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Summer Camp

5 Helpful Tips for Being a Great Camp Counselor

Camp Sequoia


Being a great camp counselor is both a great challenge and a tremendous professional reward. Camp Sequoia typically has over 300 staff applicants each summer to work in our research-based community. Being part of a summer camp community is like being part of any community and understanding the values and character of the community is important to being successful. Camp counseling jobs can serve as springboards to many other careers. Camp Sequoia, for example, has seen staff who are Doctors, Lawyers, Nurse Practitioners, Social Workers, Teachers, Therapists, Research Scientists, and members of the media. Like any experience, you’ll get out of a summer camp experience what you put into it. In order to be a great camp counselor, you should make sure that you are a good fit for the community that you are entering. Much like a visit to Hawaii will give you a different experience depending on which island you choose to visit, choosing the right camp fit will be key to you maximizing your success in that environment.

In choosing a camp to become a great camp counselor, you should look at the type of lodging, meals, time off, training, professional support, and connections, as well as travel allowance and salary. Lodging at camps can range from private air-conditioned rooms with staff only lounges stocked with snacks for your time off to tents in the woods with outhouses. Meals can range from adding water to dehydrated backpacking fare over a fire to buffet options with multiple entrees and dietary flexibility to include vegan, gluten-free, locavore and signature meal options. Examine the time off as well when you are looking to find a summer camp home. Does the break give you enough time to relax, recharge and return to camp ready to make a meaningful difference in the lives of kids? Steven J. Covey discusses this and you know your own needs to become the most effective. Is this an evening off once a week? Is it 18 hours once a week? Is it a 36 hour “Super Day” with enough time to get two nights of solid sleep without supervising kids? Is the training appropriate for the population you’ll be serving? Think about both the length and the quality of the training.

If you are working at a camp for gifted kids, does the directorate have experience in training others to work with this population? If you are working with ADHD kids, or kids who are twice-exceptional, are you being trained on the research-based best practices to effectively engage with those children? Regardless of if the camp has a specific focus on identified gifted kids, kids with ADHD, or experiencing social anxiety, it is important that you have the training and confidence to engage with the population of kids by the conclusion of staff training.

Camp can be intense (or in-tents if you choose a rustic primitive living program) and having a professional support structure during the summer is important. Physicians, therapists, and teachers all have some sort of preceptorship in order to help them build confidence and have a sounding board as well as polished professional competency. For teachers, the National Council on Teacher Quality has solid research on this. For medical professionals, this residency also involves a “match day” selection process and reinforces the idea of success stemming from finding an appropriate fit professionally. For counselors and social workers, there are good tips on clinical supervision here, as well as solid references as the process becomes more research-based. So, then, you’ve decided on the type of camp where you can be amazing. Check out the tips below to start your journey of success.

Keep Your Campers Safe & Healthy

This is a primary concern of all great caregivers and great camp counselors are no different. There are three main ways to think about keeping your campers safe and healthy. First, counting is critical. Knowing where your campers are at all times (with the group, grabbing a lost towel, stopping to smell the flowers, etc.) is key. In two decades of running residential and travel programs for kids, I still believe that having a good headcount of the campers is a primary key to camper safety. This is standard practice at the waterfront, but you’ll feel more secure (and kids will know you are being an attentive supervisor) if you “know your number”.

This is the number of kids you are responsible for and may fluctuate throughout the day based upon activities, trips off-site, visits to the camp nurse, etc. Secondly, watching for non-verbal cues between and among campers is an important way to make sure that your kids are safe. This level of attention with serve to mitigate any attempted bullying, hazing or cliquish behavior with the children under your charge. Active Supervision is supported by research and can be adapted appropriately for a wide range of ages and environments. Finally, keeping campers healthy includes keeping track of their physical and emotional needs.

Physical Needs

From a counselor’s perspective, you can make sure that kids are eating a variety of foods, drinking plenty of water at and between meals, and taking care of their basic hygiene requirements. This typically means showers (which include soap and shampoo) as well as hand washing and changing clothes at appropriate intervals. A kid that comes back from a shower with dry hair, for example, might be out of shampoo—or just in a rush to get back to their friends. A great counselor will notice the dry hair and investigate and rectify the underlying cause.

Additionally, it means paying attention to what kids are eating relative to their size and calorie intake needs. About a decade ago, Division Head Brittany introduced the rainbow challenge to her campers at Camp Sequoia. Eating the rainbow is one fun approach for kids to have a sensible diet. The USDA also has guidance that helps you help your campers choose a healthy plate of food so that they will be ready for all of the fun and exciting activities of camp.

Mental Health Needs

Nobody expects that all camp staff would come to camp as a mental health professional. It is best-practice to have key staff trained in CPR and First Aid in addition to having more highly trained medical staff as part of a camp community. It is also best practice to have staff trained in Mental Health First Aid as well as have a clinician or behavioral specialist as part of any camp community.

Camp Sequoia, for example, encourages this training for staff alongside CPR and First Aid credentials. If you are interested or working in this field, it is interesting to note that from statistics compiled on CPR and Mental Health, there is a higher likelihood of a yearly mental health need in children in the US (7.7 Million kids or 16.5% of the population of kids) according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness versus the 7,000 kids in the US who experience an out of hospital cardiac arrest in a typical year.

Strengthen Group Bonds through Conversation & Team Building

Campers want to belong. Whether they are younger kids or high school kids, they want to have friends and be part of the community that is an amazing summer camp. There are several ways to engage kids, and largely they all build on the idea of active listening. The Center for Creative Leadership has 6 key skills that will serve you well both as a camp counselor and beyond. If you learn to pay attention, withhold judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize and share in the context of your campers—you are well on your way to being a great counselor.

Not sure you are a good listener? Check out this podcast to do a quick self- evaluation. Once you’ve mastered the art of active listening, knowing that team building comes from shared experiences and collaborative dynamics. Little things that counselors do together can be a great way to pull a group of kids into a team. Talk like a pirate day, Christmas in July or Silly Sock Sunday are examples of things that have a low bar for participation (they are easy for folks to get involved in) that can build shared experiences and enhance the team dynamics.

Engage Disconnected Campers

Sometimes, even your best efforts won’t reach all kids all of the time. Remember that conversation about professional support and staff resources? This is a great time to tap into the network of experienced staff to give you some guidance. In general, campers can become disconnected both for reasons relating to camp and reasons outside the scope of camp. For example, if July 23rd is the day a camper’s dog passed away last year and they are at camp, they might be reminded of the day and it might make them sad.

This, of course, is an example of something outside the scope of what happens at camp. However, it is still a valid emotion and enlisting the help of a camp clinician, or in the case of Camp Sequoia, Xena, our 4 legged furry “Pawsitive influence” for some emotional support would be a good option. If a camper disconnects because of something that happens at camp, using reflective listening skills and providing the camper with the intentional time and space to be able to have a dialogue is important. If you’ve done a good job in building a rapport with the camper, this reaching out process will be easier and ultimately more productive because of the level of established trust.

Don’t Make Winning a Big Deal

Congratulations, you scored a goal on an 8-year-old during a soccer game. Or perhaps you are proud of the ceramic that you put into the kiln during art. Sometimes in a community, when you become comfortable, it is easy to forget that you are a professional role model and that the successes should be camper successes, not staff ones. This means keeping in the forefront of your mind that child successes should trump counselor successes.

Of course, if you and an 8 y/o teamed up to score a goal on the camp director and you and the child have a shared victory—that is amazing. Another way to look at this is to recognize that at camp there are many new and exciting things to try and all kids won’t be great at all things, but that there is a value to the attempt. Don’t be afraid to pick games that foster collaboration rather than competition, especially when the entire bunk is together. In our most recent season, campers enjoyed Forbidden Island and there are several other good options to explore as well that have a similar structural design.

Don’t Brush Off Campers’ Feelings or Concerns

Since we’ve already spoken about active and reflective listening, it is important to note that perception is reality when it comes to many things. This is not just true for children, but adults often can reflect on their own lives and see where this is the case. For example, you might be devastated by the snub of a significant other or the death of a great aunt, where someone else might be able to compartmentalize and move on to a new relationship, or might not have any relationship with extended family and not be able to understand why the loss hits you so hard. Campers have feelings and concerns that are valid and important. There is a great deal published on this topic and here are a couple of different places to look for additional information.

Overall, to be a great camp counselor requires good judgment, patience and the ability to learn about, embrace and add to the culture of the camp where you choose to work. You’ll be most successful when you have a passion for the population, from kids with ADHD to gifted kids who are quirky to amazing kids working to develop their social skills. Working collaboratively as part of a team and using curated listening skills to reach your campers will set you up for success. Keeping track of campers by being aware of their physical and emotional needs will help you build credibility and rapport. This will foster increased trust, engagement and ultimately a quality experience for campers and yourself.