As a 16-year-old kid, the director of my camp told me that I was “in loco parentis” for 12 children. This is a Latin term meant to describe my responsibility as a counselor: to effectively take on the role of parent for my campers. Parenthood is probably the most vital job on this earth, so the idea of two 16-year-old camp buddies adopting a dozen 10-year-old boys for a whole month sounds like the framework for either a horror movie or a sit-com. I will admit without shame that my youth and inexperience did in fact create some horrific and hilarious situations that summer. Four years later, I still work as a camp counselor, and I have learned many tricks that make the job easier.
One of the most intimidating things a first-time counselor can be approached with is a sick camper. After all, most camp counselors are just learning how to care for themselves! Camp health clinics are great places for campers who are experiencing prolonged and peculiar health issues, but many common and unpleasant symptoms that kids experience at camp can be avoided altogether by the implementation of easy routines. Unfortunately, most young children see personal hygiene tasks as boring and unnecessary. At the same time, however, many young children love turning everything they do into a game, especially while they’re at camp. With this in mind, here are some strategies to make personal care just another fun part of camp:
We get it. Showers don’t happen every day at camp, which is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes, showers don’t even happen every other day at camp, but that’s okay too. Camp showers are also notorious for lasting less than 5 minutes and not including any soap or shampoo, and to that we say rock on! On the other hand, campers must be encouraged to take a truly thorough shower at least once a week to avoid serious health problems like infection or rash. If you think that you’ll be able to get all campers to get clean simply by encouraging or nagging them, you have much to learn my friend. It’s going to take much more than an authoritarian approach to get these crazy kids clean, they’re going to need a darn good reason. Specifically, it’s going to take a tradition that your bunk/group owns, let’s call it Fancy Night. At the start of camp, let your kids in on a little “secret,” every [weekday of your choosing] night, your bunk is going to take the camp by storm. The whole cabin will take a little extra time during shower/rest time, get cleaner than everyone else in camp, and put on their nicest clothes. Tell them about how the entire camp will gaze upon them with envy and wonder, how the bunk will be known as the freshest kids on the land. This is fun for the whole cabin because everyone can easily be a part of it. Really put some effort into your look, because when they see their counselor spruced up and looking like a model, I guarantee they’ll want to look just like you. At the end of the day, this tradition will benefit the bunk’s overall comradery and well-being, plus I wouldn’t be surprised if you get credit for starting a camp-wide tradition.
Surprise Water Bottle Checks
“My stomach hurts.” “I have a headache.” “I’m dizzy.” “I’m nauseous.” If you are working as a camp counselor this summer, you will hear each of the above statements at least once a day. At times, these symptoms are signs of a serious health problem, but more often than not, they are simply the result of minor dehydration. Campers are far more active at camp than they are at home. Due to this and the increased heat of summer, campers lose more fluids through sweat than they are prepared to consistently compensate for. Furthermore, water is not accessible 100% of the time in most camp settings. All camps instruct their campers to bring water bottles with them to camp, but often times the bottles are forgotten in cabins or left empty throughout the day. I offer a motivational solution: yet another game. Tell your campers that you and your co-counselors will randomly be checking bunks for water bottles as part of a session-long contest. Construct a fair point system (ex: -1 points for not having a bottle, 0 points for having an empty bottle, 1 point for having a less than half-full bottle, 2 points for a more than half-full bottle). Check during logical times, such as the morning of a hot day or immediately before a highly physical activity, and keep track of points. At one or two periods during the session, reward the bunk that has the most total points with a unique activity, such as a slip and slide, food fight, or ice cream party. This game will help motivate campers to keep their own water bottles full, as well as remind each other to fill up their bottles since bunks are competing as units.
Picture this: it’s halfway through the session, you’re exhausted, and little Robert wakes you up at 2 in the morning complaining that he can’t sleep because of the sunburn on his back. You told Robert that he needs to ask a friend to help him put sunscreen on his back before he swims, but like many younglings, he has to learn the hard way. I’m going to take a wild guess and say you REALLY don’t want this to happen to you at any point during the upcoming summer. Fear not, I’ve got another game coming your way. Unlike the previous 2 games, this one does not require any competition. Rather, it’s a literal mess that only requires a large pump bottle of sunscreen and a free spirit. When your bunk lines up at the beach, grab your large bottle of sunscreen and pump out large amounts into each kid’s hands down the line. Before you administer, it is likely necessary to scream something along the lines of “SUNSCREEN TIIIIIIIIIME” as a signal so the kids are prepared to take on an absurdly large glob of sunscreen. Once each kid has a handful, scream out another signal, such as “FIGHT THE SUUUUNNNNNN” to commence application. For this to be effective, you must become the ring leader of the ritual. Make it exciting, make it absurd and messy, encourage campers to help each other out covering their backs, and maybe even arrange yourself and co-counselors into a line of your own to set an example. Campers will be having so much fun messing around with goop that they’ll forget how much they hate putting on sunscreen! In my opinion, flinging sunscreen should be moderately encouraged, as long as your campers are willing to be mindful of avoiding each other’s eyes.
I have good news and bad news, guys. The bad news is that no matter how good of a counselor you are, or how many precautions you take, you will still run into a number of camper issues throughout the summer. The good news is that you are bound to have the most enjoyable, liberating, and enriching experience the world has to offer to a young adult. Moreover, this blog post is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of advice you’ll receive from experienced counselors. Just know that working at camp requires a balance between outrageous fun and high levels of responsibility, so the essence of my advice is to be creative to make your responsibilities outrageously fun.