Preparing for Summer Camp: Modeling Community at Summer Camp

by Eve Smallwood
CincyNature Camp Director
Cincinnati Nature Center — Cincinnati, OH


Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Directions, the ANCA newsletter. Members can access the full issue via the member portal.


At the end of last summer’s day camp season at Cincinnati Nature Center, I looked around contentedly at our end-of-camp celebration. Counselors from our four different camp locations and many teen Leaders-in-Training (LITs) were engaged in activities together all around me; some played amped up versions of our camp games, others ate s’mores and played guitars around a campfire, and a small crew of people headed to the creek to search for water snakes and crayfish. Still others talked in small groups, sharing favorite stories of their campers and the natural world they explored over the last three months. The sights and sounds of a unified team of camp staff and volunteers who were celebrating a successful summer of inspiring our campers’ passion for nature filled me with a sense of happiness and accomplishment. This celebration marked more than simply one successful summer; it was a large step forward in a plan we implemented to build community with camp staff and LITs, and to increase consistency of quality and procedures within our camp program.

Only a few years ago, the end of our camp season looked quite different. Sure, our counselors and LITs celebrated, but in small groups at their respective camp locations. The counselors from our Long Branch Farm & Trails site never really met the counselors from our Fernwood Shelter site, and most of the rest of our camp leaders were contract employees that ran a few camps each summer on themes about which they were very passionate. Each camp location was operated by a different camp director with their own plan for staff training and operations. While this system worked fine and provided wonderful experiences for our campers, we saw an opportunity to do better.

Camp programs provide aninclusive community for our campers with a network of social support. Within the context of providing positive, hands-on experiences in nature that develop and strengthen campers’ authentic connections with the natural world, we also help campers learn skills for life – skills that can help them become active, contributing members of their communities and champions of the environment – such as interpersonal skills, self-confidence, and creative problem solving. Camp staff and LITs are role models for the campers; they celebrate the exploration and wonderment of the natural world, which helps campers feel encouraged and supported to do the same. This social support system and mentorship in nature is an important part of many youth’s paths to becoming future conservationists.


Counselors Learning How to Hold a Frog
Counselors learning how to hold a frog


At our camps, we realized we were providing this important aspect for our campers, but were not doing enough to do the same for our counselors and LITs. By running our camps separately, we were missing an opportunity to create a larger social network and support system with our camp staff and volunteers. Changing our model might help us bring staff together into a larger community full of passion, creativity, and team support. A new model could ensure camp staff were getting consistent training and messaging, while still embracing the unique gifts each different camp location had to offer. Camp families could expect dependable quality, regardless of the staff leading their camper’s session. We hoped changes could also bring about an improved registration experience and more efficient management of processes like scheduling, hiring, planning time, and purchasing of materials. Communication could improve, systems could be more effective, and staff time (including mine!) could be used to focus on other improvements once these changes were operational.

We developed a three year implementation plan that combined what we were already doing well (this information came primarily from program evaluation and through the lens of best practices) with our vision for the future. We decided to combine the oversight of our different camps under one camp director, who would work with key staff on the camp big picture and preparing for camp – from creating the content for the camp brochure to determining registration processes to hiring staff. While we were sad to lose some of our passionate contract camp leaders who could not commit to a whole summer, we replaced the contract camps with a larger group of counselors who work together at our Rowe Visitor Center site for the whole summer. This new system was challenging at times – some people disagreed with the plan, and there was a big learning curve for me. In the end, our dedicated belief in the end goal kept us on track, and our camp program is now the better for it.

Last year, for the first time, we brought our camp staff together to one location for our first few days of training. Long Branch Farm & Trails counselors got to know Fernwood Shelter and Rowe Visitor Center counselors as they learned together about camp safety procedures, group management techniques, fun camp games, and interpreting the natural world. Then throughout the summer we held community-building opportunities outside of camp for counselors from all of our sites – and we invited the LITs, too! Counselors from different sites planned their own get-togethers, from trail running after work to weekend camping trips.


Counselors and LITs at Closing Campfire 2017Counselors and LITs at Closing Campfire 2017


Staff who have worked at our camp program since before the changes have remarked how much better they like the new, inclusive camp model. They tell me it is easier to communicate and generate ideas with other counselors, they feel like everyone has gotten the same training and are applying consistent approaches for things like camper safety and group management, and it is fun to get to know and spend time with other nature-loving counselors from our other sites, who before they may have only gotten to hear about from campers who go to multiple sites each summer. They also feel they know the LITs better since they have become more involved in our community building activities. From a camp director perspective, I love this model – it helps me work more efficiently, feel confident in the quality of our camp program, provide better customer service from registration processes to camp implementation, and empower staff and LITs to come up and implement their own ideas to improve our camps!

At the end of February, I met with our camp leadership team to dig into planning for this summer. We excitedly discussed ways to build up our staff and LIT supportive network even more – starting with incorporating our teen LIT training with our camp staff training, so we can start growing this community from the very beginning.

By strengthening the community and relationships within our camp staff and volunteers, we ultimately provide a better experience for our campers and increase opportunities for everyone – staff, campers, and LITs – to feel supported by a network of nature-lovers, which we hope may ultimately help even more people to be active in caring for the environment in the future.