Promotional materials for most day- and resident camps tout a sense of community and increased self-reliance as outcomes. Naturally, the materials highlight the camp’s facilities and activities, but few mention work duties, such as sweeping floors, folding clothes, cleaning restrooms, raking leaves, or collecting firewood.
This seems odd, considering that when organized camping began to flourish in the late 1800s and early 1900s, progressive educators emphasized the importance of rugged experiences that young people themselves helped to create. So adamant were some founders about having campers create their own challenging experiences that directors debated whether camps should hire cooks vs. having children cook for themselves. These days, only tripping camps typically allow campers to help with meal preparation.
Although board of health regulations may prevent campers from spending time in cafeterias and kitchens, the value of helping is as strong as ever. Unfortunately, as day- and resident camping evolved into an experience created for young people–rather than by young people–the practice of daily camp duties slowly vanished. Today, few camps have incorporated this essential tradition, a trend which may mirror broader cultural shifts in child and adolescent development.
An Early Start
Economic and educational forces have pushed traditional Western markers of adulthood, such as having a job, children or a place of one’s own, from late teens or early 20s to late 20s or even early 30s. Today, more than ever before, American college graduates–about 75 percent–return home to live with their parents. Parents keep these adult children on their family health plan while the children pursue graduate degrees, save for a home, or explore career options. And while this slow maturation may be a boon for society, it doesn’t ensure that beds are made, lawns mowed, or dishes washed … or even brought to the sink.
Of course, some abodes of stay-at-home college grads would pass inspection. Clothes are folded, bathrooms are cleaned, and belongings are neatly arranged. I’m guessing that most of the young men and women who inhabit these spaces have one thing in common: They went to exceptional camps that thoughtfully wove duties into the daily schedule. Quite simply, they learned how to contribute to the community by performing small acts of unbargaining service each day.
Some camp directors balk at the notion of adding these duties to a program because they imagine campers protesting, “I didn’t come to camp to work” or “I’m not a servant” or “It’s no fun.” Truth is, when camp duties are an expected part of the daily schedule, much work gets done, and few campers protest because it is … drum roll … fun. Moreover, there are huge developmental and organizational benefits to camp duties. To ensure that your camp and campers reap these rewards, it’s important to follow these seven guidelines:
1. Schedule the work early. Camp duties are best completed when energy and enthusiasm are high–early in the day. Although some duties–straightening cabins or refilling paper products in bathrooms–need to be done (or done again) midday, most of these duties are best performed after breakfast or between the first and second activity periods. At resident camps, this should include personal wash-up and, of course, cleaning the shared living quarters.
2. Keep it brief. After cleaning shared space, 20 or 30 minutes is enough time to do a meaningful amount of high-quality work elsewhere around camp. When campers work in short bursts, they are more likely to keep a positive attitude and participate fully.
3. Eliminate competition. Avoid scheduling any other activities during camp-duty time. The last thing the campers completing a chore need to see is another group of campers playing on the other side of the field or relaxing in the shade. When everyone is working together, at the same time, a motivating spirit of camaraderie quickly blossoms.
4. Make the work age-appropriate. The maintenance crew will handle the power tools and tasks that require special skills. Your campers can handle just about everything else, but be sure the duties are matched for their physical strength and developmental level.
5. Ensure full camper participation. Schedule all other camper business–such as routine visits to the health center–at times other than camp-duty time. That way, no campers become jealous that a few peers have an easy out.
6. Ensure full staff participation. A common camp-duty pitfall is for counselors or cabin leaders to stand on the sidelines barking orders or leading from afar. To encourage full camper participation, staff members should set a good example by scrubbing, sweeping, and doing everything they’ve asked the campers to do. The most skilled staff members turn their duty into a game by adding songs, jokes and contests. In creative hands, the most mundane (or even semi-disgusting) tasks become intriguing, silly challenges that campers are eager to tackle alongside their hardworking leaders.
7. Provide variety. Rotating tasks every two days helps campers stay interested, but they still learn how each job is done well, whether it’s sawing limbs for kindling, cleaning sinks, or returning lost-and-found. When different staff members stay with the same camp duty all summer, the group rotation also ensures that each staff member can interact with different children over the course of a single session.
Reap The Benefits
It takes a two-person maintenance crew nearly eight days working full-time to accomplish what 225 campers and 25 employees can do in a single 30-minute camp-duty session. And, if the duties are a daily part of a camp’s eight-week summer, 7,000 person-hours are accumulated, the equivalent of three-and-a-half people working full-time for a year. Wow! Bottom line–daily camp duties can help a camp sparkle, and free the maintenance staff to tend to more difficult, dangerous or complex tasks.
But wait! There’s more! When campers participate in daily camp duties, they acquire a sense of pride in the physical plant. That translates to fewer instances of annoying vandalism or troublesome neglect, such as graffiti, clogged toilets and empty soap containers. When young people are involved in the routine upkeep of the facilities they use, they have a vested interest in keeping the places in tip-top shape. More than once I’ve heard campers say to each other, “Hey, don’t mess that up. It’s my camp duty”” or “When you’re done with that gear, please put it back so we have less work for camp duties tomorrow.” Slowly, but in tangible ways, campers feel ownership of camp, and begin to care for equipment and facilities as if they themselves had paid for them.
My mother loved to tell the story of how, for a decade, she had tried unsuccessfully to get me to make my bed each morning. But then, after two weeks at camp, I was not only making my bed, but also setting the table and taking out the garbage once in a while. Somehow, despite my parents’ valiant home-based efforts, it took camp to convince me to take initiative and contribute to the group. Ultimately, this type of self-reliance and community allegiance are why camp duties are so important. Perhaps somewhere in your promotional materials there’s room to share why you’ve included camp duties in the daily schedule. Even more important, there’s room in your campers’ development for added maturity and responsibility.
Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at SummerCampHandbook.com. He is the co-creator of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.