If you have no experience with summer camps outside of pop culture or distant childhood memories, you are probably asking yourself the question, “What is it like to work at summer camp?” If you stick with the descriptions on job posts you will see words like “fun” and “rewarding” pop up. You will read about the camp’s unique traditions and appeal (Camp Augusta mentions their iconic Oatmeal Fights in nearly every job post). You will find many lovely answers to your question about what working at a summer camp is like.
Let me tell you how it really is. Right here. Right now:
The hours are terrible.
The pay is terrible.
I couldn’t recommend it enough.
For years, I went back to the hardest job I’d ever done and spent a third of my paycheck on my cabin each week. It was fun. It was rewarding. But those adjectives alone don’t do it justice. Weeks, sometimes months, of your life spent in one place is more complicated than a question like “what is it like to work at a summer camp” can answer.
So here it is, from my own experiences, a day in the life at AnyCamp USA as answered by the questions I wish I asked.
What is it like to wake up at camp?
You wake up around 7:00/7:30. You slept like a rock because if exhaustion is good for anything, you fall asleep and stay asleep.
You are the counselor, which means you are the adult here, which means you are now responsible for waking up your campers. Some have been awake for two hours. Some have it in their minds they want to sleep for another couple hours. Everyone needs to be up, dressed, and shuffling to the bathhouse.
As you brush your teeth completely flanked by children on all sides, you question why there are only three sinks for a village of forty campers. One of your campers can’t find her toothbrush again. You begin to suspect she just doesn’t like brushing her teeth. There is some pre-breakfast rigmarole. A mix of announcements and sign-ups. You poke your camper to stop talking and take a peek at your schedule for the day.
The schedule is everything.
The schedule is life.
All in all, your morning looks pretty good. You are on activities you enjoy and although lifeguarding in the afternoon is both sweaty and boring, it’s probably going to be a good day. Especially because you are heading to breakfast and breakfast has coffee; sweet sweet elixir of life.
What is it like to eat meals at summer camp?
You eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with your cabin. There is no such thing as dining alone, not anymore. You are the responsible adult of all these little ones, picky eaters and all. The table becomes a place to negotiate things like seconds on biscuits or mandatory glasses of water before juice.
At any given meal you can look around and see some staff with the three-mile stares while others chatter away with their kiddos. Eating every single meal with kids can be fatiguing sometimes, but what are you gonna do about it? You ask your kids about their days and notice one table appears to be competitively eating green beans.
That counselor is a genius.
You turn to your campers with a really super fun idea. Of all the meals, dinner tends to be the most hit or miss. It is almost inevitable that there will be a meal that does not agree with a camper. You must look your campers in the eye and tell them that it is okay for them to tell you if they don’t feel good. You flashback to last week in your mind: Shy camper. Shepherds pie. Top bunk. Splash Zone. Some lessons you learn the hard way.
What is it like to run activities at camp?
Everything at camp is an activity. Washing hands is an activity. Touching that free is an activity. Not panicking that you saw the biggest spider of your life is an activity.
The better question is, how do activities differ throughout the day?
The schedule (sweet, precious schedule) outlines the activities you will be running and beautifully organizes the seven discrete activity hours that fit squarely between breakfast and dinner. The blocks are a mix of free choice, free range, cabin time and camp-wide.
What Are Free Choice Activities Like?
When thinking about what it’s like to work at summer camp, the activities you teach throughout the day have a huge impact on your overall experience. At AnyCamp USA, the first block of activities is aptly named “Morning Activities”. The camp breaks from cabin groups and kiddos are free to choose where to go. First you’re teaching a craft, then you’re leading a silly sport. As campers shuffle around, you take a moment to appreciate that your campers can choose their own adventure and briefly think about your friend who went to a camp where the cabin stayed together for the whole day, rotating activities together. The idea of any camp being different than this one just seems so foreign and weird, wrong almost. You did your research and are happy with the type of camp you ended up at.
Snapping back to reality, you notice one of your more-nervous campers is having a go at a ropes element today. You make a small fist pump, “hell yeah” you whisper to yourself.
Oops. Not to yourself. That child definitely heard you.
Shit. Yes. That one was inside your head.
You also notice two of your campers are attached at the hip per usual and have signed up for the same activities again. Mental note to check that they are both getting what they want out of camp.
The first activity is pretty relaxed. The campers in this group are a little older and they appreciate an easy morning. You are an expert at starting friendship bracelets and lanyards. Once everyone has a craft in hand, the hour is mostly chatting.
Second activity is a different story. You are leading Giant Soccer, which is soccer but instead of a regular ball, you use a huge inflatable one. It starts okay, the campers are very enamored with this giant soccer ball…until it bowls over your smallest kid. There are some tears. Some of the campers are starting to look bored, they haven’t really been able to play with the ball yet. The activity still has forty minutes.
You need to switch it up. Now.
Yes, you are making it up as you go but that’s fine. You have basically come to expect something not going according to plan so you’ve actually gotten quite good at thinking on your toes – it’s not so scary anymore.
New plan. Okay. We ditch the soccer part. The group played a little soccer and it was apparent that more campers were here for the “giant” than the “soccer”. You invent some games and challenges with the giant ball. Relay race. Time trial. No hands. What if we use a parachute. Campers come up with ideas and you try those out too. A few of the campers suggest starting a cult that honors this giant soccer ball. Sure, why not? The activity wraps up and it’s on to the next.
What Are Camp Wide Activities Like?
Camp-wide activities arrive after dinner. They are the last chance to squeeze all remaining energy out of your campers (in a fun way).
Tonight is Capture The Flag. You remind yourself that this is a game for children and not a blood sport. Your mantra is instantly forgotten, you must avenge your team that just had a flag stolen. You check your watch. Tomorrow starts in twelve hours.
Sweaty and endorphin-filled, you and your campers get changed into warmer clothes for campfire. The camp sits together to sing songs and watch skits. It beats TV back home, by a lot. You are singing a song about hippos early in the line-up and have a story to tell at the end. Campfire is consistently one of your favorite times of the day. The musical and comedic talents of camp astounds and entertains nightly. You’ve seen that one skit three times this summer but god it kills you every time.
The closing song marks the end of official daily programming. It has been a long day and there is still a lot to do before bed.
The days are long. The weeks are short.
You know that to be one of the truest things about what it’s like to work at summer camp.
What is it like to go to sleep in a cabin?
The silly songs, outfits, and activities can almost make one forget that they are still in fact the adult around here, which means it is you who needs to shuffle these campers through the bedtime routine. Remembering the trials of the morning, you’ve come prepared and have managed to keep track of your camper’s toothbrush for her. Mark your words: bones will be brushed.
Before lights out there is time for a quiet activity. You gather your campers on the floor of the cabin and pose a question to the group. You share and listen and talk. You get the sense that your campers don’t have another person or place in their life that gives them a space to share like this. Once in the bunks you run through Rose/Bud/Thorn (i.e. best part of the day today/what you’re excited for tomorrow/and the worst part of the day). Your nervous camper’s rose was making it to the top of the rock wall. You beam, knowing that was no small thing for her.
Once kiddos are asleep you are allowed to leave your cabin for some after-hours decompression. You see your fellow staff all day, passing each other as you shuffle from activity to activity, but considering there are always kids around, this is your only time to talk freely.
You gripe about your cabin or some of the senior staff.
About how some of the things you have to do feel unreasonable.
About how tired you are.
About how you can’t seem to form a genuine bond with one of your kids, you’re worried you’re a bad counselor.
About how much you stink. You were supposed to shower during your off-hour today but you needed to grab some supplies for your cabin activity.
The art of the wash cloth shower is very familiar to you now.
In the bath house you take a look at yourself. You are covered – COVERED – in mosquito bites. You know you aren’t supposed to scratch but you do so you are scabby and bruised too. You squint at yourself. Are you tan or is that just dirt? Your legs are looking really toned from walking all day, but you’ve landed a nice little pooch in your tummy – it’s the camp food, you don’t eat like this at home.
You haven’t worn make-up in weeks. You haven’t brushed your hair in days. (Maybe you should brush my hair but who has the time???) Somehow you feel beautiful. Or happy. Something. You don’t feel it now but when you get home you will feel something very insidious about advertisements and beauty standards. But that’s later. For now, you feel content, itchy, but content.
Midnight is a hard-line curfew and you are pushing it. After you slink back into your cabin you change your clothes and crawl into your bunk. You politely ignore the spider who has also decided to sleep in your bunk and are out like a light. Exhaustion is nice like that.
So… Camp will be exactly like this?
Probably not. You will have your own joys, struggles, and coping habits (I wore socks to bed and lived life twelve hours at a time). In between the “fun” and “rewarding” will be challenge, disappointment, and growth.
In truth, working at a summer camp is a vast and complex experience that can be difficult to articulate. For those willing to take the hard with the easy (and for those who enjoy being around children all day) camp can be one of the greatest ways to spend a summer. I have no regrets.
I hope I’ve helped to show you what it’s like to work at summer camp, the highs and the lows, the jobs and the challenges. If you think summer camp is the right choice for you, I encourage you to give it a try, and we’d love to help you find your perfect camp!
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