Investing In What’s Important

By Barry Garst

At a recent camp conference, a between-session conversation among several directors focused on organizational budget cuts and the lack of travel dollars for adequate continuing education.

This is a common scenario for organizations big and small. Tighter budgets can correlate to diminished continuing education and training plans for frontline staff, managers, and directors.

Yet savvy camp professionals know that maintaining a strong knowledge base and skill set, as well as documenting the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, is important for both productivity and maintaining relevance and competitiveness in the marketplace.

Continuing education and professional development are also critical for program quality, since investments in training most often result in enhanced staff competencies, improved program quality, and greater outcomes for program participants.

A New Era Of Professional Development
When applied to seasonal camp staff, the need for intentional training and professional development is particularly important.

Camp employees, as well as staff working in other non-formal, out-of-school-time (OST) settings, have unique characteristics when compared to other educators.

These frontline individuals have fluid roles and responsibilities plus diverse academic and experiential backgrounds, but often lack the guidance provided by a standardized set of competencies (Peter & Smith, 2012).

In the past, with limited formal criteria or certifications, no standardized ongoing professional development requirements, and minimal formal assessment, the professional identity common in some fields has been unavailable for camp staff. But times have changed.

Professional Development Indicators:

• Standards that require documentation of professional development (American Camp Association, 2012a)

• Core competency framework to guide the content of professional development and training (American Camp Association, 2012b)

• Creation of certification programs to serve different professional/staff levels (American Camp Association, 2012c)

• Options for personal continuing education as well as staff training through systems such as ACA’s Professional Development Center and program providers.

Professional development is a year-long, ongoing process. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / glossygirl21 These are indicators that we have entered a new period with many exciting opportunities for professional growth and development.

Key Dimensions of Professional Development Planning
Professional development can take many forms, including face-to-face trainings , such as national and local conferences and workshops; synchronous online opportunities , like live webinars in which the instructor and learners are present in an online meeting room; and asynchronous online opportunities , such as recorded webinars, videos, or self-directed online courses in which learners access a pre-recorded educational program.

College and/or university courses provide an array of themes for camp professionals from wilderness first aid and camp management to child development and business operations.

Extended learning programs target a range of subject matter consistent with knowledge and skills needed for specific positions.

Articles, books, or magazines in print and online formats can provide many options for self-directed learning.

Structured coaching and/or mentoring from a seasoned camp professional can also become part of a professional development plan.

When thinking about development needs, embrace the many options available to create a diverse set of learning experiences.

Intentionality: Simply put, intentionality generally results in more positive outcomes than results left to happenstance. Be targeted and purposeful. Give thoughtful consideration to competencies and areas that need improvement.

Map out professional development goals and the specific learning opportunities to meet those goals. For example, the professional development plan for an aquatic director might include a national camp conference, regional aquatic training, an online aquatic- or risk management-related webinar, and self-directed reading of an aquatic book or article followed by reflection with a supervisor.

This purposeful approach can and should be applied to any camp position, from hourly staff to executive directors.

Encourage peers to create professional development plans. Guide others in the creation of intentional training plans. Seasonal staff can provide input for in-service topics that might be offered during the summer.

Continuity: Professional development and training have often been compartmentalized. Directors may repeatedly attend one or two conferences or workshops at a particular time of the year, and staff may arrive one to two weeks ahead of campers to quickly learn information and procedures.

The most innovative camp personnel, however, have recognized that professional development and training needs to be a year-round process (Thurber, 2011) with training plans built around needs and opportunities, rather than traditional models that are less flexible and possibly less effective.

Collaboration: Attending conferences, online courses, workshops, or webinars in a coordinated way with a peer or coworker can allow participants to learn and share twice as much. It also stretches organizational resources budgeted for staff training.

But again, be intentional. Who is going to collaborate? Which learning opportunities will be targeted? What are participants expected to bring back to the organization?

This strategy can work not only within, but also across organizations. Consider partnering with another camp in order to more effectively meet the professional development needs of staff members.

Verification: Providing evidence of professional development and training is critical for the modern workforce.  From annual performance reviews, job interviews, and even college/university applications, written documentation of professional development activities provides necessary credibility and validation of participation.

Many organizations provide certificates of completion, continuing education credits (CECs), or continuing education units (CEUs), which assist with tracking and documenting professional growth.

Together, the five dimensions of professional development planning--variety, intentionality, continuity, collaboration, and verification--provide a benchmarking framework for camp and youth development professionals.

Along with evaluation--systematically measuring whether or not professional development and staff training activities are providing desired results--these dimensions should be used to guide the development of one of the camp community’s most precious commodities--people!

Barry A. Garst , Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech and the Director of Program Development and Research Application with the American Camp Association. Previously a camp director and camping specialist in Virginia, Garst co-authored "Leadership and Environmental Stewardship: A Curriculum for Camps," available at . Contact him at .


  • Design a professional development plan
  • Clarify and set goals (Short- and long-term)
  • Identify activities to meet these goals (Remember variety; creating a timeline may help organize the approach.)
  • Evaluate the plan (Does it reflect new learning or skills? Is there data or documentation? Are the goals clear?)
  • Reflect early and often (Consider keeping a journal, or finding a reflection partner or professional learning community.)
  • Create a professional portfolio (Samples of completed work, accomplishments, and certificates)

Works Cited
American Camp Association.  (2012a). HR. 1 Director Qualifications . Accreditation Process Guide. Retrieved from: .

American Camp Association.  (2012b). “ACA core competencies.”  Retrieved from: .

American Camp Association.  (2012c). “Certificates of Added Qualification (CAQs).”  Retrieved from: .

Peter, N. & Smith, C.  (2012). “Should out-of-school time staff be trained like teachers?”  Education Week. Retrieved from: .

Thurber, C.  (2011, November/December). “Continuous professional development:  The best ways to provide year-round staff education.”  CampBusiness.