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Like many educators, I spent many summers running summer activities for children. These tips for camp counselors and volunteers might be helpful as you consider training your paid staff and volunteers. If you are in charge of children not your own, be aware of a constantly changing world of risk management and new viruses (Zika!) and regulations. These tips are for you if you have your grandchildren for a week, or the neighborhood parents are sharing summer activity duty, or you are running a STEM summer academic experience (see 4 tips for summer camp management).
Children have basic needs: physiological, safety, belonging, and esteem. Their growth needs include cognitive and self-actualization. (For more, research Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Counselors and volunteers are in a custodial relationship with minor participants. Along with laws and regulations, there are common law and duty responsibilities that should be maintained to make a safe and healthy environment for the children.
- A big part of camp management is staffing. What are the skills of your staff (paid or volunteer)? Do you need them to drive? have first aid/CPR/AED training? Have swimming and water safety certification? Make sure your staff receives training on working with minors and safety. Additional training may be necessary: my counselors needed to drive 15-passenger vans. Decide what the best counselor to child ratio is for your camp: 1 to 4? 1 to 6? 1 to 8? State law may apply and you need to consider transportation, overnights, field trips, and STEM laboratory work when deciding. Here are the minimums from the American Camp Association accreditation standards:
|5 years & younger||1 staff for each 5 overnight campers||1 staff for each 6 day campers|
|6–8 years||1 to 6 for overnight||1 to 8 for day|
|9–14 years||1 to 8 for overnight||1 to 10 for day|
|15–18 years||1 to 10 for overnight||1 to 12 for day|
- You may need background checks on your paid staff and/or volunteers. In addition, you may need insurance coverage for your campers and your staff.
- Watch out for the privacy and secrecy of minors. At-risk children have a high potential for victimization. There should not be gifts from adults, touching, and riding in private vehicles. Rooms for meetings should have windows and doors should not be locked. Generally, there should not be situations with one adult and one child alone. (We had trouble with this because of tutoring. Brainstorm ways to ensure a safe environment for your children.) Make sure your paid staff and volunteers understand these issues.
- Know who to notify to report incidents and potential crimes involving harm to minors. An incident report form will be helpful. In addition, there is mandatory state reporting for suspected abuse or neglect of children. Leaders of your camp should be familiar with the signs of child neglect and child abuse. Search for child protective services under health and human services for your state.
- Be aware of harassment creating a hostile environment, student-to-student, adult-to-student, adult-to-adult. This means actions or behaviors that discriminate against a member of a protected group (age, religion, race, disability, or sexual harassment).
- Do not expose children to deliberate danger. If there are any risks in your activities, be explicit in the paperwork for the parents. For example, my summer camp was teaching the children to solder, an activity with a very hot electrical device. It was one of the most popular activities so we did not want to cancel it, we just had to make sure the parents understood STEM has its hazards. Prepare an accident report form to use when children or staff are injured. It’s another way to keep communications very clear with parents. And be clear about safety practices!
- With older students, another risk is romance. You will need a statement in your rules similar to “We expect that students will refrain from any kind of romantic involvement with each other and displays of affection.”
- Make sure your staff is prepared to give timely warning of emergencies. Fire extinguishers and evacuation plans should be reviewed and posted. Staff should sign up to get weather and crime alerts on their cell phones. It might be important to know locations for shelter in place. For instance, here in North Carolina we have to know where to go during a tornado warning.
- Issues to discuss and decide: Do you want to hand out cell phone numbers? Make a rule for no adult-to-student texting? Ban adult to student friending on Facebook? Cell phones provide quick, portable communication, so think about the needs of your camp.
You may need forms for your volunteers and paid counselors such as: medical information form, camp insurance health authorization, publicity release, dress code, rules, expectations for safety and behavior, accident report form, working with minors checklist, and safety training checklist. See sample forms at 4 tips for summer camp management.
Disclaimer: I do not have legal expertise, so be sure to check forms with your legal counsel. All information provided on this site is for entertainment and education purposes only. Using any information from thecasabouquet.com is at your own risk.
Resource links for tips for camp counselors
- Counselor tips articles from American Camp Association
- Safety courses from National Safety Council
- Information on the proposed Child Protection Improvements Act
- Standards at a glance from American Camp Association
- Symptoms of child neglect and abuse from Mayo Clinic
- What makes a work environment hostile? From About Money
Let’s talk story
At our camp sponsored by NC State University and the National Science Foundation, my counselors and volunteers were from many parts of the world. I found that there are cultural differences when dealing with children. Also, young adults don’t feel so far removed from teenage years and could need guidance on maintaining boundaries, especially with the prevalence of social media. After the terrible scandal at Penn State, I realized that being passive is not a good course of action when it comes to the safety and welfare of children. Training, discussions, and checklists help everyone understand responsibilities.
Questions? Contact me at lisa[at]thecasabouquet[dot]com.
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