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...

...like 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 kurtz@thesummercampsociety.com.