How to Survive Orientation Week!

Picture this: You just stepped off a bus in the middle of the woods. You’re tired, hungry and stiff from the long bus journey. There are people you don’t know excitedly screaming and hugging other people around you. Someone you don’t know yet just took a picture of you. You can feel the sun shining through the trees and can smell food nearby. You have arrived!

These opening moments of camp can be a whirlwind of overwhelming excitement and anxiety. You might not know anyone other than who you sat next to on the bus and you might not be sure what their name was; BUT (and it’s a big but) don’t worry. You are definitely not going to be the only person with these feelings of unknowingness. Even as I go into my fifth year at camp, I get memories of the apprehension from these initial moments of my first summer.

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(Me getting off the bus my first summer)

Orientation week (the staff training week before the kids arrive) is up there as one of the most fun parts of camp. You’ll be participating in training workshops, team building activities, and setting up activity areas and cabins. You’ll be getting to know people who’ll become some of the best friends you’ll ever make and learning to do the best job that you’ll probably ever have.

Through the rest of this blog, I’m going to cover some advice that I think will be beneficial in getting you through the first days of your orientation week.

  • Lower Your Arrival Expectations..

I don’t mean to start on a downer and camp might be the most incredible place on earth but most camps are only used for a few months during the summer. So one really important thing to bear in mind is that when you first arrive, the cabins may be a little grubby, dusty and unimpressive. Don’t be put off, just remember the chances are that the buildings haven’t been used in the last 10 months. Besides, the mess won’t last long as one of your tasks during orientation week will be for you and your counsellor team to get the cabins clean and ready for the arrival of the campers!

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  • Sit with new people!

One thing that’s great about orientation week is that you can sit wherever you want for training sessions or meals (during the rest of camp you’ll be sitting with and supervising campers). Take advantage of mealtimes to talk to as many different counsellors as you can. I always try to sit with different people each meal so that I can meet everyone and find out a bit about them. Meals also provide the best conversation starters as you can just start talking about the food in front of you or ask people their favourite foods and snacks!

  • Try to learn peoples names (at least the important ones)

I’ve mentioned this in previous blogs but I’m quite firm in the belief that names are the most important part of someone’s identity. Luckily, everyone in orientation week and for most of the summer will be wearing name badges. I always challenge myself to learn everyone’s names during orientation week, and as I already mentioned I do this by trying to sit with everyone during meals!

Of course, expecting you to learn everyone’s names is unrealistic if it’s your first summer and you don’t know anyone at all. In this case, start with the people most important to you; your co-counsellor team, maybe your activity area leader and the key members of the administration (e.g. the camp director).

There is a second part to learning names, you also need to remember pronunciations and whether people have any prefered nicknames. A big part of camp is about accepting people for who they are and there’d be nothing worse than calling somebody a name they don’t like, so take the time to ask what people prefer you call them.

(My 2018 counsellor team)

  • Try to pay attention during workshops

A large part of orientation week is made up of workshops which will cover a wide range of topics ensuring you’re as prepared as possible for the tasks you’ll be carrying out in the summer ahead. The content of these workshops will be vital to your ability to be a superstar counsellor and they’ll be full of helpful advice and useful tips so don’t be afraid to take notes. It’s possible that some workshops might get a little dry and if they do, there will probably be movement breaks and other fun activities to get you energised and refocused. Often I find some of the orientation sessions far more interesting and valuable than most of the university lectures I’ve been too.

All this being said, it’d be very unreasonable to expect you to remember everything that’s said during orientation week. In my opinion, knowing who to ask for further information about something is far more critical to your ability to succeed, than knowing all the information in the first place. This way, if later in the summer if you do happen across an issue you’re unsure off, you’ll know exactly where to go to ask for them help.

(Dinosaurs in disguise)

  • Be confident in yourself

Americans can be intimidating to us Brits; they can be loud, proud and very energetic at times. Introducing yourself is going to be a big part of orientation week, so try not to be shy. Try to subdue those feelings of uneasiness and take the opportunity to make as many friends as possible by talking to people, sharing stories and contributing to the unavoidable discussions with your fellow Brits such as ‘tea Vs dinner’ and the exact point of the UK north/ south divide.

One thing that’s bound to come up during orientation is the need for you to think of an interesting or unique fact about yourself. Not only will these make great topics for conversation later in the week but there’ll also be things that people remember about you. Interesting facts about yourself can be quite hard to come up with on the spot, so have a think before you get to camp of the things you’re proud of and willing to share with everyone! My fun facts have included that I was an unseen extra in a Busted music video and I once woke up and ran a marathon without any training!

  • Be brave and put yourself out there

Camp is an opportunity to discover things about yourself that you might not have known you can do but you’ll never know unless you try it first. My advice is to take every opportunity you can and try your very best at each. Who knows what you might be amazing at. My first summer I arrived with no real specialist skills and ended up becoming a qualified archery instructor as well as being able to lead paddle boarding and overnight camping trips.

One thing that scares people around the world is a request for a volunteer. This can be a great way to put yourself out there as an eager to help counsellor. If someone asks for a volunteer don’t just sink into the crowd, be brave and put your hand up. Whatever it is they want you to do, it’s not going to hurt; but it is going to show everyone else that your willing to jump in and bring everything you can to being an awesome camp counsellor!

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Like the sound of challenging yourself to take on new opportunities? Check out the Camp America website here and find out how to get yourself the best job in the world!

Good luck! – JJ 🙂

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And we’re off!!

The day I’ve been waiting for since last summer has finally come around! After a long winter, it’s time for summer! But before I head to Camp I’ve got two weeks of traveling in the US.

For the first week of my travels I’m of to California for the first time to explore San Francisco and Los Angeles with my younger brother! After this I’m flying all the way across the US to Philadelphia and New York City!

I’m super excited to be back in the US for my fifth summer and even more excited to be spending time in California with my brother!

Stay tuned for a series of blogs I’m going to be writing in between exploring with a run down of what we get up to in each city and my advice to anyone thinking of heading to each city whilst post camp traveling!

-JJ 🙂

6ish Tips to Help You Succeed at a Special Needs Camp

This blog is going to be a quick look at some things you should consider whilst working with children who have special needs. Even if you aren’t going to be working at a special needs camp this summer, I believe these are great things to keep in mind when working with any population of children.

Northwood 2017 (1383)Firstly though, there are two key things to note:

  • Every child is unique.
  • Every interaction you have with them is going to be unique.

For these reasons, it’s important to know that my following tips aren’t going to be something to live by whilst you’re out working with children, but hopefully, they’ll give you a place to start!

Finally, before I begin, I might also mention that I’m currently writing this blog whilst on a break from writing my university dissertation on communication strategies for children with autism… so if this gets long it’s because I’m avoiding my boring university work and daydreaming of camp!

1. Don’t Forget Names

 First up, a person’s name is the centre of their identity, whilst some people will be quite open to the idea of nicknames others won’t. If you meet a child whose name can be shortened ask them how they prefer it. Try to avoid nicknames like ‘mate‘ or ‘pal’ because, asides from making you sound incredibly British, these could be taken literally and it can be important for the campers to know your there as a counsellor, not their friend. Take time to learn children’s names, even the ones who aren’t in your cabin, just imagine how powerful it can be to a child who’s a ‘nobody’ at school to realise that one of the cool counsellors knows their name, even better if you can remember something they did recently as well!
“Hey Charlotte, you were awesome in last nights talent show!”
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2. Don’t Apply Social Pressure

Try to avoid placing pressure on a child for ‘social norms’. Regular social cues that you and I take for granted, may not be presented straight away, if at all. For instance, children with autism often find eye contact particularly difficult, so avoid phrases like “look at me when I’m talking to you” and instead check they are listening by kindly asking them to repeat back what you’ve said.

Similarly, don’t expect immediate responses to all your questions, a child with slow processing abilities can sometimes take a while to understand what you’ve asked them and it can take further time for them to develop their response. Ensure to give them plenty of time whilst you’re interacting with them but also avoid patronizing language, most often they’re aware of their inability to quickly respond and further comments can easily lead to even more pressure and frustrations.

On the topic of speech, it’s definitely important to be aware of how you say things. Like I mentioned earlier, quite often children can take things literally and they’re especially unlikely to pick up on sarcasm. Be sure to state instructions clearly, and also be prepared to explain any regional differences in language time and time again e.g; tea Vs dinner; football Vs soccer. It’s always worthwhile getting them to repeat what you’ve said if you’re unsure if they understood.

There’s a story my director tells of an argument with a camper who was refusing to get out of bed in the morning. The counsellor’s final words in the argument were; “fine you just stay in bed, and we’ll do the chores.” Later the child had to sit out of activities and he explained to another counsellor that he didn’t know why he was in trouble because his counsellor had said he could just lay in bed and not help with the morning chores!

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3. Prepare for Transitions

Transitions can be the most difficult part of a daily routine for children to navigate, negative behaviours may arise when the child isn’t sure what’s happening next or simply due to the loss of the activity they had been previously engaged in. Most camps run pretty tight daily schedules just like schools do, and this can be taken as far as to schedule individuals showers and even who collects the mail on what day. Your cabin will most certainly have a daily schedule posted and then it will be important for you to know what times activity periods start and to communicate to your campers which activities are taking place at what times each day so they can prepare themselves. Then just make sure you aren’t late to avoid any unnecessary timing issues.

Children, as well as adults, often thrive when they’re running on tight schedules but negative situations can soon arise if there are unpredictable changes such as rain or broken equipment. In these circumstances, it’s important to let the child know exactly what’s happening instead and to keep them updated if further changes have to be made.

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4.  Try to Address Obstacle Avoidance 

It’s no secret that children are sometimes badly behaved, but many adults don’t take the time to investigate the behaviour and there’s always a reason. Sometimes when children encounter an obstacle, such as a task they don’t know how to perform, it can be easier for them to engage in inappropriate behaviour rather than approach an adult for help. If you take the time to observe a negative situation, it’s likely you’ll see the causes for the child’s behaviour. Show them how to gain help or work with them to create an alternative method of communicating they need help. Ensure to reward them with appropriate social enthusiasm if they do ask for help and you’re likely to see improvements straight away.

All of us experience situations from which we wish to momentarily escape. An important social communication skill is asking appropriately for a break from an activity or group of people. Again, if they are unsure of how to get help, a child will sometimes engage in inappropriate behaviours in order to escape. If you identify these behaviours, offer the child an option of a brief break. These breaks should involve various rules concerning how long the break should last and what the child can do during the break. At the specified end of the break, the child should be reminded about what positive reinforcement is available for returning to the group or activity. For example;

“Jamie, you can sit out for 2 minutes but you most rejoin when that times up. If you rejoin the group when I say it’s time, you’ll be able to go play with the Legos later.”

5. Schedule the Little Things

Following the theme of scheduling small breaks, if you have to ‘wait’, clarify how long the wait could or will be, as it could easily be interpreted as ‘not now, not ever’ by the child you’re working with. If you’re not sure, try to avoid guessing specific times and instead emphasise that you are unsure and if you really must, use a much larger time frame to avoid any disruptive behaviours if there are further delays to the schedule. Always allow the child to eventually receive the desired activity or item.

Another little thing to schedule can be conversations, if you don’t have time to talk to a child who wants to talk to you, don’t just shut them down. Ask if they mind you coming back later to finish the conversation. If you do use this technique, absolutely ensure you make the effort to go back and finish that conversation.

6. Fairly Split Teams

Lastly, don’t pick teams and definitely don’t let campers pick teams. It’s likely that campers with additional needs are last to be picked for teams at school, so don’t make them experience the same bad feelings at camp. Split up a group using easy questions or ‘favourites’ categories and keep splitting them up this way until the groups look even. The longer you work with a group the better you’ll know what equal means. For example;

“Everyone who had cereal for breakfast on this side”

“Everyone who’s wearing stripes go over that side”

“Everyone who’s favourite colour is pink over here”

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Thanks for reading! -JJ 🙂

Camp What?

What even is Camp America?
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For the past four years, I have spent my summer months living and
working in sunny America on a cultural exchange programme that sees young adventurous individuals work at children’s summer camps across the USA. Camp America is a company which secures work for applicants at summer camps where they work as camp counsellors.

Counsellors are an essential part of summer camps, second only to campers (children). Counsellors provide the activities and entertainment whilst acting as guardians, looking after a group (or bunk) of several children. Particularly at sleep-away camps where children stay for several weeks, all counsellors are assigned to a bunk of campers to whom are they will look after for the duration of the campers stay. Alongside this most counsellors will also be instructors in a specific ‘skilled’ role such as a football coach, arts and crafts specialist or swim instructor.

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Individuals with advanced experience and certified skills in activities will be sought after to run the activities that keep summer camps fun but generally speaking, most often some personal experience of particular activity and a strong confidence to give it a go will be enough to qualify any counsellor to at least help teach an activity. For instance, I instruct archery and paddle boarding at my camp but when I first arrived I only had small experiences of either but I showed that I was eager to help and now I have been able to gain a certification in instructing.

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In addition, Camp America also sends individuals to work at summer camps as support staff who’ll be working behind the scenes in the kitchen, laundry, maintenance or as administrative staff. These positions are essential as they keep camp life going and are ideal for those who are less inclined to work directly with children or who perhaps don’t speak confident English but still wish to participate in the cultural exchange programme.

Applicants to the Camp America programme are all interviewed and greatly supported in creating applications that will make camp directors want to hire them. Camp America offers a range of events to find out information throughout the year and also several recruitment fairs which give applicants the chance to meet camp directors face to face and get themselves hired!

Find out more about Camp America on their website!

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