Survival Tips I learned as a counselor that can help your camp run smoother
When my little brother was growing up, one of his favorite shows was Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. I only sat in on a few episodes with him but I always thought that the plot of the show was very clever. The show documents the stories of three friends as they try to navigate the struggles of late middle school and early high school life. When they encounter different problems, Ned, the main character, gives the viewer tips on how to handle various situations. They face all kinds of issues, from relationships to academics to home life to bullying.
Sure this show is heavily exaggerated and dramatized but the advice given is seen by many as being both relevant and helpful. That being said, I feel that the title of this show says it all. Looking past the funny situations, quirky jokes, and even the beneficial tips, this show is a survival guide.
I realize now that the reason I liked the idea of this show so much was that it describes, in a very literal way, the process of learning through experience. Every time an idea blows up in Ned’s face or he successfully finagles passing grade in one of his classes he turns to the viewer and details what he learned from his experience.
As you age, without even realizing it, you create a survival guide to certain things, whether it’s your job or a hobby that you have done for decades. As you go through your career or get more invested in your hobby, you learn the best methods of practice based on your experiences, like how to handle certain situations or types of people. But, what do you do if you’re new to an industry and don’t have experiences that have taught you how to succeed? Normally, your best bet is to turn to someone with more experience than yourself and ask for advice.
As a camp director hiring camp counselors without prior camp experience it’s essential that you give them proper tips to prepare for their first time managing campers, your campers. I have experience at a ton of different camp types and have learned more about camp counseling best practices than I would be able to put into this post. I have counseled special needs day camps, religious sleepaway camps, and a variety of different sports camps – both sleepaway and day.
In light of my personal experience and appreciation for Ned’s Declassified, here’s a little survival guide I’ve created that you can share with your new camp counselors that I found universal among different camp types:
1) Don’t get emotional with disobedient campers!
I cannot stress this tip enough. Undoubtedly, you will encounter a camper that thinks that being defiant is a way to be funny or cool. It also can be that the argumentative camper feels that they are being assertive when in reality; he or she is just being unnecessarily rude. So what do you do when you ask the campers to clean up the game you just played and one of the campers says “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my mom”?
It is absolutely crucial in this situation that you don’t try to “win” or get the camper to submit to your imposed will. This will lead to more disdain from the camper and you will just get more frustrated. Trust me. If you try to argue with this kind of camper it will end with yelling in circles. Instead, what you should do is keep your composure and agree. Say something like “you’re right, I’m not your mom” and simply point out the fact that every other person is cleaning up like they were asked.
What you should do next is so important – Just walk away. By not giving the camper the time of day, you take the power away from him or her. I’m sure you’ve heard of taking the high road. The camper will realize this and learn that you don’t have time for nor care about their rebellious attitude.
2) Sarcasm is a greaaaaaaaaat idea (don’t use sarcasm.)
Nobody thinks sarcasm is funnier than me, but in case you didn’t know, children have a tough time understanding the vast majority of humor geared towards mature audiences. Have you ever wondered why when you re-watch Disney movies there are some pretty adult jokes and situations that go right over kids’ heads? It’s because kids don’t have the life experience to understand that in The Incredibles movie Mrs. Incredible thought Mr. Incredible was having an affair and their marriage was failing only to be rectified by fighting a giant roly-poly robot.
The exact same goes for sarcasm. Kids can’t really grasp it and if they are able to – don’t use it anyway because it will lead to a big fat pile of “but you said it was a good idea”. If you use sarcasm with kids that are 10 years old or younger they probably won’t understand the concept of sarcasm fully. Think about it. If somebody doesn’t understand sarcasm, what will they think when you’re telling them that your grandma moves faster than them? They’ll probably think you’re mean and rude. So now you’ve used sarcasm with your campers which will more than likely lead to them thinking you’re a “meanie”.
Food for thought: what happens when your campers go home and tell their parents that their counselor was mean? I’ll give you a hint – nothing good if you’re the sarcastic counselor.
3) Be flexible and don’t complain.
Every position in a camp overlaps a little bit with the next and it’s not a perfect system. Sure, everyone has a primary job but some days you might have to help out running events, cover a counselor that’s sick, or assist with food and transportation. So be ready to take on various roles and responsibilities.
Something to keep in mind is the more willing you are to help with different roles without snarky and muttered comments, the more respect you’ll gain among your peers and supervisors. It’s also very possible that every time you complain about the extra work you’ve been given, you’re probably giving yourself more work for the future. Take on challenges with a smile on your face. Camp is an opportunity to promote personal growth in your campers, but it’s also can be a time where you advance your own development if you let it.
A good question to have on the tip of your tongue is “is there anything else I can do?”
4) Avoid telling campers what they CAN’T do as much as possible.
In the mind of many of your campers “don’t” is pretty much a synonym for “yes please do”. Have you ever been to a public pool? The huge ‘Don’t Run’ signs are pretty hilarious when they serve as the backdrop for every single kid running around the pool. During your first few days as a camp counselor kids will be trying to see what they can and can’t away with. During this time don’t tell them what they can’t do but tell them what they can do.
Instead of yelling “don’t run” at your campers when you’re going to the next activity or “don’t go off alone” while your group is walking through the woods, try using positive words. Say things like “walk” or “stick with the group”. By doing this, you are telling you campers what they can do, not what they aren’t allowed to do. When you say, “don’t run” what the campers hear is “run,” but when you say “walk” that’s exactly what the campers hear. This will also assist you in keeping the defiant attitudes previously discussed in check.
5) Enjoy the moment.
Unfortunately, like my little brother’s favorite childhood TV show, all good things have to come to an end. Camp is an experience unmatched. Coming from a person that has been both a camper and a counselor, going to camp, away from parents, friends, and other things that are comfortable to you is a time when you can really learn about yourself.
So, if I had one piece of advice that doesn’t pertain to successfully managing your campers or being a good employee it would be: go take that hike, read that book, and talk to that person. We spend so much of our time nervous about what might happen and not excited about what could happen. Embrace the environment you are in and really try to see the good in every little aspect of your time at camp. One day you might find yourself blogging about what you learned at camp and wishing you could go back. Have any more tips and advice for new camp counselors? Share them in the Comment Section below!