KOOL Staff Orientation

By Ruth Arnold and Ann Marie Gallo

Quick Reference… Some great ideas explained in this article:


• Create staff orientation classes called Camp Counseling 101 and 202

• Focus on what you absolutely want staff to know by the end of the session

• Plan a What If? session to introduce staff to a number of contingencies

• Role play for great practice

K = Knowledge –- You need to know what your staff must know and be able to do by the end of orientation and before the campers arrive.

O = Organization –- Organization is your program. Make efficient use of time and talents that you and your staff bring to camp.

O = Organization –- You can never be too organized. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!"

L = Leadership -– How you lead can be as important as what you teach. Be a good model for your staff, open to ideas, positive and accessible!

The alarm is ringing. It's six in the morning and the first day of a week-long camp staff orientation for a month-long overnight camp. That was 1968. It's now 2003. What have we learned in the last 35 years about preparing staff for a successful camp experience?

Have things changed that much from 1968, or have some things remained the same? Yes and yes! Whether 1968 or 2003, you must be knowledgeable, organized and a leader for your staff.

We will look at general issues concerning staff orientations and give insight into some specifics about day camps and overnight camps. A checklist for staff orientations is also included.

First, and most important, organization and planning are keys to a successful and fun staff orientation and camp season. What is your camp's mission or focus? You and your staff should know and understand what your camp is all about.

Planning, rules and regulations and program activities should focus around your mission. Whether it's learning sports skills, religious ideals, or having fun, your mission will guide your planning and programming.

Second, your staff must be knowledgeable about daily schedules, rules and routines, program content, communication skills and safety issues. What do you do in case of emergencies? What is the daily schedule? What are the important rules and regulations that provide a safe and fun environment for campers and staff?

Don't forget, rules, regulations and schedules should be developed by all involved, providing ownership by staff and campers. You can't plan for everything, but, an "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"! Organization is your program.

As a teacher of teachers, you must be a leader and model for your staff. Would you be willing to do the things you are asking your staff members to do? Prepare yourself before you prepare your staff.

What are the latest regulations and recommendations from the governing body your camp takes its cues from? What are the local regulations? The better prepared you are, the better prepared your staff will be. How can you make staff orientation useful, yet fun and exciting?

Also remember, once camp starts training staff does not end. You must continue open communication, information sharing meetings and a visible positive and open leadership.

These general guidelines provide for a very KOOL (Knowledge, Organization, Organization, Leadership) staff orientation and camp season.

Specifically, let's take a look at day camps and overnight/resident camps separately and some of the differences or similarities between the two.

Day to Day
Team building among staff is an essential component of the orientation process for day camps. Quick icebreakers, team building games, and communication skills activities early in the orientation schedule keep the counselors moving, talking and learning about one another.

Consider selecting simple activities so that the counselors can introduce the games to their campers on the first day of new sessions.

One realization of the day camp orientation program is that there is never enough time to cover all the information that you would like your staff to know.

Maximizing the time that you have with your staff is the ultimate goal. What does your staff really need to know and be able to do by the end of orientation or before campers arrive?

The camp's philosophy and mission is content that you certainly want your staff to know. Using returning staff (especially staff members who were former campers) to help present the philosophy and mission message is powerful.

Think about following that component with a session related to the heart of your program. For instance, if your day camp's mission involves social development of campers, plan to discuss the social components of your program (like citizenship).

Other skills that counselors must know and be able to perform under a variety of conditions include communicating with campers, parents and other staff members.

Beyond communicating, knowing how to manage behavior of campers and appropriate contact with campers are essential topics. Reviewing your campers' behavior modification plan/guideline ensures consistency among staff members. If the "time-out method" is your camp's preference, then group counselors, specialists and support staff should be trained to handle a "time-out" incident following the same standards.

Several topics must be covered for local department of health guidelines and American Camping Association Accreditation (which requires 24 hours of pre-camp orientation for day-camp counselors).

For example, review the plans for a lost camper or swimmer, a disaster, a fire, or any other contingency. Equally important is reviewing your facility's emergency action and communication plans with special attention to the high-risk areas (pool, waterfront, ropes course).

Emergency skills that everyone on your staff should know and be able to perform include CPR, basic First Aid, and non-swimming rescue attempts.

Some day camp programs require staff to obtain CPR and First Aid before arriving at camp. To ensure, however, that every staff member receives the same standard of care, we have always offered CPR training as part of our orientation program.

When planning your orientation this year, attempt to focus on asking what you want your staff to know and be able to do by the end of your orientation program.

If your camp has a large percentage of returning staff, be certain to change the format and activities to alleviate boredom. Also, invite returning staff and support staff to present information and lead activities.

Consider separating your new staff and returning staff for one or two sessions early in your orientation program so that you can introduce basic content to the new staff and discuss last year's challenges with the returning staff.

Offer Camp Counseling 101 for new staff and Camp Counseling 202 for returning staff. It is very advantageous. Sessions can have a list of topics to cover and be led by a director and a senior staff member. New counselors are comfortable asking basic questions, while the returning staff has the opportunity to discuss practical challenges and brainstorm new solutions/ideas.

Scheduling everything that you want your staff to know and be able to do is impossible. As those of us who have directed camps understand, there are certain skills your staff will learn on the job. Therefore, be selective and creative with your scheduling. Include other directors or senior staff members in the planning and presentation of your orientation schedule.

In addition, staff for overnight camps must deal with campers and each other 24-7. Depending on the age of the campers, staff members need to address issues like bed wetting, home sickness, illness, insomnia and raging hormones, just to mention a few.

A good way to teach staff about dealing with these issues is a What If? session. Using your own experience and ideas from returning staff members, create scenarios about what could happen and ask new staff tell what they would do. This can be an eye opener for new staff but can also give them confidence for dealing with sensitive issues. Role playing can also be a good way to address sensitive issues if you have the time and expertise.

Similar to day camps, but perhaps even more critical, becoming a well-oiled synergistic staff should be a major emphasis for overnight camp staff orientation.

One idea that works is to have staff do things together outside the camp setting. Go out to dinner one night or go to camp field trip sights. It is amazing what you learn about each other while learning about the camp.

Returning staff can again be a big asset in helping all staff learn to work and play together. Another idea is to have the staff live the day of a camper. They will do the cleaning, daily activities, meal schedules and regulations that campers follow.

It's great for old and new staff to get back into the routine again. Planning an effective, meaningful and fun orientation is challenging. As you know, however, it is only the beginning of your summer challenges and it sets the stage for a safe and memorable camp season.

Dr. Ruth A. Arnold is assistant professor of physical education at Springfield College and an IISA Level I Certified Inline Skating Instructor.

Dr. Ann Marie Gallo is in the Department of Exercise Science & Physical Education, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the owner of Summer's Edge Day Camp (Waltham, Mass.) and Tennis Schools (Waltham, Middleton, & Danvers).