Five Simple Ways to Make Carnivals More Fun

I love carnivals at camp. We call them open camps or station games because they tend to be more than just carnivals, but the games we are talking about have a bunch of stations that individual campers can walk around and go play.

Below are five simple ways to add some more juice to these types of games. If you love this kinda stuff we have a few all camp games in the Free Stuff section of the website and I am leading an online All Camp Games Workshop in February. Check em out.

Let’s get into it!

1) Add Money

Money is fun to play with. Monopoly is a terrible game, but wildly popular. Why? Because you get to play with fake money. Adding some form of currency to games is pretty easy.

Idea: Kids earn between 1 and 5 dollars for every station they complete. With the money, they can buy starbursts or access to another area like the inside of the rec hall for a dance party.

Sheets of Fake Money We Have Used. Use them or make your own.
Tower MoneyCastle MoneyLaura Money (Might be weird if you use this one…)

2) Design Stations for Different Avatars

Making up stations for games is all about thinking about who is going to play them. You know your camp better than anyone. When we design for Stomping Ground we think of about 4-7 real-life kids in the offseason, then as we get to see the kids that are at camp each week we adjust for the different personalities each week.

Some Potential Avatars

  1. Johnny - Rambunctious 8-year-old, high energy, low attention span, loves running around

  2. Teagan - Kinda too cool for school 13-year-old, doesn’t tend to love our games, but does care about younger kids, no sports, creating things is fun, very concerned about their social standing

  3. Gary - 11-year-old, loves pushing people’s buttons, loves RPG style video games, favorite games involve some form of leveling up with friends he can choose

  4. Sarah - 9-year-old, loves the counselors, loves pop music, happy with pretty much anything where she can be silly and interact with staff

You get the idea. How can you design stations that are for the people playing not just for some nebulous group? Johnny will love if there is some form of dodgeball. Teagan will be hesitant to join. How can we make a station that involves just sitting and chilling with their friends?

Here is a quick avatar creation handout we made for a camp training a couple years ago.

3) Create an Unfolding Narrative

Gary, above, will be fine playing most station games but would love if there was something more going on. Think of the Stranger Things kids at a carnival. They aren’t just playing games, they are trying to unearth clues in a much larger story. This is the world we can create for an hour with Gary.

Example: When you get to the fortuneteller’s tent, the fortune teller breaks character to tell kids that the whole carnival has been taken over by aliens. You can tell who the aliens are by looking closely at their left ears. Sure enough, half the staff leading stations have green paint dripping out of their ears. The fortune teller explains that we need to get rid of the aliens and to go see the “maintenance guy” who has been going around picking up trash. Hijinx ensues. Maybe they need to get into the rec hall from above to learn more about the aliens. Maybe there are two ways in. They can pay to get in like everyone else or there is a secret entrance that they can have the maintenance guy’s assistant help them get in if they do a task for him.


4) Costumes - For Kids

Kids love costumes. Have a station where kids can get in costume and take pictures. Maybe they stay in costume. MAYBE! With money earned from above they can buy costumes. MAYBE! You need a costume to enter the rec hall so you have to buy a costume to get in.

OH ALSO! I read this again after I wrote it and realized this made an assumption that the staff were already in costume. If we don’t have your staff get dressed up for these kinds of things please do. They love it and it adds such a layer of depth to all games and is so fun.

5) Epic Music


This is a super simple one. Set up speakers and play music the whole time. Whatever the theme is just download a corresponding movie’s soundtrack from Spotify.

  1. Having a Ren Faire? Lord of the Rings

  2. Space? Star Wars

  3. Disney? OK just tons of Disney Songs

Awesome composers have already done the work for us. Music adds an enormous level of immersion just by being on we are having a shared experience.

Let’s Make Awesome Stuff Together

Stations during these events are really fun, and for some number of kids that’s all they need to make friends and build memories. But we have an opportunity each time we run something like this to make it the best moment of camp for some kids let’s take it. What are some of your favorite additions to open camps? Comment below.

Looking to take your all camp games to the next level? Love talking about these kinds of things? Join Our All Camp Games Workshop this February.


Make up a new game for yourself. Get access to the rest of the cohorts new games. But most of all start to think differently about game creation.

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Produce a Summer Video for Your Camp for <$5

This video cost $5

At Friends Camp, we are a pretty small, non-profit operation. Having a "videographer" on staff, or even freeing up a counselor to regularly take video and edit it, isn't in our budget. We were so excited to figure out a solution that worked for us to make an amazing camp video that didn’t cost a lot in time, money, or effort. 

Led by a few of our amazing summer staff (including Summer Camp Society member Lauren), we created a 1-second-per-day video. Check it out below! Here’s the 6 steps you need to take to make your own.

  1. Download an app that will let you take one-second-per-day of video. We used 1 Second Everyday ( It costs $4.99, and it actually lets you add 2 1-second clips for each day.

  2. Find someone on your staff who can remember to take a short video clip or two each day. Put a reminder on their calendar or somewhere they will see it each day. Our office manager Emma loved this task, because it was an excuse to get out of the office! PS If they miss a day, nothing bad will happen.

  3. The app will let you edit the clips take. It’s SO easy. Partway through the summer, check in on your progress. Do you have enough active clips? Enough of peoples’ faces? Is there something you want to capture that you haven’t yet?

  4. Decide what you want your background sound to be. A favorite camp song of the summer? Or, you could have your staff sing a camp song and record it as a voice memo on your phone.

  5. Find a tech-savvy counselor to make the background music the right length and to add a beginning and ending screen. Say what you will about “Gen Z”, but damn they are good at this kind of thing.

  6. Share all over social media!

Summer Camp Society folks also had some great suggestions about additional ways to use the one-second-a-day video at camp. What other ideas do you have to use this at camp?

  1. Surreptitiously put together a video and surprise your staff with it on the last day.

  2. Have a shared phone that staff can grab and take video, so the video comes from lots of different folks’ perspectives. Even include campers!

Want New Ideas For All Camp Games and Staff Training Sessions?



Sending a Camper Home: Guidelines for Myself

A post from Anna Hopkins, Camp Director at Friends Camp in Maine, co-facilitator of the Emerging Leaders Semester, and one of the best camp directors you probably haven’t heard of, yet.

Anna describing “The Bat” at TSCS Conference Spring 2018

In our weekly TSCS Executive Semester online meeting, we were discussing the topic of sending campers home from camp. Inspired by lessons learned from my camp mentor Nat Shed, I have a little list of "guidelines" for myself to follow any time I send a camper home from camp. I left an abbreviated version of these in a top drawer in my desk this summer, with the intention that it would help me follow good protocol and not get too absorbed in the emotional back-and-forth of kicking a kid out of camp. Jack asked if I could share. Here goes!

(1) There’s usually no need to make a decision this second. It's okay to take a little time to call my mentor/ write a pro-con list/ be quiet for 20 minutes and find the truth of whether or not this camper stay at camp.

(2) If a camper is going home, call the family and arrange a pick-up plan before you tell the child. The last thing you want is an angry or devastated child who then needs to wait 24 hours for a pick-up because his parents are out of town. Tell the camper they are going home about 1-2 hours before parents or guardians arrive, depending on the child and situation.

(3) The time before the child leaves can still be valuable for them. Have a staff member or two who they trust spend time with them, and see if they can have a productive conversation about leaving camp. Maybe they can toss a ball around and discuss their successes and challenges over the last week.

(4) When the child does leave, have an "exit meeting" with the parent and child. Make sure you highlight the child's successes to the parent. If the child is getting kicked out of camp, chances are this has happened to them elsewhere. No child is 100% failure. Failures hurt and add up over time, and if you can help this child see how they still have light inside of them (while being really clear about what boundaries they crossed), that is a good thing. 

(5) If this camper might be able to return next summer, make sure to tell the child and the parents, separately and together. If it’s true, the “you are still welcome here” message can be deeply impactful to campers and families. [Thanks Jason for this addition!]

(6) I tell the camper's cabin group that evening, with a 2-ish sentence explanation. I say it's okay to be sad or to be happy about it, and if people want to talk they can talk to me or their counselor. Kids are not typically surprised.

(7) I tell the whole camp briefly at our next business meeting (happen daily in the morning). I don't offer details about that child, but I let the whole group know they had to leave. I suggest we hold that camper in the Light (Quaker language) and tell campers they are welcome to ask questions to me or another point person if they have them.

(8) Follow up with the camper’s counselor(s). They probably feel like they failed. Go for a walk with them, and reassure them (or have an assistant director with more time go for a walk with them). You can also ask if there’s anything they'd like to do differently next time and hear their perspective on how you handled it as a camp director.

(8) Make a note in the camper's file on CampMinder about everything that happened. I will forget portions by next year, and it will be relevant if this camper wants to try coming back to camp.

(9) Do a face mask that evening after everyone else at camp is asleep. Being the camp director is hard sometimes. Unload to your non-camp support system if you need to. Sometimes someone needs to take care of you, so you can do your best taking care of camp.

Want more free stuff to make running camp easier and awesomer?


Anna Hopkins
Director -
Friends Camp
Facilitator -
The Summer Camp Society

Opening Day Sucks

Let’s think about opening day. I wrote a little questioning our campfire last year, but now I want think a little broader.

We, at Stomping Ground the camp I help run, start each session on Sunday afternoon, one week sessions, and about half the kids stay over the weekend. Quick schedule below.

3:00 - 4:00 - Arrival Window
4:00 - 5:45 - In villages, get to know you games, tours, etc
5:45 - 6:30 - Dinner
6:30 - 7:30 - Village Pump Up Meeting
7:30 - 8:15 - Opening Campfire
8:15 - Back to villages, get ready for bed, village agreements, embers, hangout, bed

First- What is the point of opening day?

To get through it…

But for real, it often seems like the goal of the first day of camp is just to get through it so we can get to the good stuff when camp really starts Monday morning.

Maybe we should just start Monday morning… OR maybe we should just make Sunday more like the rest of the week. That is what we do at Tall Tree, a camp for kids with autism that Sylvia runs. Sylvia is also running an Inclusion Specialist Training for us. It is also what we did the first summer of Stomping Ground. Just start activities basically as soon as kids arrive.

Ok wait!

What is the point of opening day?


  1. Actually get the kids to camp

  2. Welcome parents

  3. Welcome kids

  4. Collect meds

  5. Lice Checks

  6. See where they will sleep/poop/shower

  7. Learn the rules

  8. Meet their counselors

  9. Meet the kids in their cabin

  10. Get a glimpse of the culture

  11. Eat

  12. Sign up for Monday’s activities (might be cool to do the swim check?)

  13. See what camp looks like

  14. Opening Campfire? → back to this again…

Those are the tangible things, but the crux of what we want is for kids to feel comfortable and excited about being at camp and start getting to know each other. What would it look like to do that differently?

Let’s ignore some logistical problems for now and just try a different schedule for after kids arrive….

3-4:30 pm - Normal check-in process and some initial get to know you games in cabins
4:30-5:30 pm - Free Choice Option (include an option for a tour or something similar)
5:30-6:15 pm - Dinner
6:30-7:00 pm - Campfire
7:00-8:15 pm - Cabin Time
8:15 pm - Bedtime stuff ← need to look closer at all of this later too.

What are the problems?

  • No time for village cheers. Do we care?

  • What happens when kids arrive late? ← some always do.

  • What happens at Bed Time?

  • What is “Cabin Time”?

Cabin Time…

The goal is…  

  • To make a little memory with the kids in your cabin.

  • Build a bond between the campers and the staff.

  • Do something fun to get buy in

What if we make up 20 mini adventures that cabins could go on? Then from the campfire each cabin goes on their adventure and meets back up in the village for night time stuff after their adventure ends.

Then each staff could easily make their own cabin time up, but having an easy choice for folks would lower the difficulty to get started and raise the floor for the activity.

The big problem I see is around the lack of choice here. For all our other activity times there is a huge amount of choice. Kids can go to Downtown Stomping Ground or pick different options.

Where would this be the biggest problem? Older kids. Ok, ok, ok.

We don’t typically have age segregated programming except for sleeping, but if we are going to have them stay in their cabins anyway what if we do things a little differently based on village? We have four villages based loosely by age. From youngest to oldest, Explorer, Viking, Robinhood, and Pioneer. What if Pioneer always went somewhere for a village event that had some built-in choice, hangout time, and maybe a conversation about how they are leaders at camp?

How would that play out in Robinhood? This is hard to say because we are expanding capacity in Viking and Explorer and I am not sure what the age breakdowns will be, but I think it could work pretty well.

One of the keys I think would be that it was a small group on the adventure so getting out of the main field would be important for most groups.

What could some of the options be?

  • Pioneer goes to… The Lava Lounge for something similar to the After Party from ArtsFest

  • Smores in Mountaineer

  • Ice cream in boats

  • Bake a cake in the staff kitchen (wait these are all just food… Maybe that is the key? Just a snack party for each cabin?)

  • Fire tower

  • Archery… boring

  • Outpost cookout

  • Newt catching

  • Explorer creek walk

  • Fort building by Viking

  • Some kind of dodgeball type game (maybe the game assault?) Could be 2 cabins

  • What could people do in the dining hall?

  • These still need a lot of work, but I bet we could just ask some of the staff to make some up this offseason.

To simplify, we make a signup list for staff that gets passed around during the Sunday big staff meeting with supplies that we order for each week. We always order ice cream, cake making stuff, whatever to be used on the first night. Plus snacks for Pio in the Lava Lounge. This way it gets systematized and if people want to do special stuff that is awesome, but at least we have a base.

The new setup would be a pretty simple change. More choice before dinner and a fun cabin activity with a lot of snacks likely after dinner and village meetings moved to Monday.


Did you know Kurtz and I put up a bunch of free staff training sessions, all camp games, and more? Check em out.

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Building a Culture of Partnership Instead of Power Over With Our Staff

This is Peter Drews!

Why do some challenging conversations with staff lead to huge impact and while most at best lead to tiny changes?

This week in The Summer Camp Society Semester we were talking about difficult conversations with staff and Peter Drews, YMCA Camp Minikani, gave us a profound takeaway. We were trying to narrow in on what was true about the tough conversations we have had with staff that lead to the biggest breakthroughs. Peter said:

“When I am collaborating with someone I care about to help them do something they care about.”

I am in.

Think about it. The most effective helping conversations happen when you are working together with one of your best friends to help them solve a real problem they want to solve.

Kurtz has some thoughts and Mike O’Brien chimes in with a great staff training session at the end of this article.


Now there are a lot of incredibly challenging aspects of this, but it gives us a goal and a place to start, mostly a place to start way before the tough convo.

  1. How can I build closer relationships with the people I supervise so I can know what they care about and so they know I care about them?

  2. What does my camp really care about and how can I make sure we are articulating this to staff when we hire them so they can decide if they care too?

  3. How do I make sure the policies and topics of these tough conversation line up with what we are saying we care about?

Kurtz’s Staff Training on Practicing Coworker Confrontations

This is a huge undertaking. Here is where I am going to start with Stomping Ground. Jack actually do this you lazy dog!

  1. What Happened? - Compile a list of as many tough conversations that happened this summer as you can. Look through incident reports and staff evaluations.

    1. I think if I were doing this exercise, I'd also want some direct input from staff. I'd call my unit directors, my wellness coordinator, and my assistant summer camp director. I'd ask them to think about the corrective conversations they had to engage in most this summer.- Peter

  2. Breaking It Down - Categorize them by what you think the problem is. This will take some thinking. Is it level of engagement, timeliness, violating a specific policy? Which category has the largest number of conversations?

    1. I can see how frequency of conversations is really important. I think I'd also want to look at the list I compiled and think about the conversations that most spoke to our core values. When were my staff members doing something that felt like it really flew in the face of our values? Is that happening consistently? Is that behavior happening more in one unit or with one staff member more than with others? I'd want to identify patterns, to learn more about where our staff culture can improve. - Peter

  3. What Do We Care About? - Now, this is the hard part. Dig into this category for what is actually happening and figure out why, really why, this policy is necessary for camp and in alignment with what camp really cares about. Pick a handful of staff that are likely to break this policy. What do they care about that overlaps with why this policy is in place?

    1. I love this. It's another place where a phone call might be a good idea. - Peter

  4. Explain It - Write a quick one-pager not just explaining the policy, but explaining the overlap between what your staff members care about and why the policy exists. Try to really give them the benefit of the doubt, it is November so that is easier. Why should they care? What else do they already care about? Be as specific as possible.

  5. Do Something - At this point, feel free to change the policy, make plans to change your staff, or make plans to change how you hire staff. My hope is that by picking the most frequent problem with staff I can either get more staff on board or just change the policy.


It is not always the case that when people believe in something they can do it, but it is a million times easier to have a conversation with someone when they are invested in making the same change we are.

“When I am collaborating with someone I care about to help them do something they care about.”

Thank you Peter.




Some thoughts from Kurtz while she is taking care of her newborn. #businessMOM #mba #BABYKURTZ #yesshecandoitall

It’s kind of like the same technique in principled negotiations (win-win negotiations). There is a summary of the principled negotiation book. The “interests” part is what might be most pertinent to this convo.

Principled Negotiation: Interests:

  • The difference between interests and positions is crucial: interests motivate people; they are silent movers behind the hubbub of positions. Your position is something you have decided upon, while your interests are what caused you to decide.

  • You can ask for another's position, making clear that you do not want justification, just a better understanding their needs, hopes, fears, or desires that they serve.

  • The most powerful interests are basic human needs: security, economic well-being, sense of belonging, recognition, control over one's life

  • If you want the other side to take your interests into account, explain to them what those interests are

  • Make your interests come alive - be specific!

  • Acknowledge their interests as part of the problem - be sure to show your appreciate their interests if you want treatment in like kind

  • Put the problem before your answer: give your interests and reasoning first and your conclusions or proposals later

  • Look forward, not back: instead of asking someone to justify what they did yesterday, ask "Who should do what tomorrow?"

  • Be concrete but flexible: treat the opinion you formulate as simply illustrative - final decision to be worked on later

  • Be hard on the problem, soft on the people: show you are attacking the problem, not people - give positive support to the humans on the other side equal in strength to the vigor you emphasize the problem - this causes cognitive dissonance and in order for the other to overcome it they will be tempted to disassociate from the problem in order to join you in doing something about it”

A Staff Training Session From Mike O’Brien


Camp Director, Camp AJ, Kentucky

We ran what turned out to be a great session during staff training this summer on a similar topic that ended up helping all of us align our goals for camp.

We posted a bunch of large sheets of paper around the room with a question at the top, things like "What should we expect from our campers?" and the converse "What should our campers expect from us?" There were questions relating to leadership, parents, peers, CIT/LITs, as many relational aspects of camp as we could come up with.

Then each staff person was given a stack of post it notes and as a group we went around the room and wrote words or short statements answering the question and sticking it on the sheet.

After about 20 minutes or whenever most folks had a chance to think about all the questions, we broke up into small groups and each group was assigned one of the large sheets of paper. Those groups then discussed and ranked what they felt were the top 3-5 most important/most meaningful answers, and then presented that to the whole group for discussion.

The end result was great discussions about expectations vs reality, what things matter a lot and what things don't really, and also gave leadership some great insight from our staff about what they expected from us as well as how they perceived our relationships with them. SO GOOD!


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The Staff Are Like Our Campers... Or Are They?

This is a post from the newly made up, “We can disagree, but still care about each other.” column. We are making t-shirts, hopefully, to be slyly given to everyone in America. The it starts with my hot take followed by a couple different perspectives. If you like this kind of article, with different points of view and perspectives comment below. Let’s get into it!

OH! There is some light cursing under the heading, “They Said” at the beginning of the article.

- Jack Schott

Camp directors often say, “The staff are like our campers.” I get where they are coming from, and I would never say that.

I think the thought process is that as camp directors or leaders we need to take care of our staff the same way we ask our staff to take care of their campers. We need to put as much work into making sure they are doing well as we ask them to do for the kids. This is admirable and something I can get behind.

However, I think the phrasing can come off as patronizing.

I thought I might be alone so I texted some of our staff at camp...

“What would you think if you heard a camp director say ‘The staff are like my campers’”

They said…


“Kinda patronizing.”
“I think it is sweet and well-meaning, but I'd rather be told ‘the staff are like my co's’. Idk which is more true tho.”
“No for sure, for sure, director/counselor counselor/camper are similar in that everyone is IN on FUN and the expression is probably used to distance from traditional employer/employee sort of relationship but I mean come on guy you’ve got a pet… You’ve got a responsibility, You don’t just look for an hour then call it quits…” → Billy Madison Reference
“Huuuuge little bitch move.”
“Stop being such a big BIOTCH.”
“Also sounds kitchy (?)”
“Even if they mean it in a “i am like their counselor, they are like my campers, I want to help them grow and learn” way then it still negates any idea of counselors having a say in camp as a whole / creating a reciprocal relationship with all staff”
"But for realsies, another interesting piece of that is the implication of director's idea of counselor/camper roles.”

Two things are certainly true.

  1. They like to curse via text.

  2. They may be a little more rebellious and more likely to dislike this idea than most.

“The staff are like our campers.”  comes from a very good place, but I think it misses the point.

As camp directors, we clearly love the campers and so treating our staff like campers means treating them with love, but it also has the connotation that we are treating them like kids. Maybe that is what camp directors are saying when they say that. I don’t think so, but maybe.

I am not interested in treating summer staff like kids or assuming that they will act like children.

At camp, we put a huge amount of trust in our staff. They have to both be childlike and playful and at the same time some of the most responsible young adults you can imagine. We, as camp pros, make arguments all the time about how great a growth opportunity it is to work at camp as compared to internships or other jobs.

I don’t think most camp directors mean they want to treat their staff like kids when they say “The staff are like my campers”, but it can be how many staff take it.

Maybe even more than that, I think these words have power and when we say things like “The staff are like my campers” it can lead to a culture where we may not mean to, but we encourage a larger divide between our leadership staff and the staff they supervise. That it leads to more of a power over dynamic than a partner with relationship.

Also, I realize this is a hot take and was chatting with some other folks in The Summer Camp Society looking for some different perspectives. Here are some of their thoughts.

- Jack

Anna Hopkins

Director, Friends Camp, Maine

While I see that some counselors might find this language condescending, I also think that it can be useful when used well. Working at camp can be pretty intimidating for a first-time counselor (maybe a counselor of color at a mostly white camp, a counselor who used to be camper and is really nervous about trying to live into the role of the counselors who he used to hero-worship, or a staff member who is in the US for the first time to work at your camp). Many camps are facing a challenge of staff members bailing a few weeks before the summer, quitting the first week of camp, or even “ghosting” and not showing up for staff week.


Staff members, and those new to camp especially need to feel empowered to bring their crazy ideas, take the lead in potentially dangerous situations, and be the “grown-up” for nervous campers. I think perhaps the best way to help these new staff members become their most empowered selves is to give them support and help them feel like they belong-- two jobs best done by the camp counselors.

The very best camp counselors feel the weight of their responsibility. Maintaining a physically and emotionally safe environment for a group of about 10 children (while canoeing/ camping/ battling dragons) is no joke. However, the weight of this responsibility can sometimes cause good counselors to experience anxiety or make it hard for them to let loose and be silly.

In telling my camp counselors that they can think of me as their counselor, I hope to take off some of that weight. When a camper comes to them and makes a disclosure of abuse, I want them to be able to cry about it with me if they need to and know that I will take it from there. If they get a call from home that their dad is sick and they need to travel home, I don’t want them to feel bad asking me for the time off. If a friend from home is texting them with thoughts of self-harm, I want them to know they can talk to me and I will find someone to cover their cabin while they help their friend.

I agree with my colleagues who say we want to be “partners” with our staff rather than condescending or paternalistic. But in much the same way that campers don’t have the same level of responsibility for camp that their counselors do, camp counselors don’t have the same level of responsibility for camp that the camp director does. When I tell my staff they can trust me and use me as their “camp counselor” if they need to, I hope that it relieves them from feeling like they need to know all the answers right away. If we consider the camper/counselor relationship to be “disrespectful” or “condescending” when applied to adults, what does it say about how we are treating our campers?

- Anna

Katrina Dearden

Assistant Executive Director, Eagle Island Camp, New York

I can see where this phrase would come from and why a Camp Director might choose to use it.  We want what is best for the staff and we know that we need to provide a level of support to them in order for them to be successful.  But I think this phrase also comes from a level of selfishness.

We miss having campers.  

Camp Directors and leaders got into this industry because we loved camp, we loved having a group of kids who saw the potential in us, who joined in on our fun games.  And it’s really hard to give that up as you move up the ladder at camp. So in some ways I think claiming the staff are our campers is just our way of still clinging to the desire to have our own groups of kids.  And that’s not fair to us and it is especially unfair to the staff. Because they are not our campers, they are not here to blindly follow us and our activities. We have hired them to make good decisions, to be responsible for their own groups of campers.  We hired them to push back when something doesn’t make sense, to let us know when there is a better or safer way to do things. Or a better way to connect with the current camper trends and interests.

The staff are not our campers, they are our camp staff.

- Katrina

Ben Clawson

Executive Director, Lindley G. Cook 4H Camp, New Jersey

A few times, when addressing a staff culture issue (i.e. staff talking behind each others backs instead of addressing the problem directly, etc…) I’ve made the mistep of saying to the counselors involved, “how would we react if our campers were treating each other this way?” I think it’s a good, valid point! However, I have seen in my staff’s eyes that they do not think it’s a good, valid point:  “It’s way different than the campers!  We’re young adults in a very complex social situation with a lot being asked from us all the time!” (And it certainly wouldn’t be helpful for me to counter that our 12 year olds probably feel the exact same way.)

At its best, I like to think of camp as a potential antidote to a lot of what’s not-so-great with the rest of the world. I think one of those not-so-great things is that young adults are very used to being treated like children, and having the low expectations of children put upon them. At camp, we ask for so much more. Not only are the counselors not the children, but they are entirely responsible for every aspect of the children’s camp-life, and we hold them to standards that would never be expected from a child. We ask for 24-hours-a-day of solid decision making, responsible judgement, endless energy, boundless creativity, and ever-diligent compassion all wrapped up with imperviously buoyant morale. It might be more than has ever been asked of them, and it’s why so many staff take such pride and joy in clearing the bar and “accomplishing camp.”  Being a counselor at summer camp might very well be the most adult, least-childlike thing they have ever done.

This can be a tough idea for those of us at camps where a large percentage of our campers matriculate onward to become counselors; it can be harder not to think of a staff member as your camper when they literally were your camper a matter of months earlier. And, in reality, our counselors are the highest evolution of what we hope for from our campers - they’re often the best examples of our program’s long-lasting positive effects, and a personification of the promise that the program will continue to produce those effects in the future. Yes, for directors, our counselors might totally be our kids: our oldest, most trusted and esteemed campers.

But perhaps we shouldn’t spend too much time explicitly telling them that.

- Ben


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Growth Not Retention.

I spent the weekend pouring over the retention numbers at Stomping Ground, the camp I run. I think I decided retention is overrated.

For context, I have believed retention to be the number one indicator of great camps for the last 5 or 7 years. I am huge fan of Camp Augusta, who boasts above 90% retention every year, maybe 95% I can remember the exact number. I love James Davis’s model on the economics of retention. I believed retention to be the best indicator of camp success.

This weekend I lost my faith.

Ok, I am being dramatic, but I dug deep on our retention and found some interesting facts that are leading me to think differently about retention. I think retention can be incredibly valuable but is just one metric.

This week in The Summer Camp Society Semester we were talking about the value of retention. The ethics of using staff to convince kids to come back for another year and different tactics for increasing the rate kids might return to camp. We discussed progressive programming, connecting with parents, awards, and more. Then we started talking about the numbers.

Retention isn’t just one number it is a combination of an uncountable number of variables. Male vs Female return rate, ages that return at different rates, what about new campers vs old campers.


This got me thinking. I hadn’t calculated our retention at Stomping Ground since our first summer in 2015. There goes my weekend.

I put together a bunch of spreadsheets, why CampBrain doesn’t do this with a click of a button is fascinating. Rob if you are reading this let’s talk. I did this in the most straightforward way. No aging out or removing kids for any reason. If they came to camp one year and came back the next they counted. This matters because you can play with these numbers in a million ways. Here is what I found.

Our Numbers

2015 (our first summer) - 44% of kids returned for 2016
2016 - 58% of kids returned for 2017
2017 - 66% of kids returned for 2018

What the heck does that mean?

I don’t know, but I went to school. 44% is for sure failing. 66% is failing but a little better. It seems like an improvement. I did a bunch of other math. I won’t bore you with all of it, but I found that our retention rate for male and female campers is essentially the same. That we have the highest retention rate for 6 year olds (our youngest kids) and the lowest for 14 year olds (our oldest main campers), but in the middle everything is basically the same. I found that rain has less impact on retention than I thought, but good counselors have much higher impact.

I am happy to run these numbers for you for a donation to camp. Ok, I’ll donate it to camp, but a donation can’t be quid pro quo so you have to pay me then I donate to camp. Laws. Not for profits. Math. Send me an email.


Most importantly I found growth. Over that same time period that our retention failed, never breaking 70% we also 10x-ed the size of our camp. We went from ~60 kids the first summer to ~600 camper weeks this last summer. What was happening?

I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I have an idea. I found two other interesting tidbits.

  1. While our retention rates mostly stunk our retention rates for returning campers are pretty good. Last year ~90%. So if someone had been to Stomping Ground before and came back at least once, the chance that they would return again was very high.  Camp Champions has a person dedicated to first year camper retention for this reason.

  2. Campers that were returning were signing up for more weeks. A lot more weeks, in some years averaging almost twice as many.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN!?!!?!?@!?!!?!?!@?

Growing a program isn’t about retention it is about growth. Of course, it is. But this matters!

We made Stomping Ground up. It never existed. We have messed up, tried things, tried other things. Our first summer we didn’t have bedtimes. ← real life.

The best way to grow fast isn’t to be pretty ok for most of our small number of campers it is to be hecking awesome, best place ever, life-changing, for the right families.

When we do that we grow like mad. When we blow every other place that specific families have ever worked with out of the water they send their kids back for longer and tell everyone they know.


I think this is interesting and I think it changes huge parts of the way we do business. This rewards swing for the fences commitment to mission and encourages us not to round our edges for parents that don’t get what we want to do.

We let kids play with hammers and nails at camp. Kids choose how to spend their days all day every day. They get in arguments and we don’t kick kids out just for fighting. We do weird stuff. We do it safely, but for the right families, this is what they are looking for.

This math is pushing me to double down on what makes us weird. Pushing me to put ourselves more out there for what we believe in and then not compromise our program to please parents that “don’t get us”.


This doesn’t mean we should listen to parent concerns or stop trying to get better and change. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. Just the opposite. It means we should really care. We should really care about what we really care about. We should double triple quadruple down on connecting our mission to our program, because when we do that, the right people love it and they tell their friends. There are lots of “regular” camps out there.

Trying to be a “great” regular camp is a bad long-term strategy.  

I got excited at the end there, but you get the point. Retention isn’t bad, but it isn’t always good either. I need to keep figuring out what Stomping Ground cares about and then do more of that, explain why, and the right people will care. Or they won’t.


An Introduction to Interviewing Camp Staff

At Stomping Ground, the sleepaway camp I started with Laura Kriegel in 2015, we just hired our first year-round assistant director. Allison Klee, or Klee, has worked with us for three years. You may know her from her videos on how to help staff prepare for the summer.

Anyway, she is awesome and really gets what we do at Stomping Ground, but is still new at so many aspects of her new role. My guess is many of you are in a similar position to either Klee, a new year-round camp person, or me, helping onboard new year-round camp homies. With that in mind, I thought I would share what I shared with Klee about our staff hiring process. Maybe this will become an ongoing series, On-Boarding Klee - A New Assistant Director’s Journey.

Below is an email I sent to Klee, edited a little for context and some fun photos added.


It’s already staff hiring season. We have had a couple new folks apply already. Through this - Apply to Stomping Ground.

Let’s talk process.

  1. Staff apply through the website and give us a few pieces of simple information so we can get started.

  2. Then, I will reach out to them to set up an initial conversation.

  3. Most of our applicants tend to be solid so I will connect them with you to have a conversation. I will share my notes with you.

  4. You will talk with them.

  5. You check their references.

  6. Then we decide what to do next. We either offer them the job or have Laura talk with them to learn more.

  7. Then we send them this page on the website to make sure they really want the job.

The Interview

Interviewing is hard. Some people say interviews don’t work at all. So what is the point? At the highest level it is to see if they will do well in the job they are applying for. OK! That is a start. What is the job they are applying for? Let’s talk cabin counselors at Stomping Ground. What if we broke down being a counselor into 5 major categories?

JISE XT (We need a better acronym)

Judgment (Understand and align with the mission, vision, and practical nature of camp)
Initiative (Ability to consistently start)
Supervision (Awareness of assigned areas and campers)
Engagement (Emotional involvement or commitment)
X-Factor (What makes them special?)
Team (How do they make others better?)

Maybe EXITS?

Engagement, X Factor, Initiative, Team, Supervision/Judgment

You can use this for notes or make your own.


Some Questions to Get Started

Tell me about a time when you had to make a hard decision.

  • What are you hoping to get out of this summer?

  • How did you decide what to do as you after high school? Walk me through your thinking.

  • Tell me about a time you were with kids and had to be the “grownup”

  • When you are with a group of friends what role do you find yourself playing?

    • Tell me about a time where you played that role

  • I noticed on your resume that you… tell me about how you got started with that.

  • Tell me about a time you made a one on one relationship recently.

  • Tell me about your ideal day

  • Tell me about a challenge you have overcome

  • Brag about cool stuff you have done. Pretend I am your new best friend

  • What are some cool hobbies/skills/talents you have?


Informed Consent

This is a weird idea or maybe just a weird phrase to use.

Something obvious: the best counselors are the counselors that know what they are doing. The earlier we can help them know what they are opting into the higher the probability of success. One way to do that is to retain staff. Another is to grow staff from the camper base. The hardest, and one we have to do a lot at Stomping Ground, is getting new staff up to speed as quickly as possible. This starts in the interview process.

I will talk with everyone that applies about the hours, the workload, the lack of self-care time, etc. The goal isn’t to scare them away but try to give them as accurate a picture of the job as possible so that they can make an informed decision about whether the job is right for them.

I don’t have statistics, but anecdotally it seems that when we can really get people to understand this the mental health of staff have been much higher and performance much better. The You’re Hired Page has helped a lot with this. Along with the Don’t Take This Job If Video.

Other stuff....

Ok so I think you have a pretty good understanding of what we are thinking about for the process. Below are a couple of links to some resources that I think will better set you up to actually do the interview. TAKE A LOOK!

A Short Video on Interviewing Camp Counselors

Laura Kriegel, Scott Arizala, and I made a video about interviewing a few years ago. I think the key takeaway is to ask follow up questions that give more insight into what we are looking for and ask questions that lead to stories of real-life not hypotheticals.

Gary Forester and POWER Hiring

Gary was the number one camp consultant for a long time. He grew up in the Y, eventually was the go-to Y camp guy, then became a consultant for all camps. He is sort of retired now, but his writings are still some of the best and most influential in the camp world. Check out his advice for interviewing here.

How to Interview
Let's Go Fishing

Actually trying to read everything on Gary’s old school website is definitely worth doing. The design is out of date and some of his thoughts seem dated, but 98% of what he is talking about is still incredibly relevant.

Let’s do this!

I hope this was useful! Kurtz and I get together with camp pros every week to talk about what is working, what isn’t, and how we can help each other. It is the best deal in professional development on the planet. $699 for 8 weeks of real time online discussion and a 3 day retreat. Check it out. The Summer Camp Society Semester.


Our First Summer with a Gender-Expansive Cabin 

In 2018, we offered our first gender-expansive cabin option (in addition to boys’ and girls’ cabins). We are really glad we did it, and we plan to continue this option. Here’s a few of the things we learned:

  1. Our camper families were WAY more supportive than we thought they might be. They weren’t just “okay” with this—they were amped about it

  2. We don’t have changing rooms or bathrooms in any of our camper cabins. We ordered a simple changing tent from Amazon, and now I want to order one for ALL our cabins. It is easy to set up (pop-up), portable, and helped make campers feel comfortable with the changing situation. Under $30-- order here!

  3. We also modified a bathroom to be an “everybody” bathroom this summer, and made sure the gender-expansive cabin was close by. We used tall stalls (almost floor-to-ceiling). This bathroom was open to all campers who felt more comfortable using it.

  4. This cabin was designed to help gender non-binary, trans, or other campers feel more comfortable at camp, but of course those folks were also welcome in a girls or goys cabin if that felt more comfortable. This cabin was not designed to exclude or separate gender non-binary folks, but rather recognize and affirm their identities. 

  5. In order to have enough campers to fill the space, it was also open to cis-gender campers who felt like it was a good space for them. I had to approach a few families specifically in order to get enough campers signed up, but I don’t anticipate having to do this in the future now that campers know what it’s all about.

  6. We had multiple campers who attended camp ONLY because this cabin was an option. You probably have some, too. We didn’t know who we were excluding with the binary model until we broke out of it.

  7. We had very experienced staff members lead this group. Both happened to be gender non-binary, but we think cis folks could also lead the space well with proper support.

  8. When I wrote a letter to our families explaining it, I had all parties I possibly could read the letter first (board members, parents, staff members, fellow camp directors). This helped me make sure I was addressing all concerns, being proactive, and using the most inclusive language I could. I also  read the letter aloud to the whole staff right before our teen sessions began, to remind them of the reasons behind the decision.

  9. There’s a wonderful website you can point confused parents to—

  10. In case it’s helpful to you, here’s the text of the letter we sent to families! 


Dear Parents,

I am writing to you about a new cabin option we are piloting at Friends Camp during the Fell Session this year. As a Quaker camp, we affirm our campers and families of all identities—this means we work hard to affirm your child for who they are when it comes to family background, racial identity, religious beliefs, gender identity, and more. To affirm and nurture our youth, we are going to offer an optional gender-expansive cabin in addition to our boys’ and girls’ cabin units.

We are proud to be a camp for kids of all genders, where campers are free to make platonic friendships with others regardless of gender. At the same time, we value the opportunity for single-gender spaces, especially with our teens. Our young adult counselors are well-positioned to be role models and provide guidance to campers who are developing their identities as young women and men. To be with others experiencing similar challenges and joys around growing up can be an important factor in youth development. We value our girls’ and boys’ cabins and do not plan to eliminate this element of our program.

While we value single-gender experiences in our cabins at camp, some of our campers don’t fit in the boxes of “boy” or “girl.” In order to offer a gender-identity affirming experience for all campers, we will offer a cabin for campers who identify outside the gender binary where they can be with campers and staff members who also identify outside the binary. Some campers might describe their identity as “non-binary,” others might use terms such as “a-gender,” “gender-non-conforming,” or “genderqueer.” An umbrella term used by many engaged in our society’s work for gender justice and inclusion is “gender-expansive.” We hope that by creating a gender-expansive cabin option, campers who are often targeted by misunderstanding or forced to conform to gender expectations not true to who they are will be able to fully be themselves in a safe and supportive space. 

If you and your camper are interested in them being in a gender-expansive cabin this summer, contact me before July 15th. This cabin is open to all interested families. Even if your camper does not identify as gender-expansive but you and they feel this cabin would be a good place for them, please do let me know. If you don’t contact me, your camper will stay in a cabin of the gender specified when you registered for camp. 

A few questions you might have:

- I’m not familiar with the term non-binary gender identity or gender expansiveness. What is all this about? According to, gender-expansive is an umbrella term used for individuals that broaden their own culture’s commonly held definitions of gender, including expectations for its expression, identities, roles, and/or other perceived gender norms. Gender-expansive individuals include those with transgender and non-binary identities, as well as those whose gender in some way is seen to be stretching society’s notions of gender.

- My camper is a boy (or a girl) and isn’t questioning their gender identity. Is that still going to be okay? Is this decision going to change their time at camp? Unless you specifically ask for your camper to be in this cabin, he or she will stay in the cabin you specified when you signed up for camp. We are offering this option to our campers who opt in. We work to make sure that all campers going home from Friends Camp have had an affirming experience, including your camper who loves being a boy or being a girl!

- Is this definitely happening? It is subject to interest. We would love to have enough interested campers to make this a reality, but we are not 100% sure it will happen this summer. If we don’t have enough campers enroll to fill a cabin, I will be in touch with interested families to make a plan.

- Why this session? Why now? For a while, we have hoped to be able to offer this option at Friends Camp. Our Camp Committee felt this year’s Fell Session was the right time to give it a try, since we have some wonderful staff members excited about helping out and we have had some families specifically request this option.

- How will my camper maintain their privacy in this cabin? Our cabins are all one room, without a changing room or bathroom. We will provide a changing screen in this cabin, to increase camper comfort. Campers are always welcome to change in the private bathrooms at camp, as well. (We hope to have these in all cabins someday!) Consent and appropriate boundaries are taught and required everywhere at camp.

- What if my camper says they want to be in the gender-inclusive cabin once they arrive at camp? While we recognize that teenage identities are often in flux and may change, we aren’t able to change a camper’s cabin assignment once they are at Friends Camp. If your child is interested in this option (and you are, as well), we need to hear by July 15th. Of course, it is up to you as a parent/ guardian which cabin assignment is right for your camper.

- My child is interested in this cabin option, but I don’t want their experience at camp to be ALL about gender. This cabin will simply be a “home base” at camp, and all campers will participate in the normal program at camp. We hope this space will allow them a chance to have some conversations about gender if they want to, but more importantly to just be themselves and enjoy the regular parts of the camp experience. 

It has always been and still is okay to be yourself at Friends Camp, whether or not we end up having a gender-inclusive cabin at camp this summer. As always, I am happy to speak with parents about any concerns related to this issue. You can reach me at (207) 445-2361 or

Anna Hopkins
Camp Director

Anna Hopkins is the newest facilitator for The Summer Camp Society Semester.


Anna Hopkins
Friends Camp
Facilitator The Summer Camp Society

10 Things You Need to Know Your First Summer as a Camp Leader

By Sarah Kurtz McKinnon

Ten years ago(!) I became an assistant director at our camp, moving out of the cabin and into the "lodge," which at our camp means I was officially on admin and no longer with campers of my own. Although it was thrilling to start to plan and run parts of camp, many parts of the transition were a huge surprise to me.

So, at the end of the summer, I wrote a letter to the next person in my position. In it, I explained the top ten things that you need to know when moving out of a cabin and into the lodge. I recently came across this wise guide, so I've adapted it here for all of you camp leaders who are transitioning to the next level of camp leadership in the upcoming weeks.

10. Staff members will expect you to know everything. 

But don't worry! You will soon gather a second sense for camp policy, procedure and where things are located (Oh, the purple rope with pink stitching?  Bottom shelf in utility room).

9. Staff members will ask you for permission to do things... use excessive tinfoil for a costume, go pick up a prescription, etc. It is mostly in your power to give them the go-ahead or not. That’s OK…get used to it!  And, you don’t always have to say yes.

8. In the beginning, you will feel like you are always asking your supervisor 1 million questions.

You probably are…but you’ll figure it all out soon enough. Asking is part of learning. It's also good role modeling--you want your staff to ask you when they have questions, too!

7. You do not have traditional "rest time."

During normal camp “down time,” counselors tend to come to you with questions or problems and you will be dealing with camper/programming issues.  “Rest” hour is no longer that restful, and neither is regular time off. Make sure you take personal time when you have the chance, even if it is during an unconventional hour of the day.

6. You see the worst things about camp. 

You will soon learn about/witness/be involved with the aftermath of every disaster or mishap or near-crisis.  Try not to get a skewed perspective…most of the time, and probably all of the time, camp is going pretty well. When you look around, don’t forget to look for the positive.

5. You will be privy to a lot of special/private information. 

Sometimes, you just have to know this stuff so you can do your job! The key to confidentiality is only sharing information with people who can help. Don't get pressured into sharing private information, no matter how persuasive the gossipers are. Oh! And document everything!

4. Your relationships with staff members will change.

Your camp friendships are now a bit different. You have to work hard at maintaining those relationships and building non-work connections with staff members.  You’re still a camp leader, on camp and off. It’s a privilege but it comes with extra pressure. No matter how approachable you are, you're still a little "scary" to many staff. Your words carry extra weight, so be careful with sarcasm.

3. It’s easy to get stuck inside all day. 

You have to make an effort to get out of the office and around camp.  Make sure you are out there! If you are working on a project like paperwork, put it on a clipboard and do it outside where you can see and be seen. Wear a pedometer so you can track your daily steps. Make getting out and about one of your priorities!

2. You don’t have a cabin of kids anymore

You have to work at making sure you still have kid time so you don’t get sad or go crazy. Become a character during evening activity; make rounds at lights-out to say goodnight to cabins; jump in the lake at free swim. This keeps you motivated and is excellent role modeling for your staff team.

1. you don’t have your own campers…but the counselors become your “kids.” 

It’s like you have a cabin of 50 college students (Awesome!? But crazy!).  One of your biggest priorities is to be there for the counselors and to make sure they are supported, positive, and fulfilled with their work. If you’re able to do this, they can give the kids the best experience possible—which is the ultimate goal.

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Sarah Kurtz McKinnon (left) is a camp director, consultant and trainer. She's also one of the co-founders and co-facilitators of The Summer Camp Society! Reach her at

10 Ways to Build a Foundation of Mutual Respect During Staff Training

10 Ways to Build a Foundation of Mutual Respect During Staff Training

The camp counselor said, “We respect our director because we know she respects us.”

That’s the goal, isn’t it? Respecting our staff might not be hard to do. But where camp leaders often stumble is figuring out how to get their staff to recognize that they are respected.

Jack and I believe that this process starts well before the campers arrive.

Getting Diagnosed with a Chronic Illness Made Me a Better Camp Director

By Katrina Dearden

Director, Rock Hill Camp

Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson

During my second summer as a Camp Director, I began to notice some unexplained joint pain.  It progressed throughout the summer until it got to the point where I found myself cradling my arm in tears outside the dining hall trying to open the door.  By the time I got a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis the following February, I was in so much pain that reaching across my body to shut off the alarm in the morning was unbearable. Too many mornings the alarm would snooze itself, not because I slept through it but because it took me that long to make my body roll over (and I won’t even get into the act of actually sitting up).  

It’s hard to learn that you are sick with a chronic illness; unlike every other time you have been sick or injured in life, this time there is no amount of medication or surgery or recovery time to get you back to normal.  There is no cure. You have to learn that you have a new normal. They tell you to mourn the loss of your health as you would a loved one. So I began my healing journey.

Through medications and adapting a version of the paleo diet and lifestyle, I have gained back so much of my life.  I will never be fully back to who I was pre-diagnosis, but I am pretty close. In some ways I think I am even better than before.  I’m certainly a better Camp Director. I’m sharing some of what I learned on this journey with you so that you too can reap the benefits without the physical pain.  

Stress management:

I now feel stress so much sooner than before, because now I feel it in my bones (specifically my right elbow always gives the first warning, thanks friend!).  When you feel stress sooner you can react sooner. The motivation to remain calm is much stronger when you know that if you don’t, there’s a good chance a pain flare will be set off that can last for days.  

I was always a very stressed-out person. I wanted everything to go perfectly, but now I am much better about choosing my battles and deciding what is worth it to worrying about (hint: it’s not much).  I have learned more methods to reduce anxiety and I make sure to spend more time outside. There will always be work to get done in the office. But it turns out the longer you are in the office, the more work appears.  You can leave, I promise. What needs to get done will get done. Since I am now a calmer person, staff are more likely to come to me with questions so we can figure out how to handle a situation before it becomes a problem.  When you seem stressed, staff don’t want to come up and “bother you” with their questions, no matter how many times you have told them they should. The problem they had questions about ends up escalating until it becomes a bigger issue to deal with.  So take a breath, step outside, and play a game with the campers. Remember why you chose this job to begin with. Let the call go to voicemail. You will answer it eventually, and you will be in a better frame of mind when you do.

Prioritizing health:

On a plane, they tell you if the oxygen masks drop down to fix your own first before you can help anyone else.  I always knew this analogy, but I didn’t really understand it until I lived it. I know that if I go into flare I won’t be able to help anybody, and I truly love my job at camp.  In order to keep my body healthy enough to continue in this line of work, I had to prioritize my health. No more saying “I’ll sleep in September,” because now if I don’t get enough sleep, my joints deteriorate at a more rapid pace, and once that happens it happens, it can’t be reversed.  

I set a strict schedule to leave the office by a reasonable time at night to go to bed (except, of course, if an emergency comes up).  At first, this was difficult for me. I felt like I needed to be the last one to leave at night and the first one in every morning. But once I communicated my plan and started to leave at night, the rest of the office started to go to bed at a more reasonable time as well.  Turns out they felt like because I was still working, they should be too! Which comes back to my point from before: as long as you are working, work will come up. So you can’t stay until the work is done because it never is. The important stuff already got done. How do I know?  Because that stuff you handled right as it came up. That’s how camp works. So go to bed; your body will thank you and you’ll have a clearer head to jump into the work with tomorrow.

I also make sure I eat a healthy diet.  I cleared away all the unhealthy snacks that we all reach for at camp, and I replaced them with grapes, carrot sticks, and other healthy options.  If it’s in reach, that’s what you are going to eat. Nutrition is something that truly slowed down the progression of my disease, gave me my energy back, and made me feel almost back to normal.  But that’s a whole separate post on its own (drink your bone broth kids!).

Asking for help:

As Camp Directors, sometimes we get caught up thinking we have to have all the answers all the time.  “Don’t let them see you sweat.” I no longer have that luxury.

My first summer living with my illness I tried to hide it.  I only told the leadership team and even then, I didn’t tell them much.  I was afraid they would think I couldn’t do my job. As you can imagine, this didn’t go well.  

For the first time in my life there were parts of my job that I could not physically do at times (I was very much still figuring out meds and I hadn’t truly embraced the nutrition as much as I should have). As much as I thought I was hiding what was going on, everyone could read the pain on my face, making it more of an issue than it was.

Flash forward to my second summer post-diagnosis.  This time I fit my personal story into staff training.  I made a whole session on using weaknesses as strengths.  I got personal. I cried (I didn’t mean to). I wrote what I felt were my limitations down on an index card and threw it into the fire.  I invited the staff to do the same. We shared our stories. I learned some things about some of the staff I had worked with for years and had no idea what they struggled with.  Because we shared, the whole staff felt more connected as a community. We talked about why it’s important to ask for help and why this was something we wanted to model for our campers, and that summer went so much better.  Now on the mornings when I was walking a little funny, staff knew why and would just quietly take whatever I was carrying from my hands so I didn’t have to struggle down the hill. Or they would hold a line a little longer so I could catch up without campers recognizing that anything was different.  We all did little things for everyone else on the team as well to help with their battle that otherwise we wouldn’t have known they were fighting. We developed a new level of understanding that made camp better for the whole community which absolutely left a positive impact on our campers. I plan to do the same exercise again this year, and you should, too.

Empathizing with camper parents:

This one is just pure bonus.  I always had an answer for every parent concern and I thought I was great at explaining our procedures to parents, specifically for food allergies or dietary concerns, and for medication passes. Now that I have lived that lifestyle I have such a deeper understanding of the questions.  Not that my answers before weren’t correct, they were. I still describe the same processes, but now parents can hear it in my voice that I truly understand it. Empathy is just deeper than sympathy. I can honestly tell them I too have dietary concerns and the kitchen accommodates me, so I know they can accommodate your camper.  I can lean into the kid and tell them that we can be buddies walking up to the kitchen door for special plates. I can hear relief in the parents’ voices that I never got before. I’ve even had multiple families sign up for camp specifically because of these conversations that I wouldn’t have gotten to sign up before. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is one you can learn from me without experiencing it yourself.  Guess I just get to keep it as my personal win.

So breathe deep, get some sleep, eat good food and ask for help.  Your camp will thank you.

-The Chronic Camp Director

Katrina Dearden is the director of Rock Hill Camp in Mahopac, New York, which is part of Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson. She completed the first semester of The Summer Camp Society in the Fall of 2017 and is currently part of our second semester cohort. Contact her at

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DARLING Framework for Staff Training - James Davis

A few years ago I worked with James Davis to put together a simple framework for helping staff make effective choices in unstructured or transition times. Ok, James made up all the important stuff, but I edited the video and helped set up the studio. We all have our roles to play. The vidoes disappeared into the internet abscess for a while, but now we have rescued them!

Introducing the DARLING framework

D - dangerous
A - alone
R - rough play
L - listless (bored)
I - intense competition
N - needs help
G - grow connection

James put together some simple videos below that you can use with your staff to help them see these situations more effectively. 

The D.A.R.L.I.N.G Framework - Intro

The D.A.R.L.I.N.G Framework #2 - Dangerous

The D.A.R.L.I.N.G Framework #3 - arling

The D.A.R.L.I.N.G Framework #4 - Address The Group

James is now the owner at Longacre Leadership Camp outside of Harrisburg PA, a board member at Camp Stomping Ground, and podcast host with his wife, Taylor, of One Free Family. I hope this helps and I hope you have a great summer!

Want more tips for great seasonal leadership?

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