Counselor Tools Opinion

10 Ways to Be a Great Camp Counselor…surmised by my lousy experience as a camper


I was in 5th grade and our school took us to a camp for a week of environmental education. I was blown away. I instantly fell in love with “camp” – the outdoors, the cabins, the activities, the learning, the staff, the evening programs…it was heaven.

Of course, what does a boy do when he falls in love with a camp after attending a week of living there? No, he doesn’t hide under the bunk bed and wait for the bus to leave. He begs his mom to send him back for a week of SUMMER camp. After all, it’s gotta be a week of the best parts of camp without all that learning stuff.

My mother (bless her heart) somehow found the funds (I was a latchkey kid to a single mom – we had very little disposable income) to send me for a week of summer camp. I was so excited, but nervous as well since I wouldn’t know anyone there this time. I don’t remember asking any of my friends to go. I must have, though. I would have wanted a friend to go with me. In any case, I went solo.

The camp had bus pick-ups in different locations. We had to drive a few cities away to get to the closest one. As soon as we drove up to the stop I felt like hurling from all the nerves. If I am in a place where I don’t know anyone, I keep to myself. I am your classic introvert. Once I feel comfortable, I break out of that shell.

I reluctantly left my mom and got on the bus. The kid I shared the seat with wanted nothing to do with me. He had friends in the seat adjacent to us. He talked and laughed with them the whole 2 hour drive and didn’t say a word to me.

Once we arrived we were taken to a large building where a bunch of campers were already playing some sort of game. Nobody spoke to me (adult or kid) so I just stood along the wall and watched.

amphitheaterA little while later we were all taken to an outdoor amphitheater. This is where we got our welcome speech, list of camp rules and an introduction to the camp staff.

They called our names one-by-one to go with our assigned counselor, but first we had to find our luggage in this enormous pile of duffel bags, suitcases, backpacks and sleeping bags that was obviously thrown together by people who had no respect for other’s property. The rip in my duffel bag, the unfurled sleeping bag and the missing pillow that was attached was proof of that.

Once we got to our cabin it was evident that six of the 10 campers were close friends. The other four of us knew nobody. It was also clear that our counselor knew the six campers from the previous summer.

The four of us “newbies” tried to bond over being, well, new, but somehow none of us really had any similar interests. On top of that, the six friends felt the need to be mean and rude to us. What’s worse was that the counselor was fine with it and even told us to “get over it, they’re just messing around” when one of the newbies complained.

This is how it went the whole week. I was miserable a lot of the time. What was supposed to be the BEST week of my life was the week I realized I would NEVER return to a sleep-away camp again. Now, don’t get me wrong, I had fun playing games, participating in the activities and events, and watching campfire skits, but when it was cabin time, the fun took a nosedive.

As for other parts of camp it was hit and miss. I can’t recall meals at all or what the dining hall looked like. Not sure why. I do remember visiting the cool trading post and the nature center that had interactive displays.

I also remember a team competition day. The top three teams got some sort of experience as a prize. Our team came in second or third so we got to have a watermelon feast. Problem was, I don’t like watermelon, at all. (Oddly enough I really like watermelon Jolly Ranchers, but not actual watermelon.) When I asked about getting something else I was curtly informed by one of the staff that I was out of luck, it was watermelon or nothing. So I sat there as everyone else stuffed their face with unlimited slices of the stuff. It wouldn’t have bothered me if I had some camp friends to talk to and laugh with, but I didn’t.

The worst part for me was thinking at the time that, because I was so excited to go to camp, my mom had somehow scrounged together enough money, yet I wasn’t enjoying my camp experience. I felt so guilty for not having fun. The couple of letters I got from her only made it worse.

When the week ended and the bus drove us back to our stops I was so happy to see my mom. Of course, when she asked how camp was, I said what every kid coming back from camp says, “Fine.”


Obviously, I am in the camp industry now. Years ago, when I was looking for a job I saw an ad for outdoor education counselors. I thought, “That sounds cool”. Then I thought back to my time as a camper and I couldn’t believe I was actually thinking about taking a job as a camp counselor. But then it hit me…”I WILL BE a better camp counselor then the one I had. I will be someone the kids would remember fondly.” My experience as a camper taught me what not to do as a counselor, and that, in turn, taught me what a great camp counselor should be doing.

1. Make sure each camper in your group gets your attention.

Show favoritism to a few campers and you could possibly ruin the whole camp experience for those kids that did not get your attention. It’s the job of a counselor to ensure his or her group’s safety, welfare and positive camp experience.

2. Bring the group together through icebreakers, conversation and team-building.

The first chance you get with your new group, either play some get-to-know-you games or just sit with them and have a conversation about their likes, dislikes, what they are looking forward to at camp, etc. Books like Would You Rather and the Kid’s Book of Questions (two of my favorite books to use at camp) are perfect for starting conversations. After that, have a couple of team-building activities ready to help create that group bond.

3. Don’t discount others’ feelings or concerns.

If a camper tells you they’re feeling left out or ignored, don’t dismiss it, even if you feel their feelings are unfounded. Talk to them and see how you can make them feel more included. This may not be easy. Sometimes you’ll have a camper that excludes themselves, or they may be “different” from the other kids in one way or another. I’ve found that you can always find some common ground between all the kids, even if it’s a movie they all like. Other times I just have to speak to the one kid that the rest of the group looks towards and convince him or her to include the camper that feels like an outcast. Once he or she is on board the other kids usually follow right along.

4. If a camper seems disconnected, engage them.

meatballsThere are times when a camper won’t want to participate. They will have their head down, stand off to the side and show hesitation. Go to that camper and speak with them about why they feel that way. For example, let’s say one of the boys doesn’t want to get in the pool with everyone else. Why? It could be they are afraid of the water, or maybe they don’t want to take their shirt off because of a scar or because they are overweight. Point is, don’t just leave them on the sidelines alone. Spend time with them, see if you can get them to participate, and if they really don’t want to then allow them to make that choice without shame.

If you can, find other ways for them to participate. Maybe they could referee a game instead of being a player, take photos instead of climbing the rock wall, choose the music at the pool instead of going in, or feed the horses instead of riding them.

5. Always have an alternative to the special snack.

yuckNot everyone likes the same foods. Due to taste preferences and allergies it’s always good to have a few choices when a snack is offered. Kids love snacks, especially if it’s part of a reward or a special surprise. By having only one choice and telling campers it’s this or nothing, you could be ruining that special experience for some of them.

6. Don’t make winning such a big deal.

Everyone loves to be the winner. Nobody likes to be the loser. Problem is, in order to have a winner, you must have a loser. It’s up to you as a counselor to show a positive attitude when your team loses, and to have a humble attitude when they win. Your campers will look to you when either one happens, and they will take your lead. After a loss, excitedly say to the other team something like, “Good job blue team. You guys crushed it. We’ll get you next time!” Then turn to your group and say, “We had a lot of fun playing, right guys? At least I know I did”. This will send the message that winning isn’t everything and you are not disappointed in your team for losing, you just enjoy playing. That should help raise the spirits of your team and teach them a valuable lesson in sportsmanship.

On the flip side, when you win if you say something to the losing team like, “Red team, you all are beasts. That was so close. We got pretty lucky. Maybe we can play a rematch later”, and then you give each of the campers on the losing team a high-five, it also teaches your group a lesson in good sportsmanship.

7. Free time is great, unless a camper doesn’t have a friend.

If you have ever seen a large number of kids having free time you will inevitably see a couple of kids sitting alone. Once you invite them to your game, even if it’s jut throwing around a ball, they will usually do it. Introverts usually just need to be asked to be a part of a group. If the camper says, “No, thanks”, take a couple of minutes to sit with them while the rest of the kids play. Then get back to your game. The act of leaving your game to sit with a camper for a few minutes will do wonders.

8. No ice cream troughs.

ice cream troughDuring my time as a camper the camp set up two FIFTY-FOOT troughs on the playing field, which I think was just pvc pipe cut in half. Campers were seated on both sides of each one. The staff then added hundreds of scoops of ice cream into the trough. Then they added toppings of chocolate syrup, sprinkles, etc. When they finally finished, we were allowed to feast on the half melted ice cream goodness.

Campers fought to get spoonfuls of the ice cream and toppings of their choice. Then with drool on our spoons we double and triple dipped for more. In less than 30 seconds the trough was a mess of melted ice cream, toppings and saliva. The staff were breaking up arguments, wiping off ice cream from campers clothes, and yelling at everyone to calm down. It was MAYHEM – and not in a fun way. We were so focused on scooping up the ice cream and toppings we wanted, and eating it as fast as we could so we could get more, that we really didn’t enjoy it or appreciate the effort it took to make it happen. It would have been much better to get our own bowl with two scoops.

9. When programming, try and make all aspects of camp memorable.

It’s easy to shuffle campers from one place to another and to lay on the bunk or grass when nothing is going on, but these are the times when real memories can be made. Here are some examples:

  • Sing camp songs on the way to the next activity.
  • Bust out conversation starters or minute mysteries during meals.
  • Take your group on an ADVENTURE searching for dinosaurs or hidden treasure during downtime.
  • Hold a 30 second dance party any time of the day.
  • March to a cadence on the way to breakfast.
  • Spell out “WELCOME” with rocks in front of the cabin for the clean cabin inspector.
  • Show your group how to make friendship bracelets while waiting your turn for the next activity.

10. And finally…Treat all campers equally and with respect, that includes their LUGGAGE!



  • By far the best article I’ve ever read on ‘What makes an awesome camp leader’! And what I love is everything here is transferable to almost any school trip, not just summer camps. My students are going to love how their next trip turns out.

    • Thanks, Clarence. I appreciate the kind words and glad you found the post helpful. Good luck with your next trip.

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