Help me help my campers have the greatest week ever!
June 11, 2009 10:00 PM   Subscribe

Help me be the greatest camp counselor in the history of summer camps!

Hello Hivemind. I'm lucky enough to be spending the summer working as a camp counselor at an outdoor activity camp for kids. I'll be working with a group of twelve 5-9 year olds every week. I need any advice that I can get, especially any ideas on games to play with the kids (any that help them learn everyone else's names would be perfect), songs to sing, etc. Their activities are pretty scheduled, so I don't have to worry about planning their week, just how to make it the greatest week ever! Any advice/suggestions/ideas are greatly appreciated!
posted by definitely not a hipster. to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Have you been to the ACA's Counselor Forum? It's a total goldmine for this sort of thing.
posted by Ugh at 10:35 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have mercy on the shy kids who aren't into loud, outgoing activities or sports.
posted by corey flood at 10:54 PM on June 11, 2009 [6 favorites]

Wow, Ugh's link looks amazing... I wish something like that had been available to me when I was working at camps back in the early/mid 90s.

I feel like I could give better advice if I knew whether you were doing resident or day camps, single sex or co-ed, but here's some of the things that got me in tight with the campers:

- Camp cliques form incredibly quickly. This is especially true when there are kids who have been going to that camp for years as well as first-year campers (especially in the older age groups). The counselors are almost always universally admired, so you can counter the cliques very easily by paying attention to the kids who aren't fitting in so easily. Team up with any loner kids to lead songs while you walk from activity to activity to help them feel like they're a part of the group, and to let the other kids know, by example, that the loner kid is worthy of attention too.

- Nicknames. Make them up for every one of your campers, encourage them to come up with one for you.

- If you've got a group of 5-9 year olds, split them into 2 groups. 5-6 year olds (and some 7s) need a lot of direction, and they move a lot slower than the older kids. 8-9 year olds (and mature 7s) were always my favorite age, because they can do more complicated things but still have some respect for authority. Split the kids, and the counselors' attention, so that the younger kids don't get left behind, while making sure that the older kids don't get bored.

- I'm not sure what you mean by 'activity' camp, but remember that some kids will get really into the arts and crafts stuff, and others are going to love the more athletic events. Make sure everyone participates in both, but don't push the non-athletic kids to care about the competitive aspect of athletic events, and realize you might have to let some kids go play tag while the artsy kids tie-dye. Again, this is about spreading the counselors' attention appropriately. As long as you don't force kids to do the stuff they really don't like, they'll love you (not to say you shouldn't encourage them to try new things, of course).

- Learn a lot of goofy call-and-response songs, and songs that involve physical activity (such as "head, shoulders, knees & toes" or "the grand old duke of york"). Wear those little suckers out by singing songs as you walk from activity to activity, as you wait for lunch, etc.

- Earn their love forever by organizing a camp-sanctioned food fight. If you can get the dining hall to make you lots of giant pans of jello for something like this, they will truly never forget you.

I could keep going on and on, because I truly loved camp (for me, a residential Girl Scout camp) as both a camper and a counselor. I'll stop now, but if you want more ideas, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by amelioration at 10:59 PM on June 11, 2009

For a name game, have them sit in a big circle and you say, "My name is Joe, and I'm taking a slow boat to China." The next person says, "My name is Becky and I'm taking a slow boat to China, and I'm taking Joe." The next person adds Becky and Joe's names to their's, and so on. All the kids have to pay attention to remember all the names, and its a fun game.

Choose a theme for the group, for example, Vikings, or pirates, or fairies. The kids could make up a name, like the Mighty Vikings, or the Viking Pirates. They'll get to know each other while they are deciding the name.

Bring a bunch of craft stuff and they can could make nametags that reflect the theme (for example, fairie wands with their names, or pirate eye patches). I've never had boys, just girls, but I think boys that age would like the crafty stuff as well. After they decorate the name tags they can hang them on their bunks or the door of the cabin.

As for the games, do a search for "cooporative games" to get some ideas. There are lots of versions of tag and Simon Says kids that age would love. You could also search for camp songs, there are a million of them (You are my Sunshine, Home on the Range, Greasy Grimey Gopher Guts, Red River Valley). You need to have several copies of the lyrics - but some of your kids are too young to read, so the older kids would have to help the younger ones.

There are lots of things that can make a kid miserable at camp, such as sunburn, dehydration, homesickness and being bullied or excluded by other kids, so you have to keep an eye out for those kinds of problems as well.

I hope this helps. Have fun!
posted by samsaunt at 11:42 PM on June 11, 2009

By far, the most popular and loved counselors when I was growing up were the Joo brothers. They were hilarious and their personalities just fit our 5-9 year old sense of humor. So, yeah, be a kid! Example:

On the last lunch of the week they held the following tradition: One brother would take a bite of cake, or cookie, or whatever appropriate food item (you'll see what i mean by appropriate in a minute) was around. The other brother would stand about 10 feet away. The first brother would spit/blow/project the bite of food and then then the other guy would catch it in his mouth!

Always brought he house down.

They were also especially outwardly nice to the kids who were picked on for being "weird."

On preview: Last day food fight is a must. Tip though, don't use water balloons filled with whipped cream they're a pain in the arse to clean up. (although super fun at the time)
posted by like_neon at 1:28 AM on June 12, 2009

If a girl says she doesn't want to swim don't ask why.
posted by taff at 4:07 AM on June 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

Know what your bargaining tools are. At the summer camp I worked at in North Alabama, the most useful tool I had for persuading my most ornery kids (there were two really intractable ones out of a group of eight 7 & 8 year olds) to behave was taking away a few minutes of pool time. In our hot, humid summers, pool time was universally loved, so my ability to take it away had real weight. (I never took away more than five minutes—for 7 & 8 year olds, that was excruciatingly long as it was.)

For the most part, you're going to have good kids, but be aware that one or two uncooperative kids can rile up your whole group, and take up a lot of your time. I had one camper who was obnoxious on purpose (she was trying to get the attention she didn't get at home) and one who really wanted to be good, but then he'd think someone was making fun of him (they weren't) and he'd lash out. After a certain point during camp, I realized that my efforts to make the first one a happy camper were going nowhere, so I refocused on just making sure she didn't sabotage the experience for the other campers. At the same time, I ramped up my effort to help the second kid deal with his emotions, and by the end of the session, he was much less likely to react badly to the other kids.

My most favorite camp experience ever was one time when a thunderstorm blew up really quickly and upon the first clap of thunder a younger camper (a 5 or 6 year old) whom I'd never met before ran up to me and literally leapt into my arms, and didn't let go for the next two hours. It was amazing to realize how much she trusted me.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:29 AM on June 12, 2009

My excellent camp director's motto was "Life is not fair. Camp is." No matter how sucky the outside world was, camp was about having a safe place to have fun and relax and not think about the real world you live in.

Something I always found useful to keep that working was to remain (or at least feign) enthusiastic, regardless of how tired you may have felt inside. Ours was a religious camp (though not dogmatic by any means) and we had some kids who really struggled with existential, personal, and emotional issues. Sometimes you'd want to weep for them (or with them) but you still just had to be the stong arms they ran to in that thunderstorm and once the crying stopped, you had to be the one that lead the whole camp in silly, corny camp songs with no time for you recovery in between.

Ocherdraco, though I attended camp in North Alabama, I counseled (counselored?) in Southern Tennessee. Pool time-outs were somewhere akin to wateboarding on the torture scale as I recall.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:27 AM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Make sure you schedule "me time" in there somewhere, esp. if this is a sleep-away camp. That's one of the most important things I learned when I was a counselor-in-training: Even fun camps are an intense experience, and if you don't purposefully make yourself take a time-out at some point every day to recharge, even if it's just for half an hour, you'll burn out.

Also, nicknames, as amelioration mentioned, are key. They're basically de rigueur at every Girl Scout camp I've ever heard of, and that's because they let the kids (and you!) take on a sort of "camp persona" that can be all at once more silly and more take-charge than usual.
posted by limeonaire at 5:56 AM on June 12, 2009

At that age, my friends and I all loved, loved, LOVED silly voices. Once they get to know the words to the call-and-response songs, mix it up by doing underwater voice (waggle your finger across your lips so it sounds bubbly), elvis accent, valley girl, super slow-motion voice, whatever gender voice doesn't match yours, whispering, yelling, kermit the frog voice, etc.

You'd also be amazed at the mileage you can get out of the occasional running race. Crossing a big, grassy field to the lunch hall/craft center/wherever? Have everybody line up, give them an "on your mark, get set, GO!" and see who can get there first. You'll probably be walking behind them anyway, so it's not like anyone's around to see who "wins"... It's just 20 seconds of minor competition (and energy expenditure!) for those who want it, and those who don't care can half-ass it without anyone noticing. This gets old after 2 or 3 times, though... just one of many tricks to keep in your arsenal.

Finally, anything you can do to make yourself look ridiculous will generally be a hit. If you do it with gusto, you give the kids permission to be ridiculous as well, and they'll have way more fun. Do terrible cartwheels in the grass. Wear the craziest hairstyle you can manage. Show up in a costume. Dance your dorkiest, most flamboyant dance any time there's music.
posted by vytae at 7:19 AM on June 12, 2009

Acapella thunderstorm.
posted by Sailormom at 7:53 AM on June 12, 2009

Oh my, the memories. I was a counselor for four summers, and I'd happily go back and do four more. There's already tons of good stuff here, but let me add my bit:

As others have said, don't be afraid of being completely goofy - they love that, and as long as you sell it with outrageous amounts of enthusiasm, they'll think it's great.

Be nice to them: a little gentle teasing is OK for most (but not all) kids, but leave it at that. Avoid sarcasm; a lot of kids just don't know how to process it yet, and they'll take the things you say literally, which can cause trouble.

Be kind to the outcasts. Don't be obvious about it, but make it clear through your actions that they have your approval. This often help bring the other kids around, because whether you know it or not, your approval means a great deal and is going to be highly sought after.

OTOH, remember that you outrank your campers. You're in charge, and when you have to, it's OK to pull rank when you have to. Treat them like people, treat them with respect, let them have a say in things, but it should be clear that when a call has to be made, you'll be the one to make it, end of story.

Among other things, this means you don't have to explain everything to them, although they'll never stop asking: "Where are we going? When are we going to swim?" Etc. Sometimes you don't have answers, sometimes you can't tell them for whatever reason, sometimes you just want to keep things a surprise. At our camp, we'd often deflect these questions my smiling mysteriously and saying "It shall be revealed to you."

Give them surprises every now and then. Just about anything mildly cool that they weren't expecting will jazz them up, as long as you are excited about it. "We get to go to the pool a half hour early today!" "Extra granola bars for lunch!" "We're going to see the coolest tree on camp!" It honestly doesn't take much, and despite the carefully planned fun activities, often these are the things they'll go home talking about. A cool tree, honest to god.

At night when they're trying to go to sleep, read them stories. Go find a book of short stories with anthropomorphic talking animals, read it, do funny voices for each animal. My go-to story was Barrington Bunny (note that this particular tale has a decidedly Christian bent to it - I worked at a Bible camp. But similar, more secular, stories will work just as well). I know this sounds corny, but it works. Honest to god, even my teenage campers enjoyed being read to.

Also, kids love it when you're a little gross. like_neon's story about the Joo brothers brings to mind a bit that I used to do with another counselor from time to time. Dinner would often involve carrot sticks, and at some point during the meal I'd casually stick one up my nose. This is, of course, funny on its own. But my friend Eric would see it, come over, and start yelling at me in front of my campers: "You shouldn't be doing that here! We're supposed to be setting an example! You call this setting a good example?!" and so on. After a bit of this, while continuing the yelling, he'd grab the carrot out of my nose and eat it. Yeah, a little disgusting, but the kids thought it was the most hilarious thing ever. Lesson: fear not the disgusting comedy.

Being a camp counselor is a rush because with kids, the game is yours to lose. Unless you're actively mean to them, kids will think you're the greatest person ever - you're older, you're not their parents or family, yet you pay attention to them. Sadly, for a lot of children, this is a pretty rare thing. Just hang out with them, treat them like people, choke back your adult cynicism, be silly, and have a ball. I envy you.
posted by captainawesome at 10:20 AM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Cherry tomatoes: cut a slit across the equator of the cherry tomato, to the center. Now you have a little "guy" with a big mouth. Press on either side of his mouth (where his ears would be) and make a barfing noise as his guts come out! You can dress this up with introductory talk about "oh no, I'm not feeling so well, oh, oh, here it comes..."

Orange slices: stick them into your mouth as a smile

Tortilla chips: get two that are roughly triangular and stick them partway up under your upper lip, as "fangs". Two drinking straws also work as walrus tusks by a similar method.

Patterned whistles, or little rhythmic shouts or clapping patterns that are just for your group - you can do them when you're scattered, to find everybody; kids can do them to each other as a greeting walking around camp, etc. A friend of mine who was always mobbed with kids liked to do "dexterity check" - he would walk into a room full of kids and sternly announce "Dexterity check!" and then launch into a clapping pattern and the kids would have to join in and keep up. Same pattern every time, so the kids learned it over a couple of days.

If you're a girl/woman with longish hair, girls will want to braid it for you. All the time.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:00 AM on June 13, 2009

If you're a girl/woman human with longish hair, girls will want to braid it for you. All the time.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:28 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

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