The Benefits of a Mixed-Age Camp Experience for Older Campers

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We won’t argue that Camp allows everyone involved to get back in touch with being a kid.

At Camp, you spend ninety percent of your days outside, playing and participating in fun, challenging activities all the way until the sun goes down (and sometimes even after it goes down, with a little help from a flashlight or headlamp).

But it’s also true that Camp, with all its fun, can simultaneously instill responsibility and maturity in campers, especially older ones who interact with the younger campers.

Every year we field several calls from parents of teenagers who express their kids’ concern about “being around a bunch of little kids.” It’s a fair concern, especially when you understand that one of the most important social goals for teenagers is to connect with and develop an indent in their peer group.

What we tell these parents is that first, their teen still bunks and eats with his or her bunk mates and while some activities have kids of all different ages, other activities, namely the more physically challenging ones, self-select so that if they want they can still remain mostly surrounded by their peers. But in our view, they would be missing an important growth opportunity.

Teenagers can and do play an important role in our diverse, mixed-age camp community at Camp, as they can volunteer to mentor their younger peers. (All teens, whether they know it or not, are role models, and realizing that is a growth even in itself.)

Older teens “learn how to be more mature themselves,” as Erika Christakis puts it in her article, “Summer Camp: Can It Make Kids More Responsible?”

Teens from 14 to 17 can capture this growth opportunity through our Camper-In-Leadership-Training (CILT) program. It works from this framework, harnessing the influence of older campers in a mixed group setting. As Christakis writes:

“Overnight summer camps provide just such a mentoring opportunity through an incremental leadership pathway that enables teenagers, usually starting at age 14 or 15 as counselors in training, to assume increasing levels of responsibility for kids.”

Our CILTs are similar to Counselors-in-training (CITs) in that they explore leadership, what it means, and how to role-model it, but differ in that they have a broader focus rather than zeroed in on becoming a counselor. CILTs are aged 14 to 17, attend periodic classes where leadership is discussed theoretically but followed up with questions about their real world experience.

CILTs have both bunk and program responsibilities. For bunk responsibilities, they are assigned a younger bunk group, whom they mentor by reading stories at the end of the day and helping the younger kids talk about and process their time at Camp.

For program responsibilities, they select a program area in which they are interested. They are then paired with established staff members, who serve as teachers and role models for best counselor practices. They learn how to set up, run, and debrief activities as well as have equipment responsibilities.

CILTs learn about the special leadership and communication skills specifically used with younger campers. When ready, CILTs are given more responsibility to act as the leader of their assigned bunk, or to lead an activity period during the day, supervised by a counselor or activity specialist. For example, a CILT might prepare a self-selected activity, game, or story to use for the nighttime ritual after teeth-brushing. He/she would have the freedom to lead the activity and try on their counselor hat!

There are several reasons, noted in Christakis’ article, why the counselor mentor/ mentee dynamic works so well. First, “the role models are obvious and always there to see.” Simply, camp life means being surrounded by the same people nearly all day every day. This makes it quick and easy for our CILTs — and older campers in general — to get a sense of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior when you’re a role model for young children.

Ringo, a camper-turned- CILT-turned full-fledged counselor and eventually our program director, recounted this experience in an interview with us in March:

“Going into this counselor job gives me a unique opportunity to take the best of what I observed in MY counselors and apply it to my own work. Throughout my six years as a camper at Shaffer’s … Over time, I realized the best counselors were the ones who were able to successfully balance being my “buddy” with being a figure of authority. They were fun, energetic, respectful, and often silly, but I still felt I could trust them to be serious and responsible when the time came.”

Second, through these experiences where they can “practice” the real thing in a low stakes environment, CILTs can feel comfortable trying on different roles and responsibilities that work for them. Because the trainee is always observed by already established activity specialists and counselors, they have the safety of making mistakes and knowing there will be continued support and guidance from senior staff.

Lastly, Christakis stresses in her article that the best benefit of the dynamics of a mixed-age group might be that teens “come to appreciate their parents’ hard work too.” For older campers, the realization that they are mentor figures for the younger kids at Camp can instill a sense of duty, responsibility, and personal self-worth. Our older Shaffer’s campers play an important role in shaping the tone and attitude of the camp dynamic, and participation in our CILT program can be a very enriching growth experience for your child.

If you would like more information on Shaffer’s High Sierra Camp’s Camper-In-Leadership-Training Program, please call (866) 597-6617 or email