In 2022, It is harder than ever to be a great cabin counselor. A multi-year global pandemic, increased understanding of mental health issues, often understaffed camps, more inexperienced counselors, increased parental pressure, and so many other factors have pushed us to the brink.
At the same time, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds instead of focusing on the building blocks that make for a great camp counselor. Let’s get back to basics with the five keys to running a great bunk. 3 B’s and 2 M’s.
When we train our staff on these five things, we set them up to succeed. It helps them manage their own stress, which reduces anxiety, burnout, and increases happiness and fun. Being a camp counselor is a tough job, but it doesn’t need to be that complicated. Most of what I think we need to help staff with this summer is identifying where there are skills deficits for our specific staff this summer and providing specific training in one or more of these 5 categories.
Let’s look at each one:
Often when we talk about inclusion trainings, we are focused on including specific groups. For good reason, inclusion and diversity trainings tend to overlap and we have more work to do as an industry to include people from all backgrounds. At the same time, inclusion starts with welcoming. A camp counselor’s first job is to be the host of their cabin.
This starts with welcoming campers on opening day and continues through explaining the bizarre chants, how meal and shower times work, and bringing new folks in on the inside jokes. We call this illuminating the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum includes all the unspoken lessons about a space that tend to be unsaid but are true. Understanding the hidden curriculum is what makes you an insider. The first job of camp counselors is to ensure their campers feel like insiders by illuminating the hidden curriculum.
A couple of resources around being a great host and the hidden curriculum
When kids feel like they are part of the larger community, they are happier, more fun to work with, and more likely to return to camp. After we have ensured that kids understand the hidden curriculum, the next step of our job as camp counselors is to set up the conditions for kids to make friends.
THREE SUPER SIMPLE WAYS TO START THE RELATIONSHIP PROCESS AS A CAMP COUNSELOR:
When I was an 18-year-old camp counselor, I was incredibly cocky and charming with kids. I will say, I was good at the building relationships and making memories side and mediocre at the business side. A huge part of the camp counselor’s job is building a predictable and repeated structure for the campers in their care. Camp counselors build the sandbox for the kids to play in. We don’t have to be overly controlling, but we do need to set clear expectations and set kids up for success.
Let’s talk about shower time for a second. When I first started working at camp, I would look at a bunch of 7-year-olds and say, “Ok, grab your stuff for the showers and meet me outside.” Obviously, that was a disaster. They didn’t know what to get or have a timeline for when to do it. I also didn’t include that while we were at the showers, we would be brushing our teeth and changing into PJs. I would get grumpy that the kids didn’t bring all their shower stuff, the kids would get annoyed, and showering would become an incredibly stressful time for everyone. Instead what I could have done is taken 30 seconds and written down a short checklist on a whiteboard:
Then Steve waits outside for the kids to finish and he checks each kid’s supplies while I go around and help each camper gather their supplies. This proactive approach is a bit more work to start, but it makes everyone’s life easier at the showers. Building systems like this and writing them down not only helps the campers but also helps co-counselors be on the same page.
Pro Tip: Trading off with your co-counselor who is the lead staff and who is the support and building shared language around it is the number one way to reduce animosity. Get used to saying things like “Do you want to be the lead on shower time or Embers and bedtime?” It feels a little nerdy at first, but it will make your summer so much better.
To me, this is the most fun part of being a counselor. This is where you build your credibility with your kids and bake fun into their time at camp. These are classic events like taking kids on kitchen raids, deciding to sleep out under the stars, having an ice cream party, and building inside jokes with your group.
Everyone does this differently, but your goal is to create the kind of culture where the kids are proud to be in your group. This does not mean putting other groups down or creating conflict with other groups, just that kids take pride in being in your group.
FIVE WAYS TO MAKE MEMORIES WITH YOUR CABIN:
No matter how awesome you are at all the things I described above, there will be conflict at camp. Being able to work through conflict when it arises is important. Every camp has different systems for how this works, from top-down strict rules to just getting the director, but understanding how to work through this is the cornerstone to handling tough times at camp.
At Stomping Ground, the camp I helped start, our conflict resolution systems are based on restorative practices. When folks are upset with each other, we have what are called circles. The goal of these circles, which are just structured conversations, is to heal harm, mitigate future harm, and build community.
Thoughts from Laura Kriegel, Stomping Ground co-founder and executive director: It turns out Restorative Practices are actually kinda the opposite of behavior management systems. I get it, as a counselor all I want is to make the annoying or disruptive or just down right rude behaviors go away. As well intentioned adults trying to help a crew of kids figure stuff out we put systems in place to try and manage unwanted behavior. Unfortunately however the outcome is often a lack of trust between camper and staff. While it take alot more time and some more energy having a structured restorative conversation the outcome is often more satisfying and effective for everyone involved.
If you want to learn more about circles and restorative practices at camp, check out these three resources below:
6 week virtual Restorative Practices at camp seminar <— this tends to fill register early
BEST JOB EVER
Working at camp is the best job ever. It is tiring, amazing, and the best experience for so many people. I hope these ideas make your summer just a little easier so that you can focus on what matters: helping kids have a successful summer.