Now is the time for parents to start researching camps for their kids, and there are a lot of summer camps in Calgary to choose from. It’s also the time of year when students have to start thinking about a summer job, and being a camp counselor is a popular choice. Being a camp counselor is a great job - as long as you are not too keen on making a lot of money. Of the vast majority of camp counselors I know, none have ever said they did it for the money. However, being a camp counselor, especially at a residential camp, will give you a wide variety of unique skills and experience.
As someone who has worked as a camp counselor and a camp program director, I’ve hired and trained staff for both day camps and residential camps, and I’ve seen a lot of young adults apply for jobs. Some have had experience as a camper, but other than babysitting, most have never worked at a camp or even with kids. That’s okay. Although prior experience working with kids is great, most camps hire counselors based on their references and personality.
If you are hired, you will most likely have to attend pre-camp training where you will find out if you are cut out to be a good camp counselor. You’ll not only learn the rules of the camp but, ideally, how to work with the kids. I’ve seen people hired as counselors reassigned to work in the kitchen, and kitchen staff reassigned to be counselors.
The following is a list of the top 10 skills that you need to be a good camp counselor:
1. You must like kids. This seems like a no-brainer, but there is a difference between tolerating and liking kids. If you can’t stand to be around them, there’s no point in being a camp counselor.
2. Be a good role model. Like it or not, you will be a role model to the kids. Younger kids always look up to the older ones so if you act out of line, they will, too. If you don’t care, they won’t either. If you use rude language or make indecent jokes or remarks, the kids will think that it’s okay and will do the same.
3. Leadership. You are responsible for the safety and well-being of these kids, and you are responsible for them having a good time so you must have and maintain control, without making them feel like they are in the army. It’s a skill that takes time to develop but once you have it, this skill will stay with you for life. The most effective leaders are the ones who can lead without their kids feeling like they are being led.
4. Have patience. If you don’t have a lot of patience, find another job. You may have a group of kids that will be cooperative, enthusiastic, and great to be around, but then you’ll have a group where each one wants to do something different or they just don’t get along with one other. Keep in mind that not every kid moves at the same speed and not every kid catches on to what you’re doing or saying right away.
5. Communication skills. Being able to effectively communicate with the kids is extremely important if your group is to have a fun time together. You’ll need to be able to effectively communicate with them as a whole and to each individual kid. Not every kid will be familiar with the routine at camp, so don’t assume that they’ll catch on right away. Calmly explain any rules to the kids; use simple terms and explain to them that they can talk to you and ask you questions if they don’t quite understand something.
There may be times when you need to talk to a child privately; speak to them away from the others. Do not discuss personal matters with the child in front of the other campers.
6. Problem-solving. If you think there won’t be any problems, think again. You’ll experience everything from “he’s sitting too close to me” to “she keeps hitting me when you’re not looking.” Just like the sun rises every morning, you will have problems and you’ll have to deal with them. Whatever the situation, don’t let it go on without doing something about it. If you don’t, it could escalate. If it’s a serious problem, have your supervisor help you.
7. Stamina. A day camp program makes for a long day. A residential camp program makes for a really, really long day and you need to keep up your enthusiasm and energy at a high level until the end of that long day. When you have a full week of long days, you’ll most likely realize how much work being a counselor is, but keep in mind that you’ll have to do it again the following week so you’ll need to show the same enthusiasm on the following Monday as you did at the beginning of the program.
8. Be fair. When you have a handful of kids, it’s easy to pick your favorites. They are usually the most enthusiastic and cooperative. You need to treat all of your campers as your favorites, even if a lot of them aren’t. Every kid deserves to be treated fairly and with respect, and every kid should have the same chances regardless of their abilities.
9. Respect. You may like a kid, but you may not respect them. As a camp counselor, that’s extremely important. The kids are not your friends back home where you can make fun of them, call them rude names, or get rough with them. These are children and they need to be treated with respect regardless of their physical appearance, abilities, and possessions. Avoid sarcastic remarks or ridicule, even if you think it’s all in fun.
10. Low maintenance. Day camp counselors usually work a 9 to 5 schedule, but residential camp counselors work from morning until after nightfall and you’ll have to be prepared to go without some of the comforts you may enjoy at home.
Not everyone is cut out to be a camp counselor, but if you are okay with sand in your underwear, wet shoes, bad food, kids screaming (and all for a small paycheque), you will have an incredible amount of fun and make memories that will last a lifetime.
Brian is a former camper, counselor and program director, as well as a former youth worker. He is the President of What To Do With The Kids®, a website influenced by his time working with kids, in both day camps and summer camps, and as a stay-at-home dad. Visit whattodowiththekids.com to find out what you can do with your kids.
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