by Ellen Warren
What makes camp so great for kids? A national benchmark study by the American Camp Association (ACA) says it’s not the s’mores, the songs, the new friends or skills children learn.
Surveying nearly 8,000 boys and girls at camps across the U.S., ACA found that the “supportive relationships” children have with counselors and staff leave a lasting impression, helping campers to grow into successful, productive adults.
Make It Fun
Building supportive relationships starts with intensive pre-camp staff training at the best camps. Training can include orientation, activity instruction, lectures on topics like social dynamics, certification classes, discussions, role playing, guest speakers and ice-breaking activities. Staff manuals can exceed 30 pages.
Training often continues throughout the camp season with periodic performance reviews, professional development and senior staff for counselors to turn to in challenging situations.
Jim Talbot, director of Camp Tecumseh, a Poconos overnight camp for boys based in Plymouth Meeting, PA, now covers sexual harassment and bullying along with ACA staff standards, campers’ medical needs and safety policies in his week-long training session. But the most important things counselors learn, says Talbot, is to “make good decisions, keep kids safe, stay patient, make it fun if a counselor can do those four things, then he or she is on the right track.”
Don’t Raise Your Voice
In training and on-the-job, counselors learn coping and communication skills that studies show
translate well into the workplace. Golden Slipper Camp has been providing camp experiences for children from eastern PA and NJ for 60 years.
Stefany Marshall, a college student from Northeast Philadelphia who started as a camper there in 1998, says that in her five years as a counselor she has become a more mature person by remembering what she learned from her own counselors, and by observing more experienced counselors. The most important thing she’s learned is patience.
Marshall says, “I have learned to deal with different situations in different ways. A strategy that might work for one kid will not work for the next. I know that ice-breaker games help campers get along with each other, and that raising your voice and being loud doesn’t always work. Instead, I ask kids to share their ideas and become more involved in decisions for group activities.”
Focus On The Small Things
June Mitchell, owner of Camp America Day Camp in Southampton, PA teaches counselors to “focus on the small things that can make a huge difference” and to create a family atmosphere.
“We reinforce kindness as a way to treat all members of our camp family, and use team-building exercises to help counselors learn how to manage children and special situations like bullying. But counselors also have to know their limits, and know that they have support from the top. It’s okay to ask the director for help,” says Mitchell.
At Sixers Basketball and Dance Camps throughout the area, director Todd Landry says the first thing counselors learn is that appearances count. “First impressions are critical,” says Landry.
“Counselors must be dressed appropriately, clean and neat. Each counselor must introduce himself to each child and his parents: look them in the eye, shake their hand, make conversation. These are the same skills they’ll need for a job interview someday.”
To help children feel comfortable and secure, Landry also requires counselors to address children by their names. “We know kids make up names for each other, but we require name tags so counselors can remember and use children’s real names,” says Landry.
Be a Positive Influence
Chris Loefler grew up attending Sixers Camps and is now a counselor there when he’s not teaching at Wilmington Friends School. Loefler says, “I learned how much of an influence counselors have on younger kids they really look up to you, so you have to make that influence positive. I also learned how to communicate with kids.
“An older coach taught me that because kids come from different experiences, they absorb information in different ways. You have to give them different angles to help them learn. I use a lot of the skills I learned as a counselor in my classroom.”
“You learn that even little kids are always watching you,” says Jonathan Mitchell, a 21-year-old from Upper Dublin who has been a counselor at Camp America for seven years. “They will pick up on everything you do and emulate you, and they rely on you, so you have to be responsible.”
Mitchell says he also learns by listening to children. He says, “All kids are good people and have good intentions. Sometimes they may misbehave, but if you really listen to them, you can help them achieve their goals to get along and have a good time.”
Lead by Example
“When a child is hesitant, a kind word by a counselor can make all the difference,” says Golden Slipper Camp director Tom O’Neill. “Gentle guidance, enthusiastic encouragement, and caring support from these young men and women are genuinely appreciated and accepted by campers. When a counselor tells them they can step up and be a leader or make new friends, sometimes that’s all they needed.”
And sometimes, campers just need someone to show them the way. Marna Klein, a Camp America counselor from North Wales, PA tells her campers, “If I can do it, you can do it.” She adds, “It’s important to show kids that you are willing to participate. It’s easier for reluctant children to join in when they see you jump in first.”
During five years as a Golden Slipper Camp counselor, Jennifer Wade has learned to lead by example. “Counselors have to be good role models,” she says. “When we make things fun, even something as simple as cleaning up the bunk, then the kids have fun doing it. Our job is to show children how to be responsible and to help them get along.”
Wade adds, “At my first staff orientation I learned to ‘never judge a book by its cover’ because you can never tell a child’s whole story or how that story is going to end. I learned to be more sensitive, because you don’t know what a child’s life is like, or where they come from. I learned not to be judgmental, and to give everyone a chance. As a counselor, maybe I can help write a child’s story, maybe I can change it.”
Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.