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Tuesday, 14 June 2016 19:02

5 Ways to Engage Teen Volunteers in Creating a Positive Camp Culture

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Here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we're less than two weeks from the last day of school and the launch of 11 weeks of summer day camps. My division of the Ann Arbor Public School district – Community Education and Recreation – is busy preparing for over 100 camps, dozens of staff, and thousands of campers. Through our popular High school Volunteer Program, 160 teens will build skills and provide assistance at our summer camps.

For many of our teen camp volunteers, this is a first job-related experience. Of course, we provide training on safety, working with children, assisting lead counselors, communicating with parents, and so on. But we also want to engage teens to think of themselves instrumental in setting a positive camp culture.

How do you build teen volunteers' awareness of and capacity to contribute to a positive camp culture? Here are Ann Arbor Rec & Ed's top 5 training activities for teen volunteers.

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1. Ideally, experienced teen volunteers will be your partners in developing and leading your training agenda for new volunteers. According to the Youth Driven Spaces Initiative, developing youth leadership and voice can happen through Youth Advisory Councils and other program structures, with the overall goal of increasing engagement and skill of older youth.

2. Share your organization's vision and mission for summer camps. Why do you provide summer camps? In what ways do you strive be a positive force in children's lives? Use aspirational language to explain your organization's purpose. Invite your teen volunteers to react and add to this vision, sharing their own experiences where applicable.

3. Conduct a quick self-assessment. A quick review of a core set of skills for working with children can be really helpful to teens, especially those in this role for the first time. We like this basic list of 5 skills and qualities for those who want to work with children: patience; the ability to hide frustration and annoyance; keeping calm in an emergency; communication; and enthusiasm. We ask our teen volunteers to talk about their areas of greatest strengths and weakness in this skill set.

4. Help teen volunteers understand their unique contributions to a positive camp culture. High school students are likely to relate the idea of "camp culture" best in relation to their own lives at school.

○ Large group brainstorm: Think about your favorite high school class, one where you're really engaged and enjoy learning. How would you describe the classroom culture? Generate a list of the aspects of the class they like, including relationships, traditions, attitudes, and activities.
○ Reviewing the list, ask if another person were to walk into your favorite classroom, what would he or she observe? (Examples: Smiling faces? Would students be active and engaged in their learning? Are students showing respect to each other?)
○ Help them "crosswalk" their answers from their favorite classroom to what a favorite summer day camp might look like. What characteristics would be the same, what would be different? What would they add to make it even better?
○ Finally, have them take a 2-3 quiet minutes to think about what they believe their unique contributions to a child's favorite camp would look like. They can share with a partner or the whole group.

5. Monitor, support, coach - When observing teen volunteers at camps, be sure to notice and give feedback when you see them contributing to a positive camp culture.

Teen volunteers can be an essential part of any day camp. Help them understand their role as a mentor and change-maker in the lives of younger children -- they and their campers will reap the rewards.


For breakfast this morning, I had a bowl of cereal and a banana. (And coffee, of course.)

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Jenna Bacolor

Executive Director, Community Division
Ann Arbor Community Education and Recreation
Ann Arbor, MI


As Executive Director of the Community Division, Jenna oversees community education and recreational programs for youth and adults, student wellness policy and programming; local business partnerships and global education partnerships.

Prior to AAPS, Jenna served as a health educator, program planner and manager in the Washtenaw County government. She has 20 years of experience in program development, implementation and evaluation; grant writing and management; supervision and budget management. She holds a Master of Public Health and a Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan and is licensed in Macro Social Work.

Follow her on Twitter: @A2RecDirect.



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