"This was the beast summer of my lift"
Translation: "This was the best summer of my life"
~ Dragonfly Forest Camper, 2007
Camp is about relationships and connections between campers and campers, campers and staff, and everyone and their environment (some would also argue staff and staff, but that one is a side benefit). Ask any lifer at any camp or even some of the first year campers or staff and they will consistently tell you that the reasons why they come back to camp are friends, activities, and the counselors. Essentially these things are about groups. The groups you belong to (cabin or bunk), the groups you identify with (friends, activities, special programs), the groups that you are NOT a member of (staff and campers), and so on. Creating and being a member of a great group requires some work right at the beginning that will help guide the group formation to where we want it to go.
1st Five Minute Skills
“You know cabins that have it, the good ones, they have like a good vibe, you know the ones that you can just feel it? How do I do that?”
~Camp Al-Gon-Quian Staff member 2006
A lot happens in the first five minutes of any experience. Whether we are aware of it or not, the first five minutes of anything usually sets the tone for most of the time.
Arrival. First day of camp. Let’s think for a minute what this experience is like for the camper. At most resident camps the first thing that happens to the camper when they arrive is that they are separated from their stuff. Everything that they have brought, everything that makes them feel comfortable, everything that will help them survive the summer is taken from them immediately upon arrival. They are greeted by several smiling faces, lots of handshakes and introductions, then taken away off to the next “check-in station” while the whole time being reassured that the maintenance guy will deliver your stuff to your cabin (which you don’t even know yourself at this point). You proceed through the check-in gauntlet in some cases handing over life saving medicines, filling out additional forms, having your picture taken, and all the while being asked “So, what are you excited for at camp?” and “Tonight we are having spaghetti, do you like spaghetti?”
Finally, you are escorted, given a map, pointed in the right direction or somehow just stumble upon your new home, your new “parents” and all of your new cabin mates. In the best cases your stuff is right there (or never left your side) and there is a pretty cool counselor chatting you up. Within the first couple of hours kids are instructed to change into their bathing suits (get naked in front of everybody) so they can go get their swim tests (Are we at camp or school?) and we are going to stop at the health center so the Nurse can inspect your scalp for lice (do you know the only other place where people live like this is in jail?)… And we aren’t even to dinner yet. I am not judging any camp out there, a lot of this kind of scheduling happens for great reasons. I am just saying that every camp has its own culture and the first five minutes can help set the right tone for every camper. It’s really about us making this transition easier.
What am I looking for?
Being a Camp Counselor is more than just playing games. It is connecting closer than babysitting or even teaching. It is different than being a sibling or a parent. It is even distinct from being a mentor, coach, or hero. Camp Counselors have one very important advantage that most adults do not have; time. We have time. We take time. We can even make time (Whoa). I get it when directors ask you to keep adding stuff to an already full plate. I have had the experience of not stopping for the rock in your shoe or to pee for several hours because “I was in the middle of something.” I know what camp legs feel like! And I also know this, we have the time to take an extra five minutes with that kid that needs us. That’s what Camp Counselors do. All that busyness is what wraps most adults up, they can’t see what kids need and what is really important. I didn’t know what to call this affliction until Gary Forester broke it down like this; we are human beings, not human doings. Most adults see the doing as what is important, when in fact “doing” just fills in the spaces between the moments we are “being.”
So, the best way to be and work with the commodity of time is to actually look for the behavior we want from kids. While frantically doing most adults only see what they want or really what they need to see to make it through the day. They only see the bad stuff. In fact, I believe that most adults suffer from Selective Negative Focus. Let me explain. I don’t really like the whole idea of “catch them being good” that some youth development people kick. The actual phrase leaves me with this idea that somehow kids don’t really act right, that they are mostly acting badly and that we need to really pay attention to see those few moments that they are doing the right thing. When, in fact, I believe it is actually the opposite and that most of the time most kids are making good choices. We are just trained not to see it like that. I do agree that kids need to be acknowledged for doing the right thing and behaving appropriately, because that helps them understand what they are supposed to be doing and how to get positive attention. Most adults are stuck in catch them mode because most adults suffer from Selective Negative Focus. It’s not in the DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but it is a frightening disorder nonetheless. Most people call it pessimism, but that is not strong enough, it’s like pessimism on Viagra, all pumped up for longer than necessary. People who suffer from Selective Negative Focus not only have the tendency to focus on the negative thing (regular pessimism), but they actually screen out whatever contradicts what they are pessimistic about. Due to this rampant disorder effecting mainly care givers, child care workers, parents, teachers, and other youth development professionals, most adults don’t even see the choices and behaviors that kids make. It’s like we are blind to all of their choices until someone punches someone else. Then all of sudden our eyes are open and we jump into action. There are so many benefits to seeing that I can’t even list them. Besides the obvious ones like, seeing helps you praise, you genuinely learn to pay closer attention, and you get a leg up on behavior management, kids aren’t scared of you when you want to talk to them, they think you care about them, and they know it is harder to slip stuff by you, because you actually watch them.
Open your eyes and look for what you want in the child, it is there and it happens way more than you think.
If you’re like me the big question now is “How?” Now that you understand what it means to be one of the Coolest People on Earth, how exactly do you do it?