Lesson Plans for Cabins, Bunks and Groups (July-August, 2003)

Anyone who has spent much time at camp knows that most activity specialists draw up lesson plans for running their periods. Well crafted lesson plans go far beyond skill instruction and include safety protocols and rules and regulations, all geared to the age of the campers in each activity period.
Anecdotal evidence suggests this approach is highly successful. Camps, after all, routinely engage children in high risk activities, like archery, horseback riding, ropes course elements, technical climbing and so on, while maintaining an exceptional safety record. In addition, campers not only improve their technical or physical skills, but also increase their confidence level through a sense of achievement. It seems the structure and safety consciousness found in most activities has made them a safe environment for campers to thrive in.
Ironically, the riskiest place for campers to be is in their own cabin or bunk at resident camp and their group at day camp. While there is not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship between safety and the use of lesson plans, it is noteworthy that most cabin/group counselors approach their work without them. My suggestion is that cabin and group counselors “take a lesson” from their colleagues in activity areas and adopt lesson planning as a legitimate way to improve the quality of the experience for their campers. To be sure camp is not school, and it would be a mistake for the spontaneous, flow-like experience of group life at camp to be overly formalized. That being said, there is much to be gained by adding a few thoughtful routines to cabins and day camp groups that could enhance the value children get out of camp.
First Things First
When campers first arrive the overall goal of counselors is to help them settle in and begin making the adjustment to camp. Depending on the age of the campers and how many in the group are returning and how many are new, the particular approach should vary.
Plan One: Getting to Know You
Objective: Connecting with each Camper; Increasing Camper Comfort Level
A. Younger Camper Groups (with higher proportion of new campers)
•help them settle into bunk areas or cubbies
•use fun activities to learn names, help them meet one another
•use additional activities to learn hobbies, pets, favorite camp activities
•take campers on tour of camp
•teach all campers a camp song or two
B. Middle Age Camper Groups (with mix of newer and returning campers)
•help campers settle into bunks or cubbies
•use activities to help new and returning campers get to know one another
•have returning campers show newer campers around camp (supervised)
•have returning campers teach new campers a few songs, etc.
C. Oldest Campers (largest proportion of returning campers)
•supervise campers as they settle in
•have returning campers introduce any new members
•have a meeting to informally catch up on the past year (use a format where everyone answers the following questions: favorite moments from last year; something new you learned about yourself; something new you learned; some place you visited for the first time; least favorite time or experience; etc.)
•talk about goals for camp: what does each campers wish to accomplish?
There are a few of notes that counselor should think about during this first “lesson period.” First, be on the lookout for campers whose non-verbal language suggests that they may be feeling awkward or stressed about being away from home and in a new group. What campers do not say in words they may say in the body language or facial expressions. Second, remember that typically, boys connect through action first, then they can sit and talk, whereas girls often connect first through conversation and sharing before they feel comfortable doing something together s a group. Lesson plans should take these tendencies into account. Third, those counselors working with older campers who know one another from prior years, if you are new to camp yourself, campers will connect to one another before looking to meet you. Be patient and allow them to re-establish their friendships before moving in.
Plan Two: Group Agreements
One campers are somewhat familiar with you their counselor, with one another and with the general physical layout of camp, they are ready to sit down and establish a few simple agreements. After all they will be living together for the next several days to weeks. Having some guidelines about behavior in their cabin or group is a way to begin to establish expectations about behavior and norms around what is acceptable and what is not. All campers should participate in the meeting and its goal should be clearly explained in simple terms at the beginning: “Since we are going to be living together or spending time together for the next several days/weeks, we need some agreements about how we want to be treated and how we treat others.”
Have all campers take turns suggesting agreements. Help out by writing the suggestions down, then converting them into positive statements. For example, if a camper suggests that “no one takes anyone else’s ‘stuff’ without asking,” convert that into a positive statement: “ask before borrowing someone else’s belongings.” Pare the suggestions down to three, four or five and write on a fresh poster board. Have everyone sign it and put up it a prominent place in the cabin or cubby area. Give the set of agreements a name, like “Code of Living” or the “Panther Group Code” or “Sunflower Group Agreements.” Periodically throughout camp use the agreements to check in with the group. How are things going? Are there new agreements that need to be established? Have campers been able to keep the agreements they made?
Plan Three: List of Firsts
One of the problems with cabin or group meetings is that counselors often have them only when there is a problem. Campers understandably resist such meetings because they come to equate them with “being in trouble.” The “list of firsts” is a great way to debrief campers at the end of each day and keep cabin or group meetings on a positive note. The “List of Firsts” is simply a large piece of paper or poster board where counselors write whatever a camper might have done that day that they have never done before. It might be they went off the camp diving board, tried out for a play, hit a double in baseball, learned a new dribbling technique, went down the zip line, fed the horses or got the mail for the cabin. Whatever is new, counselors talk with campers at the end of the day in a group, each person taking a turn, and make out the list. It will grow over the days of camp and is a great way for counselors to keep abreast of what campers are doing. It also helps reinforce for campers all the things they are trying and accomplishing.
Plan Four: Public Appreciation
This is another way to keep cabin or group meetings on a positive tone while reinforcing the camp values of cooperation, helping out and so on. Once a day at the same time each day, preferably when all campers are together for ten minutes, sit them down and engage them in public appreciation. The way it works is you raise your hand if you wish to thank someone for helping you out, being nice to you, teaching you something, lending you something, showing you something new and so on. The person you recognize can be a camper or counselor. The person who is named is applauded by all the other members of the group and then their name can be written on a special board or put on a slip of paper and placed into a jar for a special drawing later in the week. This activity is actually better done in somewhat larger groupings, like three or four cabins or groups at once. Keep the time limit to ten minutes and simply tell those who have not had a chance to go that they can get their turn the following day.
These are just a few ideas about lesson planning for groups, Obviously, there are many other times when a plan would work well. Perhaps a lesson on conflict resolution or talking things out would help campers work out their differences in more productive ways. At the end of camp having a plan about how to help campers share the things they learned, the memories they want to keep, the friends they made and the new things they learned about themselves would be a great way to help them hold on to the growth they may not even realize they have accomplished. Again, lesson plans are not designed to take the fun out of camp but to help bring attention to all the great things camp can mean to children. Anything that helps us be even better at what we do is worth looking into!

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