We do a lot of intentional things to help children and teens make friends at camp. Some of it just happens naturally, but we make an effort to guide the process as well. As we complete the fourth day of our first 2-week session this summer, we have a pretty good handle on which campers need a guiding hand. While other campers often appear to feel comfortable making friends in an effortless manner, sometimes they actually have a lot of anxiety underneath it all. The beauty of overnight camp is that children and teens can learn to open up with others once they feel safe. At Maine Arts Camp we take pride in fostering a nurturing environment where campers do feel safe–both emotionally and physically. Because of this we often see more growth in a couple weeks than parents and teacher see over the course of many months with the same camper at home.
One of the ways we work on all this is by talking to the parents on the phone prior to camp to get as much insight as we can on their child. We also ask them to fill out a personal history form that include details about the camper’s social and emotional life at home. The more information parents give us, the easier it is for us to provide their child with a meaningful experience complete with personal growth. Sometimes this information includes strategies they have found to work at home for dealing with frustrations, social issues, emotional struggles and more. Each of us learns and copes differently, so if we know what’s already proven to be effective for that camper, we’re already a step ahead of the game!
We start the intentional friend making as soon as campers arrive by getting them involved in games and activities on check-in day. Our returning campers are great about welcoming new campers, and we make an effort to bring them into the process. They all can remember what it feels like to be the new kid on the block at camp. Each day we also have “free time” for about a half hour before dinner, and all our counselors pay close attention to how the campers are interacting while we’re all outside together in a designated area. If any of them seem to be struggling to find a game to get involved in or campers to hang out with, a counselor might join in the game and gently coax the reluctant camper along. Meals are a prime time for campers to get to know each other, and we spend time in staff training coming up with conversation starters to use at meals to help this process go smoothly. Often we ask counselors to share some of those specific conversation starters with campers who seem to struggle with talking to people. The first night of camp we do ice-breaker games in each dorm, often starting with a name game that helps us connect an adjective and a movement to each person’s name. We do this in staff training as well, so I continue to be “Clever Candy!” 🙂
When issues arise between campers, we make sure to step in right away. Since we’re small and the counselors get to know all the campers well, they know when there’s a problem and they know we’re a community that works together so they come to Rick and me–the director and assistant director. Working as a team, we get the campers to each tell their side of what’s going on, and we emphasize that they each need to listen patiently when the other person is talking. We try to keep them on track by explaining what occurred and how it made them feel. Then we try to work out some compromises so they can learn to be better roommates or even just friends. I think Rick and I get better with this process each year, and now, Rick has become a Court Certified Mediator, which has taken his skills to a whole new level.
Closing Circle is another time that we are able to bond and also discuss and reinforce social skills. Closing Circle happens before bedtime in each of our dorms. The campers sit in a circle with the counselors, and they have a topic that they each get a chance to comment on. It might be, “Name your ‘rose’ and ‘thorn’ of the day.” In this case the “rose” is your favorite moment and the “thorn” is your least favorite moment or challenge of the day. This is a great way to reflect on the day and get to know our camp-mates on a deeper level. I sometimes join the girls’ dorms for their closing circles, and it’s one of my favorite things to do here at camp. I guess you could say it’s my “rose!” Stay tuned for my next blog post, which I just decided will be all about the Closing Circles I’ve experienced.
You might need to bring some tissues 🙂
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