Building A Camp That Builds Friendships

Comfortable Benches Promote Talking & Sharing

We spend way too much time keeping campers busy in activities. Not that having new stuff every year isn’t valuable, or making camp “fun” isn’t a worthy goal. But, by themselves neither will bring your campers back. “Fun,” as it turns out, is a commodity like milk. Kids can get it from a lot of different places and one “fun” can be pretty much like another.

“Blasphemy!” you say. “Our evaluation forms all say kids love the fun at our camp!” Yes, and they love the fun at other camps, too. And they love playing X-Box and hanging out at the mall. Ask the campers who returned for a second year or more and you’ll get just one answer: “I came back for the friends.” Yet when I tour camps, and ask them what they do to specifically help kids make friends, I find out why the average camper return rate is so low. We think it happens automatically.

That was pretty much true for decades. But in our effort to be safer at camps, our risk-managers have eliminated many of the times and places where kids and counselors use to make friends. We’ve taken out a lot of the “down time” where they use to sit and talk with each other. We prevent kids and staff from being alone together. We fill the days with activities so kids can’t “get into trouble.” These are all worthy goals and I’m as glad as any parent that camps are safer. But as camp professionals, we should be smart enough to figure out how to do both.

Encouraging Friend Making

Here’s an example. Most camps have either a high or low ropes course, or both. We give groups of kids fun, even thrilling experiences there. But if you ask the best ropes course instructors where the most important learning takes place, they’ll tell you it’s in the “debriefing” after each initiative. But watch your own staff in action and you’ll often find they cut that part short or skip it all together to get on to the next event.

Marc Gravitz, a renowned facilitator visited my course and said, “If a challenge course activity has been successful, the debriefing time may last twice as long as the event itself. But looking at your course, how would I know that was the goal?”

Ahh, A Place In The Shade

We had no specific places for the debriefing to take place. Taking Marc’s advice, we added circles of benches near each challenge-course activity. The participants were eager to have a place to sit and the circle automatically kept everyone involved. As a result, our instructors could sense when the discussion in the group was more important than going on to the next challenge. Overnight people began to treat each other differently. When they got back to the dining hall they couldn’t stop talking. They’d learned about each other, and they were becoming friends.

Change the Direction

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  2. Building for the Future
  3. Conceptual Steps
  4. Reevaluating the Camp, Part 2
  5. Incremental Improvement, Part 2
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