Starfish Values Program

September 2002

Moral education — the training of heart and mind toward the good — involves many things. It involves rules and precepts - the do's and don'ts of life with others - as well as explicit instructions, exhortations, and training. If we want our children to possess the traits of character we most admire, we need to teach them what those traits are and why they deserve both admiration and allegiance.
— William J. Bennett, The Book of Virtues

The core of our camp mission, similar to most camps, is teaching children the skills of making and keeping friends while building self-esteem and self-confidence. In the past, simply providing a safe, fun, nurturing environment would provide the necessary ingredients to "make good stuff" happen. Times have changed, however, and so must the strategies and tactics we employ to ensure that we can deliver "the good stuff" of camp to every child we serve.

In the recent past, programs to affirmatively teach children to adopt positive character traits and good values were looked upon as either something that should be left to parents and the home or just not cool enough for the fun and excitement expected at camp. Because of the preponderance of violent video games and the magnitude of violence and sex on TV and in the movies that our children are easily exposed to, we, as a society, may be losing ground. There seems to be an increase in violence among children and violent outbursts among adults. Road rage and parents beating parents at their children's hockey games are just some examples. This points to a need for more character education - and camp, as always, can play an active part in the solution.

Three years ago, we started our character education program, which we called the Starfish Values Program. While arguably not all are "values" in the true sense of the word, the eight traits we selected were those that we felt were most important and most teachable in the camp environment that encompasses cabin life, competitive sports, and challenging activities (see The Eight Values of the Starfish Program).

Implementing the Program

Coming up with what you want to teach is one thing, developing the path that has a chance to get it done is quite another. We identified three initial stages to implement our character education program in camp:

  • Awareness
  • Coaching
  • Motivation and Recognition

To make an idea like this a reality you must tell people about it. During staff orientation, we devote sessions to build an understanding of our camp's mission and then clearly link the teaching of our Starfish Values to that mission. It's not enough to teach your staff what you want done - you need to show them why it's important to do it.

We do the same thing, albeit in a shorter time, with the children as soon as they arrive in camp. Camp staff post signs and reminders of our Starfish Values throughout camp.

The next part of awareness is to identify where the teaching should take place. While recognizing that character education can happen anywhere in camp and during any type of activity, we wanted to design an affirmative program, and we needed to identify the "classrooms."

We referred to these classrooms as our "Learning Points of Contact." They included the dining room, cleanup time, our sports and adventure course, bunk time, rest hour, and free play.

After identifying the "Learning Points of Contact," we decided which values we would emphasize in those specific areas. We wanted to limit the number of value skills that our coaches need to teach - understanding that the more we put on the plate, the less the chances were that we would see substantive progress in any one of them.

Dining Hall
Bunk Time

As with all coaching, you need to identify what the "skill" looks like once perfected. So, under each of the Starfish Values, in each of the "Learning Points of Contact," we identified what the practice of that particular value would look like - specifically, we chose attributes that reflected each value.

As an example, on the playing field, promoting the value of sportsmanship requires an understanding of our rules of behavior on the playing field:

  • Code of Good Sportsmanship
    1. Play fair and for fun.
    2. Be gracious in both victory and defeat.
    3. Success is trying your best.
    4. Encourage and support your teammates.
    5. Compete with class, courtesy, and respect.

Coaches, counselors, and campers received clear direction as to the behaviors or "skills" we wanted to see encouraged on the playing field:

  • following "The Code";
  • participation by all levels of player is encouraged;
  • an attitude of trying to do one's best;
  • courtesy and respect toward opposing team players; and
  • respect for referees and officials.

Similarly, we clearly identified the following specific behaviors that are discouraged on the playing field:

  • trash talk, name calling, taunting;
  • negative cheering against opponents;
  • arguing with calls made by referees and umpires;
  • sulking or otherwise demonstrating disappointment with one's performance; and
  • profanity.

In sports, we need to focus on more than just winning the game. We must remind our coaches, counselors, and campers that how we play sports and how we react to successes and disappointments - in our own performance and the performance of others - are good indications of how we will react to the competition, disappointments, and successes of life in general.

At the end of activities, coaching includes a debriefing. During this meeting, the coaches assist campers and staff to recognize the lessons learned by their shared experiences. Campers spend a few moments discussing and understanding why the good things and not so good things happened each day on the playing fields. Point out positive behaviors and model to campers how they should react in adverse circumstances.

Motivation and Recognition

Campers and staff must be continually motivated to keep their attention on the values program. "Catching someone doing something right" is the best motivator. Our in-camp staff evaluation system features the promotion of the values program. Staff are evaluated three times during the summer, and the promotion of our Starfish Values Program is integral, among the criteria used, to the scoring of evaluations.

Daily evening lineups provide great opportunities for staff to highlight those campers who have excelled at learning and promoting our Starfish Values. Once a week, at our full camp lineup, counselors and coaches recognize one male and one female camper who have merited special recognition in each of the eight values. When recognizing each camper, counselors announce a short description of his or her specific achievement to the full camp. Recognition is not limited to our campers only. Counselors, coaches, and staff are recognized by campers and their peers for going above and beyond to promote our Starfish Values. Achievement awards at the end of the summer are also designed to reinforce the whole process of recognizing those values that we feel are most important in the teaching environment that is our camp.

Setting Goals for Values

Deciding on what character traits or values your camp will promote is less important than setting the goals for these values. We want children to be ready to succeed as adults in the world they will confront. We know that in order to be prepared to succeed, they must be willing to face the risk of failure.

Learning to appreciate the achievement of others and to recognize that one person's gain is not necessarily another person's loss are important lessons along the road to growing up. In the real world, there are both "wins" and "losses" that can't be avoided. It is a given that as individuals we will face both. How we deal with them, however, is the true measure of our individuality.

Life, like camp, is full of achievements and disappointments. The ability to face both - to put things in perspective and keep moving forward - is what camp can and should be teaching in a fun, safe, nurturing environment. Character education and teaching values is at the center of what camp should be doing. For it is in the teaching of good character traits that we truly can make a lasting difference in the lives of children.

Jay Jacobs is the director of Timber Lake Camp and the executive director of Timber Lake West, Tyler Hill Camp, and North Shore Day Camp. He served for ten years as a member of the New York State Governor's Council on Camp Health and Safety, is a past president of the American Camping Association New York Section, past chair of the Tri-State Camping Conference, and the founder and past chairman of the SCOPE (Summer Camp Provides an Edge) Program. He currently serves as chairman of the ACA-NY's Heal-the-Children Program, which provides for-life camperships for the children of the victims of the September 11th tragedy.

Originally published in the 2002 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.