to see them. Maybe the best way for you to meet and exceed the expectations to deliver the real camp experience is just to ask yourself: "What am I looking for?"
How Do You Do It All Summer?
When does staff training end? Trick question! Never really. The best camp counselors know that we are always learning and growing and that everyday at camp there are things to learn and ways to grow. It's just hard to remember and even harder to practice.
Most of us have been there. Usually it happens when campers are just not that into whatever it is we are doing. They whine and complain, act out and disrupt — at worst they misbehave; at best they sulk — and we are just trying to get to lunch. As the summer slogs on, this routine gets more frequent. If we are going to meet or exceed what is expected of us (staff training), then we need to have an antidote to "survival mode" — something that we can use to fend off the feeling of fatigue in us and complacency in the kids. Maybe what we need is a hypothetical shot of Red Bull in the bug juice. The energy drink phenomenon is fascinating and funny to me. Energy in a can. The official motto of "5-hour Energy" (2011) is "Take it in seconds. Feel it in minutes. Lasts for hours." That's what I'm talking about — we need something like that for camp! Have you ever seen someone after they drink an energy drink (or have had too much coffee)? What do they do? Talk fast, walk fast, get really excited about stuff, use their body to explain things, look at you kind of crazy, say how much they like stuff, and so on.
So try doing those things . . . act energized and you'll feel energized. Act enthusiastic and you'll feel enthusiastic. And watch the difference in yourself and your kids. Sometimes we are tired and distracted and it goes unnoticed or unchanged. You have to recognize what is happening to you and do something different because of it . . . don't let those small, meaningful moments pass by your campers! Next time you are in "survival mode," try the "energy drink" strategy. Exclaim, "This next activity is going to be so cool!" Walk fast to get there. Talk about an activity after it is over. Smile a lot. Look kind of crazy. These are surefire ways to pick up the energy. And the best part is that you are actually practicing the skill of being enthusiastic. This also happens to be a great technique for getting kids into just about any activity. It's hard to deny wanting to do something when camp counselors are so excited about it.
There are plenty of things you are going to learn during staff training. Some will be easy for you to relate to working with your campers — others may not be. The challenge for you is to think about what is expected of you and where resources are located so you can turn around and do you!
5-hour Energy. (2011). The 5-hour ENERGY difference. Retrieved from www.5hourenergy .com/product.asp Funkmaster Flex (2007). Do you (featuring DMX). The mix tape volume 4 [CD]. New York, NY: Relativity Records.
Scott is a leading expert, trainer, and consultant in summer camp. He is the director of Dragonfly Forest, a camp for kids with serious illnesses, and Camp Kesem, a national organization for kids whose parents have cancer. He is also the author of S'more Than Camp. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.