The Beauties Of Camp Duties

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.

Give campers responsibility -- and watch them grow!

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.

Helpful Hints

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.

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