Now is the time for parents to start researching camps for their kids, but it’s also the time of year when students have to start thinking about a summer job. Being a camp counselor is a popular one — after all, how many other jobs do you know of that will pay someone to play with kids?
Being a camp counselor is a great job, but it’s important for your child to understand that this likely won’t be a highly lucrative job in terms of pay. Flipping burgers over a grill in the summer may make a teen more money, but being a camp counselor, especially one at a residential camp, will provide skills and experience that they could never gain by supersizing someone’s order.
As someone who has worked as a counselor and program director, I’ve hired and trained staff for both day camp 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 — and that’s okay. Although experience is great, most camps hire counselors based on their references and personality.
If your child is hired, they will most likely have to attend pre-camp training, where they will find out if they’re are cut out to be a good counselor. They’ll not only learn the rules of the camp but ideally, how to work with the kids. I’ve seen people hired as counselors be reassigned to work in the kitchen and kitchen staff become counselors.
With that in mind, the following is a list of the top 10 skills needed to be a good camp counselor; share them with your child if they have shown interest in applying for the job.
1. You must like kids
This seems like a no-brainer but there is a difference between tolerating and liking kids and if you can’t stand to be around them, then there’s no point in being a camp counselor.
There will be times when you won’t enjoy being with them or enjoy being around one particular kid for any number of reasons, but to be a good counselor, you have to truly like them.
2. Be a good role model
Like it or not, as a camp counselor 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, then they won’t, either. If you use rude language or make indecent jokes or remarks, the kids will think that it’s okay and do the same.
On the other hand, if you are enthusiastic, polite and cooperative, they will be, too. A counselor sets the tone for the group, so be conscious of what you say and do.
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 control without making them feel that they are in the Army. It’s a skill that takes a little time to develop, but once you have it, it will stay with you for life.
The most effective leaders are the ones who can lead without their kids feeling that they are being led. Your job is to motivate them and to keep things moving since you’ll have a schedule to keep, but you have to do it without barking orders. If you gain their confidence and respect, they’ll follow you anywhere.
4. Have patience
If you don’t have patience, then 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 well with each 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. Patience is not just a virtue; it will help keep you from doing something you shouldn’t.
5. Communication skills
Being able to communicate with the kids is extremely important if your group is to have fun. You’ll need to be able to communicate with them as a whole and to each individual kid.
Not every kid will be familiar with the routine, so don’t assume that they’ll catch on. Calmly and clearly explain any rules, as well as the dos and don’ts, to all the kids so that you’ll lessen the chances of hearing “I didn’t know.” Use simple terms and explain to them that they can talk to you if they don’t quite understand.
There may be times when you need to talk to a child privately — that should be done away from the others. You may need to discuss their behavior or even something more personal, such as their hygiene or bed wetting. When you do speak with them (and not to them), you need to reassure them that there are solutions to the problem and you want to help them. Do not discuss personal matters in front of the other campers.
You also should try to physically be at eye level when you talk to them. If it’s a problem you feel you can’t handle, contact your supervisor.
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 rising every morning, you will have problems and you’ll have to deal with them.
Ideally, you will be able to find a solution that makes both sides happy. There may be times when you may have to remove a kid altogether, especially if there is violence or the threat of violence. Whatever the situation, don’t let it go on without doing something about it. If you don’t, it could escalate into something bigger. If it’s a serious problem, have your supervisor help you.
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.
With most programs, the same schedule and events will take place every session and as much as you may be tired of doing the same thing, the kids coming to your camp haven’t tried them yet, so you need to be just as excited as you were at the beginning of the summer.
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 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 child should have the same chance to do the same things regardless of their abilities. A good counselor gets everyone involved and everyone a chance.
You may not like a camper, but you must respect them.
The kids are not your buddies 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 despite their physical appearance, physical and mental abilities, or their possessions.
Chances are that you have no idea where the kids come from, their history, their home life and any problems they may have. Kids don’t come to camp to be bullied; they come to have fun. Avoid sarcastic remarks or ridicule, even if you think it’s all in fun.
10. Low maintenance
Day camp counselors usually work a nine to five 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. Based on my years at summer camp, here are a few examples:
- Hot showers: You’ll need to get up very, very early if you want a shower and good luck having any hot water. This is camp and not the Holiday Inn.
- Food: Overall, camp food is pretty good but I will admit, sometimes it tastes like rations from World War II. By law, it must be a healthy and balanced meal, but there’s nothing in the regulations about taste. If you like your eggs poached, you’ll have to settle for scrambled. Remember, it’s not a restaurant.
- Rest and breaks: All residential camp programs have time for staff to rest and relax, but keep in mind that nothing is carved in stone. If you’re dealing with a camper or there’s an emergency, you can’t just go off and take your break at the scheduled time. You really are on 24/7.
- Clothing: Your clothes will take an incredible beating at camp. They’ll get wet, filled with sand, dirty, torn and may even go missing. If you have nice clothes, leave them at home and as for shoes, you’ll want to burn them at the end of the summer. Trust me.
There are many more skills that make for a good counselor, but these are the top ones that I looked for in hiring and evaluating staff. Not everyone is cut out to be a camp counselor, but if you are okay with sand in your underwear, wet shoes, bad food, and kids screaming, you will have fun and make memories that will last a lifetime.
Brian Presley is a former camper, counselor, program director and 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 camp and as a stay-at-home dad.
Find more great summer camp information at our Northeast Ohio Summer Camp Resource Page!