I never experienced camp from a camper’s perspective. I don’t know what it’s like having people twice my height force a friendship on me with a welcoming smile, or ask me what my snack was. I guess I missed out.
I experienced camp from a counsellor’s perspective for two summers, and maybe a third (we’ll see). I was the one forcing a friendship on children half my height after just a
high five low five. I was the one asking what they were eating for snack, as if I was hoping they’d be generous enough to offer me a bite of their bag of goldfish crackers.
By the end of each summer, I was exhausted. Moving back to university felt like a vacation by comparison. Nevertheless, I think I was a pretty darn good camp counsellor.
So, here is my how to be a great camp counsellor in 26 easy steps. I had to learn all of these on the job. You may not agree with all of them, but they worked for me.
1. Earn the parent’s trust. When the parents drop off their kids on the first day, they are sizing you up. Throw out the language you use when you’re around your friends and pretend as if you are meeting the President because this initial encounter is just as important.
2. Get to know your campers. This might be the most important thing you do. Ask them questions, but not the generic ones. Don’t ask them what their favourite colour is. You already know that just by looking at their “first day attire”. Ask them what their favourite part of the Mrs. Doubtfire movie was, or any other movie that was made before they were born. This will get a genuinely confused look and a chuckle, hopefully. Their response to your impossible question will instantly tell you how likely they are to laugh at your jokes for the rest of the summer. This way, you can adjust accordingly.
3. Have eyes at the back of your head. Every kid you’re responsible for is always on your radar. Even when you’re off fraternizing with other counsellors, you know where your kids are because you’re just that good. If you can’t locate a kid, know where they might go. Their sibling’s group is always a safe bet.
4. Whenever you travel from one place to another, ask for a straight line. You run a tight ship around here and there is no way you’re going anywhere in anything but a straight, single file, line.
5. When the straight, single file, line is broken after 5 seconds, don’t ask for it to be repaired. You spent 6 minutes getting them in a straight line in the first place; you should be commended.
6. At snack time, ask every kid what they’re eating. That way, you know exactly what they ate when they conveniently complain of a stomach ache during an activity they find completely boring later on.
7. Also make everyone’s snack sound like the best snack in the world. Because who are you to judge someone dipping potato chips in chocolate pudding and washing it down with a box of smarties? This is likely the kid not lying about a stomach ache later on.
8. Make a fool out of yourself. Whether it’s shoving your face in a watermelon; risk choking on 8 marshmallows while trying to say “chubby bunny”; or letting your campers select your wardrobe from a chest of unenviable attire.
9. If a kid asks to go to the washroom, take them, or let them go on their own if they’re old enough. The last thing you want to do is bowel movement math in your head. Even if it’s their 3rd trip within the hour, the 3rd trip might be the one they aren’t lying about. Just trust me on this one.
10. One outfit per day. Every kid probably has a change of clothes at camp. Your goal is to never see your camper wear that change of clothing. If you do, something probably went wrong. You messed up.
11. Get to know campers outside of your group. The more campers you know, the better.
12. No lunch, no playground. If they had a large snack, they can get away with eating half a lunch. Two bites of a sandwich isn’t going to cut it if they want a ride on the teeter totter. As a last resort to get them to eat, tell them that their favourite superhero eats their entire lunch every day.
13. Playground politics. When a kid calls you over to push them on a swing, you must play hard to get for 20 seconds. In that 20 seconds, you will crush that kid’s hopes. In that 20 seconds, you will scan the rest of the playground and identify where your kids are before you commit to the swing. In that 20 seconds, the camper that called you over will continue to call you over to push them. After 20 seconds, you will go push them. Not only will you be a hero in their eyes, but you also took care of your main responsibility – knowing where your campers are at all times.
14. Raise your voice. I’m not saying yell at a kid incessantly. I’m saying, don’t let them control you. If it’s been 10 minutes since you first tried to organize a game of a dodgeball then your friendly, chipper, voice needs to go on hiatus for the next 3 minutes.
15. Their health before yours. If anyone is going to go home at the end of the day with a massive sunburn and an unopened water bottle, it’s going to be you, not a camper.
16. Laughing is good. If you’re not funny, get funny, or creative. If a camper comes up to you and says “Knock, Knock”, reply with “Come in.” Sure, it’ll frustrate the camper, but it also forces them to spend a few more minutes with you as they beg you to ask “Who’s there?” The more time they spend interacting with you, the less time they spend wandering off or feeling bored.
17. Don’t lie to your campers unless it’s a harmless lie you start on Day 1 and continue until the end. Like saying that you and another counsellor are siblings. Commit to it from Day 1 and never waver. The campers will know you’re lying, but won’t have proof. A gag like that will be fun and force your campers to constantly play detective and wait for you to slip up. Who says we can’t put smiles on faces and develop the next Sherlock Holmes at the same time?
18. Pool antics. When it’s time to go swimming, some kids will attempt to attack you. The most common attack will be a horde of children splashing water in your face. Whatever you do, let the kids strike first; chances are they want you to retaliate. If you splash water first, you just look like a bully.
19. Don’t anger the lifeguards. Before you even arrive, they already hate you and everything about camps. They’ll save you if you’re in trouble but don’t expect a friendly conversation.
20. Make everything a race. Kids love competition. When you’re in the change room, give them a time limit to get dressed. If not, putting on a sock can take up to five minutes.
21. Don’t expect to change a camper’s mind instantly. If a camper is complaining, your best 30 second pep talk isn’t going to turn things around in your favour. Pull the kid aside to a quiet area and sit in silence for about 3 minutes. The awkward silence will get their mind off of their complaint and onto why you aren’t saying anything to them. When you finally speak, they’ll actually want to hear what you’ve been waiting so long to say.
22. Be a role model. Everything you do will be done with a bunch of eyes staring at you.
23. Anticipate the opposite. A nice fun game of baseball sounds like a good idea; it’s what the kids have been raving about for four days. Then you get out to the diamond and you realize that they don’t know the rules or techniques as well as they made you believe. In your mind, you should already know what to do when Plan A fails.
24. Trust your co-counsellors. You’re in the trenches together. Be on the same page with everything and things will be as smooth as butter.
25. Have fun. I think that’s what the official definition of “camp” is.
26. Make them cry on the last day. If you really did your job, your campers won’t want to leave. Once the final tribute video is finished and the parents start coming to take away their kids for the final time, you’ll realize that all the warm days with kids who have perpetually sticky hands was worth it. The looks on their faces when they say goodbye will be your job assessment.
And that is how you become a great camp counsellor.
*Results may vary