Administrative Moose Bites

The 3 Life-Changers of Summer Camp

Despite why we were drawn to this profession there are reasons why we stayed. One of those reasons for many of us is that we wanted the opportunity to change kids’ lives through camp. I believe there are 3 variables of camp that have the power to do just that.

1. RELATIONSHIPS

STAFF

When I first attended summer resident camp I had just finished 5th grade. The camp was fantastic. They had great activities, fun campfires, a very cool camp store and the best nature center I have ever seen to this day.

I HATED IT.

Over half of the campers in my cabin were return campers and they all knew each other. This was not the first year for our counselor either. He knew the return campers well. Then there were the four of us who had never been to summer resident camp. I remember feeling nervous. Not about camp itself, but about making friends, being picked on, and not getting attention from our counselor. It all came true. Not just for me, but four the other 3 noobs. The return campers were drawn to our lack of confidence and our uneasiness like a dog to a rawhide bone dipped in peanut butter. They would verbally pick on us, sometimes right in front of the counselor, who would do nothing to stop it. It didn’t matter how great the activities were, I couldn’t enjoy them because I didn’t feel safe or welcomed.

Needless to say I never went back to that camp. In fact, I never went back to any resident camp. Many people become camp staff because they have fond memories of being a camper. It was the opposite for me. My driving force was to make sure my campers had a safe and enjoyable experience. I didn’t want them to have to endure what I had gone through as a camper.

All camp staff, but especially counselors, should strive to be the best example of a fun, moral and wise mentor that they can. It is through our actions (listening, advising, protecting, teaching) that will be the catalyst for a positive change in campers. We want campers, when they go home and are faced with difficult situations, to think to themselves, “What would my counselor do?”  or “What would my counselor say to me at this moment?” I believe it is our duty to be a positive influence, a mentor to these kids. We want them to look up to us and see that you can be silly and cool at the same time. There are so many opportunities for teachable moments during a week, or more, of camp (day and resident). The relationship you have with a camper, with all of your campers, can be life-changing.

CAMPERS

Campers develop relationships with other campers. Some are good and, unfortunately, some are not. Campers may find new life long friends at camp, and that, in and of itself, is life changing. Camp staff should take an active hand in developing positive camper-to-camper relationships through cabin talks and bonding, team building and other general camp experiences.

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2. ENVIRONMENT

When a camper goes home we want him or her to have fond memories of camp. We want them to think of camp as an exciting, emotionally safe, physically safe, loving, magical place. Creating this camp environment is life changer #2.

When kids go to school do they see it as exciting? Emotionally safe? Physically safe? Loving? Magical?

Disneyland? Yes. School? No. Camp? (You’ll have to answer that one.)

It is up to us to create this environment through camper rules, staff rules, fun, safe and exciting activities, incredible and memorable special events and evening programs, colorful and appropriate decor, positive, loving and joyful attitudes, quality pre-camp training, positive camper involvement, safe equipment, positive traditions and an overall sense of awesomeness. We want camp to be the happiest place on Earth.

Having such an environment can further develop imagination, positive and creative thinking, and more. It can show campers what a wonderful culture can be like. As campers become adults and move into their various careers they can take what they loved so much from their memories of your camp environment and apply it to creating a wonderful environment in their workplace or business and, more personally, with their family and in their home.

We rarely think about how camp will effect campers in their adult lives. If you stop to consider it, you’ll see that camp can have a significant influence in a camper’s adult life. I’ve heard more than a few times, from former campers, how summer camp created a love of outdoors in them. It was the first time they had truly been “unplugged” and in a woodsy outdoor environment. Which brings me to the third life-changer…

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3. FIRSTS

Most campers will experience at least one “first” at camp, their first time on a horse, first time sailing or kayaking, first time spending the night away from home, first time feeling a part of a group, first time having a meaningful, positive relationship with an adult, first time at a dance, first time acting, first time receiving applause, first time shooting a bow and arrow, first time making a touchdown, first time eating meatloaf, first time feeling emotionally safe, first time hearing a well told story, first time in a bunk bed, first time in the deep end of a pool, first time off a diving board, first time rock climbing, first time seeing a deer, first time catching a fish, first time in a lake, first time water skiing, first time feeding a goat, and on and on.

Parents will tell you weeks later that the positive experiences their child had doing X (whatever “first” they did) is all their child can talk about at home. Campers have gone on to pursue certain hobbies and even careers based on activities they first tried at camp. I had one camper try kayaking for the first time at camp and loved it. She was hooked and wanted to do it all day. That was her gateway activity into sailing, an activity neither her nor her mother had ever considered. She went on to race competitively in sailing and then to teaching others how to sail as a career. Another example is a counselor that worked for me who was in college at the time and loved to rock climb. She wanted to pursue it as either a serious hobby or a career. I asked her where she learned to rock climb. She told me of a climbing gym that was near her home where she grew up, but said that her first experience was at camp. That was where she fell in love with rock climbing.

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CONCLUSION

It should be clear that camp changes lives. In my study on what exactly was life changing about camp, I kept coming back to these 3 variables in one way or another. What this did was give me the areas I wanted to improve my camp. It created a bigger picture of the importance of summer camp and reinforced the idea that camp can truly change lives.

  • I have shifted my focus on staff training.
  • I am more aware of, and actively look for, teachable moments.
  • I spend quality time with campers.
  • I train my staff to think of themselves as mentors with the power to change lives (for better or worse).
  • I find out what activities and experiences campers have never been introduced to and do what I can to make those experience great ones.
  • I aggressively curb any form of bullying right away and train my staff to do the same.
  • I look at my camp program though different lenses and make adjustments to the environment.
  • I expect my staff to be engaging, energetic, empathetic, fun and involved.
  • I strive to be an example to my staff of the traits I expect from them.

I would love it if you left a comment on this telling me your thoughts on this or of any personal stories or examples.

7 Comments

  • Thanks so much for this article! I have a question though, how exactly do you aggressively take care of the bullying? I get so frustrated because if it is done in teasing and makes the other kids laugh, even the really great kids sometimes join in! We are in a church, so we do have that to pull from, but kids are kids no matter where you are.

    • Nikki, fortunately we do not have a big problem with bullying at our camp, however, at other camps I have worked at I would see “teasing” going on by campers AND staff. Many times this is the start of more serious bullying. I do not allow my staff to tease and if they see ANY signs of teasing or bullying they are to stop it immediately. That is just the beginning. I am not going to be able to eradicate bullying completely. I know that. But I want campers to see that we take bullying and teasing seriously, that we will not tolerate it. If that means calling parents and having them pick up their child because he or she is bullying, then so be it. Many camps will try and work with offenders of bullying. They’ll try to talk and reason with them. I’ll do this once, and if it doesn’t work then my main concern is for the emotional safety of the other campers, and the bully (even if it was “friendly teasing”) will be expelled from camp. I am not equipped to change the mindset of a bully. I’m not trained as a therapist. All I can do is show a bully that there are consequences for his or her actions. Again, I will speak with them and see if we can solve the issue and keep them at camp, but I will not tolerate a second offense.

      Having said that I will rarely punish the actions of someone who is being teased or bullied or those around witnessing it, unless it’s physical violence. For example, if other campers are laughing or the camper getting teased is verbally fighting back, then they will usually not be punished in any way. I ask myself, if I took the bully out of the equation would these kids still be behaving like this? The answer is usually no. I will then deal with the bully and speak with the rest of the group, away from the bully, about what had happened.

      The good kids, many times, will join in because they don’t want to be the next target of the teasing. At a church you may want to talk about what Jesus must have gone through. He must have been bullied and teased incessantly. Not only Jesus but his disciples, and Noah, and Moses and a host of other men and women of God. Besides Satan and the Romans, Goliath is the Bibles most well-known bully. You can talk about them as well.

      There are a ton of resources on bullying out there and many schools of thought. I once worked for a director who thought that boys teasing each other was good for them. He felt it prepared them for the real world. The thing that was obvious, however, was that he himself was a bully and it showed in his everyday connections with others. Peruse Amazon and the ACA bookstore for information. I have been a part of Peter Yarrow’s Don’t Laugh at Me program, and, while it is a wonderful program, I saw no lasting affect in campers as a whole. I think kids who get bullied connect with the program, but those who do the bullying do not. So find what works for you. My suggestion is to let the parents know that you have a strict policy on teasing, and then make sure you and your staff stick to it.

  • Thanks! I’ve never spoken to the kids about Jesus and the disciples being bullied, that’s a great approach. I am thinking about a behavior contract as well for camp.
    Thanks for your website also, it is a great resource!

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