Saturday, June 13, 2009


    I'm off to church camp in a few days and, as my staff and I put the finishing touches on our planning for the week, I thought I'd pass on a few nuggets of wisdom for any of my fellow church camp leaders who are interested in doing things that will guarantee your youth have a lousy time:

    1) Play games the first day that force physical interaction. Nothing will ensure that your shy teens and introverts have a terrible start to camp like making them participate in icebreakers and community builders the first day that force them to do things like getting tied into a human knot with a bunch of strangers or build a human pyramid. (Those "repeat everyone's name in order" games are pretty intimidating, too. Interaction is important, of course, but don't force it and don't introduce too much too fast!).

    2) Do skits/pranks where someone is the butt of the joke. Don't you just love those camp skits where some unsuspecting teen gets a bucket of water dumped on his head (or down his pants) or a whipped cream pie pushed in her face? Don't you just love those pranks where the new kid gets his clothes thrown on the roof of the cabin and shampoo in her sleeping bag? (Well, many people don't. Even if the "victim" laughs and plays along, s/he may quietly resent being ridiculed for everyone else's amusement. I could write a book about the problem with camp pranks, but let's move on...)

    3) Sing songs to which only alumni campers know the words.
    How much fun is it going to camps where there are those clever gimmick songs ("Star-Trekkin!") that only the teens who have been coming to that camp for 3 years know the words! Enjoy the hilarity as everyone else has to awkwardly stand around and just listen or else prove they are "one of the group" by anxiously memorizing the words by the end of the week! (This approach only serves to alienate new members of the camp community and sends a loud message: "You don't belong...yet.") Which leads us to #4...

    4)Perpetuate inside jokes and "remember when" stories from camps past.
    Nothing is funnier than the counselors reminding everyone about "that wacky thing Phil did in the girl's cabin last year" or "the talent show skit that got Cindy into trouble with the staff," even though none of the younger campers have any idea what everyone is laughing at! (Again, this a great way to send the message "We of the inner circle have a history together. You gotta earn your way into the inner circle here by putting in your time.")

    5) Encourage talent show acts that promote stereotypes and prejudices. What's a talent show without ethnic stereotypes (the napping Mexican in a sombrero, the "swami" with his head wrapped in a towel speaking gibberish). Is there some unwritten law that there must be camp talent show acts where guys dress in drag? (Ever stop to consider that for some teens, cross-dressing may be a reality in the life of a parent, relative, or friend...or may even be part of their developing gender identity?). And that leads us to #6...

    6) Make a big deal about "purpling!" You know how it goes: boys are "blue" and girls are "pink" and if they get too close (e.g. amorous hugging, kissing, girls in the boys cabin and vice versa) they make "purple!" Talking about this a lot, particularly making a joke out of it, helps sends a silent message that we all know that everyone at camp is really fixated on hooking up and finding a date for the Friday night dance. (Not only does this sort of thing alienate the youth who are not sexually mature, it also sends confusing and often alienating signals to youth at camp who are not heterosexual or who are not certain of their sexual identity yet. Do you announce rules against "no double blues," "no double pinks," etc.?)

    7) Program every minute of the week. Youth live over-programmed lives. Why shouldn't camp be the same way? (Maybe because one of the ways to make camp unique and special is to provide space for youth to be quiet, to hang out, to just "be" for awhile without any more stimuli than the feel of the breeze and the sounds of bees buzzing.)

    Want to add any others?



    Barry K said...

    Great list -- most of them apply to your counseling staff as well. New counselors are generally donating their time away from work for a week and don't need to be rewarded for that by being made to feel like noobs who need to spend their entire week trying to play catch up from summers past. As Michael Scott would say "I love inside jokes. I'd like to be a part of one some day."

    DaYouthGuy said...

    Getting ready to head off to camp myself in 10 days so I approached your post with interest and a certain amount of dread. I agree with several points and disagree with others. #2,4,5,and 7 I agree with completely. Interestingly on #7 I've gotten complaints from the youth when I leave some "free" time in the schedule. A lot of our kids really have never had to figure it out for themselves. Which is why it's staying free time!

    Quick thoughts on the others:
    1: Don't do icebreakers but interaction is still needed. I'm not sure I see where this ends up. We do icebreakers and community builders (actually using all stuff from you site this year). If someone wants to opt out we let them but we encourage everyone to join in community.

    3: So I shouldn't sing songs from previous years? All new songs every year? If you're not giving every one some help in learning the traditional songs I can see the problem but shared songs are part of the culture of the community. Should we stop singing the classic hymns in church because a newcomer won't know them?

    6: We do the purple conversation every year, the kids ask for it. And yes we also talk about "hot pink" and "baby blue". It's part of our "covenant" for our time together. It's much less about "Thou shalt not" and more about easing pressure by setting that aside. I ask existing couples to relax and just function as brother and sister (or whatever) in Christ for that week too. I was perplexed by your assertion that this alienates kids who aren't sexually mature. My experience says they see it as boring and not relevent so largely ignore it.

    Much to think about as I finish up my packing and prep. Have a great time at camp.

    Brian said...

    DaYouthGuy, Thanks for the feedback.

    Regarding #1: I think you have this just right. Community builders are great but it's important to allow the introverts to opt out as needed (within reason). My suggestion is to start with activities that are low threat (the "Would you rather" sort of games where there's not a lot of physical interation and no one person has to be the focus of attention) and then you work up to those more elaborate team-building games as the teens get to know each other.

    On #3: I wasn't clear. You are perfectly right, I think, that shared songs are important. I didn't mean to imply you shouldn't sing old songs. But include everyone by providing written lyrics on paper or powerpoint so everybody can participate from the beginning. I've been to camps where this was not the case and so you had to have been there before to know the words.

    On #6: I really like your approach to this as it provides the right sort of balance. I can tell from what you have written that you deal with this in a healthy way. Some camps do not and they make a much bigger deal out of it than it needs to be, leaving behind the impression that the staff just assumes that "hooking up" is what they all came to camp for. When camps have middle schoolers and highschoolers together (as mine does) focusing too much on this issue can be a challenge to the younger ones to whom dating and sex isn't even on their radar yet. They just come to camp to have fun. So attending to the issue is fine -- dwelling on it can cause problems.

    Thanks for sharing your input!

    Vik said...

    this is my favorite blog! keep writing :)

    Ryan said...

    I think these comments can be helpful not just for camp, but also for Youth Group Gatherings in general. For example, we have 6th graders moving up to youth group next Wednesday, and these types of pointers are good things to keep in mind.

    Brian said...

    Good thoughts, Ryan. I couldn't agree more.