Two Powerful Ideas I Learned My First Year as Staff at Camp

Do you remember your first summer as camp staff?  Your first staff week?  The interview with the assistant director or director of camp? Was Summer 2011 your first summer on staff?  I remember that first summer, much of staff week, and meeting with Jeff Metz for my interview.

I walked into camp, eighteen years-old, no idea that I’d love camp as much as it turns out I did.  I fuzzily recall sitting in front of the nature center as the first get-to-know-you session took off.  I wondered with just about everyone else which unit I’d be assigned to, whether I’d be working on the waterfront, and what it’d be like to learn from Lynn Levin who’d just introduced herself as responsible for the Junior Counselors of which I was one.

I also remember learning during that week and throughout the summer. I’m still struck by how foundational that first summer was in how I approach working with youth and with people in general.  I learned a ton in subsequent summers, but that first summer really stuck.  I learned so much, but am just sharing two stories today: One about Modeling and one about  Positive Reinforcement.  Here goes…

I learned about modeling in the dining hall the first day, the first meal of staff week during my first summer as staff at Camp Tamarack on Blaine Lake in Brighton, MI.  It was all couched in “hand raising.”  Jeff Metz, the camp director and an extraordinary ‘Simon’ in Simon Says, explained that, “We are models.  Campers do what we do…” He continued with a shtick about how when the hand goes up in the front of the room, we needed to put our hands up and stop talking. And then we practiced. It sounds silly, but we talked and joked for about twenty seconds and when Jeff’s hand went up, we were immediately silent with hands in the air. I’ve replicated that moment with kids and staff many times at Tamarack and elsewhere, but the basic philosophy associated with raising our hands and stopping talking has stuck with me in other ways as well.  Kids do what we do.  People do what we do far more powerfully than what we say, just like in a super-competitive game of Simon Says. I’m obsessed.

I’m thankful for Positive Reinforcement.  Changed how I thought about my ability to learn about how to work successfully with campers. My story doesn’t start well… I was staff in the fifth grade boys unit at camp and occasionally we would have buffet lunches with just our unit in the lodge.  One day during lunch in the lodge two boys were pushing in the buffet line.  I stopped the pushing and sent them to the end of the line.  One boy, who probably had started the skirmish, was defiant and a took me a bit to get him to the end of the line.  The other boy, a kid who genuinely tried to follow the rules, ran off crying.  I spent lunch with him comforting him and cajoling him back to the lodge.  That day at menucha (rest period) we had an in-service about positive reinforcement. We learned that used well, it’s not just complimenting or saying encouraging words, but reinforcing positive behavior and ignoring negative (of course, dangerous behavior or bullying are not ignored and most likely dealt with using other skills). Campers want our attention, I learned, and we have a choice whether we place that attention on the positive or on the negative.  Whichever behavior we pay attention to is reinforced for everyone in the group. So….

The next day at lunch two different boys were pushing in the same place in the buffet line. This time I walked to the six kids behind them in line and said, “Thanks so much for standing in line like you’re supposed to,” and I moved those six in front of the two kids who had been pushing (Please note, I would have used a different technique or skill if it was a more dangerous situation). The six campers felt great.  The two campers who had been pushing stopped.  I went on with my day.  Positive Reinforcement can be used in getting a room quiet, calming a group after basketball, reinforcing teamwork in soccer, or encouraging clean up in arts.  Ignore the negative.  Focus on the positive.  Amazing.

Thanks Camp Tamarack, and Jeff, and Lynn.  I’ll share more that I learned from my first year at camp soon. It’s still in my head and I still play a lot ofSimon Says.  Still to come: Campers First (most of the time), Let campers do all they can do, The power of teaching teens child development and more.


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