Life-Skills Training

By Philip Lilienthal

This space is often filled with articles about the ways that camps add value to children’s lives, such as providing and identifying skills that stimulate leadership, independence, sportsmanship, cooperation, group living, and outdoor living skills. For those who want an additional way of making the camp experience unique and beneficial in the short- and long-term, consider building life-skills training into a curriculum.


As a Peace Corps volunteer in 1966, I established Ethiopia’s first residential summer camp. Later, I decided to draw on that experience, along with my years as a camp director, to pursue a new goal—to help children affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa. I partnered with a large South African organization based in Soweto whose goal was to bridge the chasm from teen to healthy, productive, caring adulthood.

A Place To Shine
Camp Sizanani is one camp in a country that has very few organized camps; instead, the notion of camp is achieved largely via weekend retreats organized by community and religious groups. Not only did we want campers to have the time of their lives, but we wanted them to gain skills that would empower them to realize that they could, if they chose, move beyond the environments in which they were raised. We wanted to help them find the tools to do so.

As we contemplated adding the layer of life-skills training to the curriculum, we decided that we could always return to the more conventional camping model if ours didn’t catch on. I was confident we could provide great activities with lots of fun, and those would include the accompanying soft life skills of teamwork, communication, sportsmanship, and so on. But we needed to address some of the major impediments that teens were facing, as determined by South African staff members, and then find ways to provide the education they needed to meet those challenges.

An Effective And Interesting Curriculum
The South African public school system is very poor and ill-equipped with resources, both human and material. Classrooms are crowded (often 50 or more students to a class with one teacher), teachers are poorly paid, and many have little motivation to perform. Stories are rife about teachers simply not showing up for class or changing exam schedules on the day of the exam to fit their own needs. There is a life-skills curriculum in the schools, but teachers are not trained in it and are embarrassed to talk about sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and related issues. The challenge was to make teaching these subjects effective and interesting.

In developing what is now our curriculum, we also developed methods for bringing life-skills training into the mix. We were fortunate to have Michael Brandwein for the first staff training. Not only do many of his training techniques continue to this day, but the entire ethos of camp was established and adopted by the staff from that first training in December 2003. Experienced trainers from the U.S.—Bev McEntarfer, Nancy Frankel, and Bob Ditter—came to South Africa for multiple camp sessions and contributed mightily to staff development. Many other camp professionals have been with us and given their best practices to help get us to where we are today.

We selected staff members with life-skills training, and then we gave them more training. We collaborated with other organizations to determine which teaching methods would be most effective in a camp situation. We then tweaked those to fit into a one-hour activity segment. Over the years, materials have been refined and emphases have shifted with time. We have expanded to two life-skills activity segments a day and at least one optional evening activity that campers can attend to get more questions answered.

Camp sessions are eight days long, and campers are permitted to attend only one session. Because we work in the Soweto area (population estimated to be 3.5 million), we have an enormous base of camp-age children, ages 13 through 15. We want the high impact of the first camp experience to be enjoyed by as many young people as possible.


Evidence Of Success
Studies by outside evaluators have shown progress and improvement in a number of areas. All reports from parents, teachers, and campers show that camp has made a difference in their lives. These young people are staying in school, earning scholarships to university, finding jobs in a country with very high unemployment (about 40 percent), and thriving in a culture that has not traditionally provided paths to a world outside the environments of their birth. Moreover, we have received no negative feedback from the families of the 8,500 campers who have been through the program.

The camp experience, amended by life-skills training, has been the force behind these indicators of progress. Would a traditional camp curriculum of sports, swimming, arts and crafts, and theater (all of which we have) have achieved the same thing? We don’t know, but we suspect not. When negative influences are all around and children experience supportive camp activities that address those issues, we think people are better equipped to deal with the negative forces.

In South Africa, experts have determined that the following areas need attention:

  • Sexuality
  • Reproductive rights
  • Gender bias
  • Abusive behaviors
  • Teen pregnancy and parenting
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Gangs
  • Prostitution
  • Women’s empowerment
  • Self-empowerment
  • Crime.

In a U.S. camp, topics could include these:

  • Drugs (including opioids)
  • Sex education
  • Bullying
  • Empowerment
  • Self-worth
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol abuse.

Give It A Try
Like so much else at camp, the effectiveness of the curriculum depends on the staff members. Many organizations  can train counselors to be effective leaders in life-skills subjects, but the first step is to make the decision to provide this value-added component. Life-skills training can start as an optional, late-night activity for older campers who get to stay up later than the rest of the camp. It might need parental consent. It could meet once a week as a start, but we expect its popularity to soar and demand to increase.

For those who run into resistance to the idea of incorporating life-skills activities, listen respectfully and suggest that camp has more of an obligation to its campers than to continue as it always has. Remind concerned voices that the program would be optional and would not interfere with any other activity.

Your obligation as a camp director is to lead parents and children in new ways to make camp valuable for campers. After you have incorporated this idea into the curriculum, consider consulting parents again after summer to get additional feedback. Chances are you will know the success of it even earlier as the summer progresses and campers provide their own feedback.

We are all looking for new activities at camp. At the same time, we want to make a significant contribution to campers’ lives. This approach can do both.

Philip Lilienthal is president of Global Camps Africa, headquartered in Reston, Va. Reach him at, or visit