If I Had Three Wishes

By Gary Forster

There’s only one reason kids want to return to camp--friends. Yet when I tour camps and ask what staff members do to specifically help kids make friends, I find out why the average camper-return rate is so low. We think it happens automatically. We focus on “fun” instead.


Kids have been making friends “automatically” at camp for decades. But in an effort to be safer, our risk managers have eliminated many of the times and places where kids and counselors used to make friends. We took out a lot of the “down time,” where they sat and talked with each other. 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.

Kids today do few activities where they face each other. They’ve always faced forward in the school bus and in the classroom, and now they sit side-by-side and face a video or computer screen. Mom drives them to activities (no more walking), and instead of deciding how to pick teams and agree on the rules in a vacant lot, they sit on the bench and wait for their coach to rotate them into the game. Then home again in the minivan. More than ever, kids need times and places where they can sit, face each other, and talk about the activities they’ve just shared. Otherwise, they don’t share anything.

For example, most camps have either a high- or low-ropes course, or both. We give groups of kids fun--even thrilling--experiences there. 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 just 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.

Here are three wishes for counselors to help connect campers:

1. Summer camps have long boasted that campers learn positive character and life skills as a result of modeling camp counselors. “I’m a professional role model,” the T-shirts say. Camp directors spend a large part of the year recruiting, selecting, and training staff to ensure a positive outcome. But the focus in recent years has been almost entirely on safety. We need to be reminded that what parents are paying for, what donors are supporting, and what we all hope for, isn’t what won’t happen, but what will.

2. Counselors can help campers make more and better friends if they know what to look for and how to coach individual campers. All the time we spend on activities, special events and character lessons are wasted if a child can’t associate those with their greatest ongoing needs--to feel connected, to be liked and accepted, and to have friends. By understanding a few specific coaching examples, each of us can make a lasting impact on those individuals who just need someone to care enough to observe, listen, and subtly coach.

Give counselors (and camp leaders) a clear understanding of what actions and words are used every day to show campers what effective friend-making looks like, and how it works in the lives of people they look up to.

3. Counselors should go out on a limb and deliberately add activities, discussions and times of reflection devoted not just to values like respect and honesty, but how values are put into practice every day in ways that make us “friend-ready.” Counselors are uniquely qualified to actively show kids that being “friend-ready” isn’t something they’re born with but can be learned and practiced. And what safer place to practice, and get helpful feedback, than at camp?

No space in your busy camp schedule? What could be more important than giving all kids the skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives to prevent loneliness, to foster collaboration, to build the empathy required for lasting friendships, marriages and ultimately peace in the world. Make time.

Can it be learned in a week or two at camp? I believe there may be no other place with so great a potential for long-lasting change. We’ve seen it happen, but sporadically, the stuff of anecdotes, but not often predictable outcomes. That’s why we need to make friendship-building a deliberate commitment in helping kids learn these life skills.

These three wishes are just “first steps” down a trail where camps and counselors may use, improve, and add to our understanding of the most effective ways to ensure that children receive the gift of friendship. As you find (see the side-bar book review), use, and adapt ideas in your own camp setting, please let me know what you’ve learned so we can share it with all of our new friends.

Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at gary@garyforster.com.