Chemistry Or Mystery?

By Chris Thurber

Did you ever have a dinner party or meet a friend for coffee and everyone just laughed until their sides hurt? Something evanescent and mysterious sparks a kind of elusive social magic we later describe as “an amazing time” or “unforgettable” or “so much fun.”

Next week, you may cook the same meal, visit the same coffee shop, or invite the same friends over, but the outcome may be different. Sure, you would have a good time, but it wouldn’t be as memorable. Maybe someone in the group was in a different mood. Perhaps the conversation turned a corner into an area where people disagreed. Or perhaps someone in the group slept poorly the night before. For whatever reason, the chemistry was different. Not radically so, but different enough to downgrade the experience from “amazing” to “fine” or even “forgettable.”

Measure Or Mess Up?
Camp officials do not kill camps by analyzing their outcomes or by intentionally designing their programs. However, we may falsely believe that acquiring a granular understanding of camp’s inputs and outputs will yield the recipe for a nearly perfect camp.

I’m proud to have been part of the research team that conducted the first national, longitudinal study of camp outcomes. I’m equally proud of my social science colleagues who have designed measurement tools, tested program improvement techniques, and measured minority parents’ attitudes toward camp. Researchers continue this good work each season, carefully quantifying the experience of this powerful vehicle for positive youth development.

Although elegant measurement is neither invasive nor corrosive to the camp experience, it may sometimes look through the microscope in the wrong direction. Instead of fun and happiness being the byproduct of great camp leadership, enjoyment may be the necessary prerequisite to performing a camp job well. In other words, the physical plant may be safe and beautiful; the staff may be carefully hired and conscientiously trained; and the schedule may be thoughtfully designed. But if the approach that directors, staff members, and campers take is neutral or negative, the outcomes will be disappointing. If the attitudes toward competition, cleanup, conflict, and community are immature or irritable, no amount of structural perfection will save the day. The camp may score high on objective measures of quality but have surprisingly low participant satisfaction. What gives?

The Toilet Test
Throughout the past 20 years of delivering in-person staff training to camps, summer schools, and parks and rec departments, I have frequently restated the aphorism that “no job is too small for a great leader.” When an owner or director, unit leader or senior staff member, leader-in-training or junior counselor stops to unclog a toilet—to cite a common scenario—it sets a sterling example for everyone in the organization. And when he or she does it with a sense of humor and attitude of helpfulness, it can transform the culture.

The well-researched and manualized design of the camp’s daily operations might specify, “Unclog toilets when necessary.” But fluid plumbing will not vault a mediocre session into an unforgettable experience. Convenient, yes; transformative, no.

However, when a leader performs a maintenance task, dirty job, or silent kindness with joy, that approach and attitude can make all the difference. At that point, the adults in camp are not simply doing their jobs but are living the mission.

I remember walking slowly past some garbage on my way to the community restroom one morning. I was an 18-year-old, second-year cabin leader at the time. “Damn raccoons” was all I thought, knowing that later that day I would probably have to clean up the mess caused by one or more of these masked mammals. On my way back from the restroom, I was still bleary-eyed but not so sleepy that I missed seeing the 20-year-old assistant division head begin silently picking up the trash and putting it back into the bin. Without any spoken instructions, two campers began to help him. Then it became a game.

“Look at this!” the older man said, holding up a balled tissue with his fingertips. “Someone blew their nose in here, and now a raccoon wants to eat it? That’s taking omnivore too far. Clearly, a raccoon is a snot-o-vore!” The two campers started to laugh, as did several others passing by. In a few minutes, a dozen kids were helping, laughing, and making jokes about the differences between a carnivore and an aluminum can-o-vore and whether the raccoons had actually eaten any garbage or simply taken it all out of the bin to inventory it.

The group made quick, fun work of the cleanup before heading back to the bathrooms to wash their hands, which also turned into a game, complete with a potty-humor theme song that made a few lyrical substitutions, such as “tinkle” for “twinkle” in the handwashing anthem “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

I am always recommending that directors accurately describe the essential functions of any job for which they are interviewing young applicants. “Would you have any trouble unclogging a toilet?” is a great way to test the willingness of a candidate to contribute to the well-being of the community and create a culture of caring. But now I’m thinking of an even better follow-up question: “How would you turn that chore into a game?”

Fun As An Input
Rather than thinking “the kids will have a good time” as the outcome of a well-run camp, what about thinking of fun as an input? Without a fun approach and joyful attitude at the front end of an experience, positive outcomes are far less likely. You don’t have to be glad that the raccoons ransacked the trash, but you can approach the necessity of dealing with the detritus either positively or negatively. With fun as an input, outcomes such as “campers care for others” or “campers show respect for nature” or “campers take the initiative to solve problems” are highly likely.

On a recent bus ride to hike a mountain with 54 12-year-olds and nine young counselors, I sat behind the driver to give him directions from camp to the main road. Less than 200 meters into our 40-kilometer trip, two kids started singing “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” from somewhere in the back of the bus. The counselor nearest to me groaned, slumped, and said under his breath, “This can’t be happening.” Exhibit A.

From somewhere in the middle of the bus came another counselor’s voice, this time loud enough for the entire bus to hear. “Guys, pause for a second. Let’s make sure we keep our singing at a volume that doesn’t distract our driver. And how about a couple of songs that he hasn’t heard before? I’m thinking that “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” is a little over-played. How about if we teach him the “Timi-Hi Song”? (The “Timi-Hi Song” was written 60 years ago by a camp alum, so all the campers know it.) What followed, of course, was far better than counting down 99 bottles of beer. It also proved that, with fun as an input, even the most mundane activities become memorable. Exhibit B.

Make It Matter
Last year, university professors Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber wrote a treatise called The Slow Professor. They made a compelling argument for slowing down the pace of one’s personal and professional life enough to notice, reflect, and create. An emphasis on outputs, “deliverables” or “work products,” has caused too many people to skip over the inputs. If we focus too narrowly on the process and outcomes of the camp experience, I worry that we will dehumanize it.

Like intelligence, which must have a context to be observed, youth leadership must also exist in relation to something or someone. How would you know whether I was a smart person, a skilled psychologist, or an effective youth leader without seeing me in action … somewhere … doing something?

As youth-development professionals, we can—and should—develop evidence-based practices and manualized program-improvement protocols. But we must embed all procedures in a fun approach and a positive attitude for them to work. Berg and Seeber describe intelligence as “embodied and therefore dependent on the context” (p. 35). Youth leadership—in fact, everything we do at camp—is also dependent on the context and the culture, which the adults create.

As you accelerate through this summer, slow down to ask: How do I embody what I do? When it comes to successful camps, the “how” is as important as the “what.” Put fun safely in front and see what types of awesome results you get.


Berg, M. and B. K. Seeber, (2016). The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist who serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy. His writing and videos are favorite training tools for professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded, co-authored the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook, and hosts The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, a homesickness-prevention DVD for families. Find out more on