Working at Summer Camp: A Counselor’s 7 Roles
Being a camp counselor is tricky.
In any given day, you might need to help a camper brush their teeth, lead an awesome activity, be a shoulder to cry on, plunge a toilet, make up a skit, help mediate conflict, and lifeguard at waterfront. Most of the specific tasks aren’t in and of themselves super complicated, but being able to seamlessly switch from comforting an upset camper to dancing in the rain can be overwhelming.
On top of that, at camp we are asking for a paradigm shift. Instead of adults exerting power over kids, we strive to partner with them. We try to remove preconceived notions of what kids should be doing and instead help them get more of what they are wanting. To do this we are candid with kids about what we think is possible and brainstorm with them how we might move forward. We try to find authentic ways to share our wisdom while intensely listening to the wisdom of each camper. We aren’t perfect, but are constantly striving for balance, while not being a dictator or a doormat. More on dictators and doormats in an upcoming post.
Points of Tension
So when do you step in? When do you stop campers from fighting, teasing, or being unsafe? James wrote an awesome piece about Being in the Moment at Summer Camp that breaks down when to insert what we call points of tension. A point of tension is pulling someone out of the moment they are in because of some harm they are causing to themselves or other members of the community. We do this when things aren’t safe, actions are interfering with other folks, or property damage could occur. As a camp counselor, similar to being a teacher or parent, so much of what we do is up to using good judgment.
In an never ending attempt to create a more transparent partnership based community amongst our campers and staff, we are trying to breakdown the different roles a camp staff might play during any given day. The idea isn’t to standardize behavior, but instead to create different mindsets for different situations and allow you to use your judgment within a simplified framework. During most situations at camp you will be borrowing from multiple roles, equal parts Caretaker, Facilitator, and Nurturer at bedtime in a young tent or a combination Entertainer and Playworker during downtime in the cabin. This list isn’t conclusive and will change overtime, but hopefully it will give you a framework as you are thinking about your role this summer.
You are always the adult. We talk a lot about empowering kids, partnering with them, and creating a choiceful community. This is important and core to our mission, and at all times you are the adult. Being the adult is your legal responsibility. This means constantly looking out for safety, both emotionally and physically, supervising campers, and remembering that we are here to do a job. Camp only works if kids and staff are safe. You got this!
Often you are called upon to be the catalyst for fun. This is the role for when you are leading activities, doing skits, starting dance parties, or just sitting in the cabin telling jokes. As the Entertainer you are way on the leader end of the leader-follower spectrum.
On the other end of the leader-follower spectrum is the Playworker. As a Playworker you are following campers lead, participating in their creations, and removing hazards while not interfering with reasonable risks. As a Playworker you are an improv companion constantly saying “Yes And!” as campers dream up ideas. This role is most common in the different areas of Downtown Stomping Ground. This doesn’t mean not engaging with kids, instead it means following their lead while also looking out for potential hazards they may not be aware of. More on Playwork here.
As the Facilitator you are helping campers understand the realities of life at camp. This often looks like explaining the rules to games, helping them understand how meals work in the dining hall, or coordinating with your co-counselor about how showers will work. Nigel likes to point out that being a Facilitator often looks like asking kids for help. Asking them to welcome kids into the cabin, help carry water, or lead an activity. Kids can do far more than most adults give them credit for. In any given activity you will often switch between Entertainer, Facilitator, and Playworker. Imagine you are leading soccer. You arrive dressed in as funny soccer coach telling a story and blowing your whistle in weird ways (Entertainer). Next, you explain how the game will go, help set up the teams, and hand out pinnies (Facilitator). Then, you just play, all the while constantly making sure everyone is safe (Playworker).
Camp can be challenging. Kids miss home, get in arguments, scrape their knee, or just get upset. As a counselor you will often be called upon to be a Nurturer. To be someone that helps kids work through conflict when it arises, to comfort them if they are upset, write them a quick note, or just give them a high five when you notice they are a little down. A huge part of camp is knowing each camper individually and looking for ways to build them up in an authentic way. You have so much power to make an impact at every moment during camp. Use it!
As the Nurturer you are mostly focused on kids emotional needs. Making sure they are comfortable, happy, and ready to roll. As the Caregiver you are focused on their physical needs. Making sure kids remember to get their meds, are eating enough, drinking water, doing tick checks and more. The Caregiver often overlaps with the Nurturer, because so many physical and emotional needs overlap, as well as the Facilitator because a huge part of taking care of physical needs at camp is helping campers understand how camp works. How to get their meds, where to brush their teeth, or when the next meal is. Don’t count out the magic of overlapping the Caregiver and Entertainer. Brushing teeth while making funny faces, showering with fun music, or waking your group up as a troll can be some of the most fun at camp while also taking care of physical needs.
At different points during the day we are all called upon to just get things done. This looks like setting up the dining hall, plunging toilets, setting up big events, or just moving things. At camp we use a phrase for this, “What’s Next? How Can I Help?” (Thanks Steve Maquire!). The idea is when things need to get done look around and ask yourself and those around you, “What’s Next? How Can I Help?” By creating this culture we all work together to get things done as quickly as possible.
YOU GOT THIS
This summer is going to be transformative. Parents are trusting us with the most important job in the world, taking care of their child, and you are going to give those kids the time of their lives, a chance to be themselves, try new things, and realize how amazing they are. You will create an environment where empathy is at the cornerstone of everything we do and we will all leave greater than we came. We won’t be perfect, you, me, and the kids will all make mistakes, but together we will create the world we want to live in for a few weeks this summer.
If you are interested in reimagining a world where more is possible this summer apply below or just send me a quick email, text, or call.