Respect is a Summer Camp Essential

  • For Educators
    For Parents, Families, and Caregivers
Summer Camp Diverse Kids Sitting on Grass

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Summer camp is a wonderful time in children’s lives when they get to spend time outdoors, meet new people, have novel experiences and gain insight into themselves. There are about 12,000 day and resident camps in the U.S. and each year more than 11 million children and adults attend camp. According to an American Camp Association (ACA) report, parents cite the following reasons as the most important ones for sending their children to camp: (1) camp helps build self-confidence and self-esteem; (2) camp is a safe environment; and (3) camp is a place to build social skills and make friends.

While camp can be an amazing, life-changing experience for a young person, it can also be stressful. In camp situations, sometimes children are away from home for the first time, encounter people for which they are unfamiliar and find themselves in a position to test the limits of their own skills and abilities. Camps are more diverse than they used to be and this is both a challenge and an opportunity. Like school, camp can be an environment where bias, bullying and disrespect run rampant not only among the young people but also among the adult counselors.

As camps find themselves in a demographic shift, the ACA released Camp Diversity: A Call to Action in 2013, which puts forth an important question: How can we ensure that we deliver the highest quality, most culturally sensitive camp programs? They cite a variety of strategies including the promotion of inclusion and equity, defying myths and increasing respect and mutual understanding as steps camps need to take in order to answer that question.

Culled from our anti-bias and bullying prevention resources, below are strategies and information that can help camps realize their potential in providing a rich, harmonious and respectful camp experience for all.  

Camp Counselors:  Training and Modeling

Many camps employ young adults in their teens and twenties as counselors for whom this may be a first job. A relatively new trend is that camps seek out international staff in order to “expose campers to diverse cultures;” nearly 20% of counselors come from countries outside the U.S.

Most of the training that camp counselors receive focuses on the nuts and bolts of being a camp counselor such as safety regulations, emergency procedures, behavior management techniques, child abuse prevention, appropriate staff and camper behavior and specific procedures for supervision. Weekly meetings, which many camps use to supplement orientation training, would be a good time to discuss the importance of diversity, cultural responsiveness and ways to deal with bias and bullying.

Counselors can discuss specific scenarios, watch webinars, engage in interactive exercises or read tips/strategies and discuss ways to apply them. When they receive training in specific camp activities they will do with children, they can discuss how to integrate issues of identity and culture into those activities. Below are links to ADL’s anti-bias and bullying prevention resources.

In addition to learning and teaching these skills and perspectives, counseling staff should be modeling the behavior they wish to see in young people. We know that children, especially in relating to those just a little older than they are, will emulate what they observe in others. In order to help staff be able to model inclusive and respectful behavior, it is important to have discussions with them about this and potentially provide some training.  

In addition to training and meetings, here are some self-reflection questions that counselors can ask themselves:

  • Do I listen with an open mind to all young people and colleagues even when I don’t understand their perspectives or agree with what they’re saying?
  • Have I taken specific actions to dispel misconceptions, stereotypes or biases that members of one group have about members of another group at camp?
  • Do I strive to avoid actions that might be offensive to members of other groups?
  • Does the camp environment and activities reflect the experiences and perspectives of the cultural groups of the camp community?

Resources:

Promote Diversity and Culturally Responsive Camp Environments

For many children, camp is an opportunity to meet and get to know people outside their school, town, city or neighborhood for the first time. Often times, young people will find themselves around people who are different in a variety of ways: religion, ability/disability, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, type of community (i.e. urban, suburban, rural), nationality and language. Spending all day together or in the case of overnight camp, sharing a bunk, is a great opportunity to get to know people who are different, learn and appreciate those differences and become more culturally competent.

The extent to which counseling and other staff acknowledge and integrate those differences into activities and conversations is essential. Staff should be careful not to promote the notion that we should be “color blind” but instead, acknowledge differences and stress how understanding different people and perspectives is an asset in life. At the same time, be careful not to put individual children in uncomfortable positions in having to speak for their entire culture. Counselors should also consider how to integrate culturally responsive practices into activities and programs (see below), be aware of how differences impact friendships and cliques, help to challenge myths and stereotypes about people and if stereotyping and bias emerge, know how to address them.

Resource:

Love Has No Labels: A PSA that encourages people to examine and challenge their own implicit bias with accompanying Educator’s and Family/Caregiver Discussion Guides.

Camp Activities

There are so many opportunities during a day in the life of a camper (and evening for overnight camps) that staff can use to promote respect for diversity, infuse culturally responsive concepts, incorporate relevant language and discuss friendship, bullying and being an ally. Staff can incorporate these concepts into standard camp activities as well as create new ones that emphasize these topics. For example, when doing a getting to know each other activity like The Big Wind Blows, have children incorporate different aspects of identity in their statements. When playing a name game, ask children to think about their family’s history or culture as it relates to their name. For very young children if you are using children’s literature to focus a group of kids, use children’s books that promote respect and inclusion. In arts and crafts, have children create a culture quilt by each of them making their own squares that represent their cultural identity.

For evening programs, incorporate different cultural groups and topics into your theater, music and art activities.  For overnight camps, before bed conversations around the campfire or flashlight can incorporate questions about friendship and bullying to get young people to discuss their thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. Nearly half of all camps report having community service or “good deed” programs. Use these experiences as opportunities to not only engage young people in volunteering their time but also in understanding the root causes of the problem being addressed and taking a social justice approach to doing something about it. 

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Awareness of Abilities and Disabilities

Being aware of abilities and disabilities is a significant part of the camp experience. At camp, there is often an emphasis on outdoors, sports and art-focused activities. Some children will naturally be better than others in these areas which can unintentionally place a heavy emphasis on skills, talent and abilities. In this way, it is important to be cognizant that children should be exposed to all activities and have an opportunity to partake no matter their skills or abilities. There should be plenty of programming that doesn’t emphasize skill and talent; children should be able to try new activities without fear of making mistakes or not being good enough.  

It is relevant to note that 47% of camps offer programs for young people with disabilities. Therefore, staff and campers should recognize that children with disabilities may have their own challenges around doing certain activities and that this is a learning experience and an opportunity to build awareness and empathy among the camp community.

Resources:

Address Bias and Bullying

Make sure that camp staff understands what bullying behavior is and that when bullying or bias occur, they should interrupt it on the spot, find out what happened and support the young people involved. The most important thing staff can do to prevent bias and bullying at camp is to establish safe, respectful and inclusive camp environments. This includes: (1) providing a culture where young people can be honest and open about their lives, perspectives and what’s happening at camp, (2) talking with them about what bias and bullying are and giving them the skills to address them (including microaggressions at the teenager level), (3) helping young people learn how to use ally behavior for their own sense of empowerment and because often times, bias and bullying take place when children are alone and not under the watch of adults, (4) encourage camp staff members to make themselves approachable so children feel comfortable coming to them if there is a problem. These steps, in addition to those outlined above, will help to promote a positive anti-bias camp environment where respect for diversity is taught, modeled and experienced firsthand.

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