6 Tips for Camp Counselors Starting a New PE Program

Camp Counselors

The thought of running physical activities for campers can be scary for camp counselors. What if someone gets hurt?  What if the campers don’t listen? What if they don’t like the games?  You can probably go on and on with what-if questions. The hard truth is that there is a learning curve the first time you do anything.  Over time, and with practice, you get better at what you are learning.  With just a few tips you can be good at running a successful PE program for campers.  As a physical education teacher of fourteen years and a former camp counselor, I have found these key elements to be helpful:

1. Plan

As the saying goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”  This goes for children of any age.  If you don’t plan your activities thoroughly, you’ll find that frustration and chaos follow.  When I started working as a camp counselor, I would sit down in the camp office to plan my activities.  I had books on the table and had a lesson plan template out (this was before the iPad!) and I would write my objectives, activities, how I would achieve them, assessments, and more.  Taking time to do this made my experience and the experience of the campers much more fruitful.  When planning, you will want to consider some of the following questions:

  • What do you want campers to learn? How will they achieve this? How will you know they have achieved it?
  • What are the rules of the game? How will you explain them in a child-friendly way?
  • How long will each activity last?
  • Are the activities age-appropriate?
  • What equipment will you need?
  • What kind of space will you have?
  • What will you do if the activity is completed with time left over?
  • What will you do if you run out of time before the activity is complete?
  • How will you handle disciplinary issues?

Consider these and all possible situations that you can envision ahead of time.  It’s okay when you’re first starting to really think things through.  Over time, you will internalize some of the planning and create systems so that things will come more naturally to you.  Like riding a bike, you will start to automatically plan topics without thinking about them as much.  Plus, when campers are engaged due to proper planning, there is less chance that something will go wrong.

2. Be Fair and Consistent

Children notice injustices, even subtle ones.  If they see an adult not being fair or consistent, they are less likely to trust them or buy into what they are trying to teach.  In order to avoid confusion during activities, arguments amongst campers, or loss of trust, be fair and consistent all the way through.  This means that you need to set rules and enforce them the same way every time.  This also means that you need to treat each camper the same way in most situations.

It helps to examine a short example to better understand this.  Let’s say you’re playing table tennis.  You decide that one rule of the game is that the ball can bounce on the table twice before being hit back towards the other side.  If you allow one student to hit it back after three bounces and that earns them a point, you could have a mutiny on your hands.  This is especially true if you let this happen more than once.  To keep the activity fun and free of arguments, always be fair and consistent.

3. Create Structure

If you are planning and being fair and consistent, you are well on your way to creating structure.  Children need structure.  When structure is not present, problems occur.  Structure means that the campers know the plan, rules, consequences, your behavioral expectations, and anything else you might expect.  Structure also means the campers are aware of what is going to happen in most situations.  Structure creates safety and routine.  When children feel safe in a routine, they have a lot more fun.

Think of structure as a board game.  Board games have clear rules and, in some cases, time limits.  There are also consequences to decisions you make during the board game.  Part of the game is just pure luck.  But in games like Monopoly or Uno, it’s very hard to cheat. This is because all players are playing by the same rules and consequences, meaning they have the same understanding of the ins and outs of the game.  Structure is simply the foundation by which the activity is governed.

4. Have a Plan B

Let’s face it, not everything you plan will succeed.  Sometimes the best-laid plans fail.  Because you are still figuring out what will work with your campers, always have a plan B ready to go.  This will allow you to be flexible, something that is incredibly important when running activities.  Things happen that are out of your control, and some activities just do not work out the way you would like.  Being able to tell the campers that what you planned is not working and that you are going to switch to another activity will keep things from getting out of control and also teach them a valuable lesson.  Sometimes stuff happens and you have to be able to adjust to the changes.  Summer camp is about life lessons after all!

5. Be Present

It is so easy to get distracted these days.  Maybe you want to check your phone, talk to your co-counselor, or just stare off into the distance.  One of the common mistakes counselors new to running activities make is to think that things are going great and that they can stop paying attention.  Children are quick and smart.  They notice when no one is paying attention, and some may take advantage of this during an activity by trying to bend a rule.  Keep your eyes on the ball, or game in this case.  Feel free to jump in once in a while and enjoy the game yourself.  Be present so you do not have to present a defense later if someone gets upset or hurt. Also make sure they see you are excited about the activity, and they will be too.

6. You Are in Charge

If you watch sports, then you know they are not democratic.  There are referees to enforce the rules and consequences.  When running activities, enforcing the rules and consequences is your responsibility.  Make that clear to the campers.  You are in charge, and you will make the calls, including what defines cheating.  Keep a firm tone of voice when speaking.  Leave no doubt you are in charge.

A Few More Things to Consider

  • Never challenge a student’s authority in front of their peers—you will always lose. Remember to punish privately and praise publicly.
  • Model the behavior you want from the campers.
  • Model the activity so that visual learners will understand it, especially with younger campers.
  • Variations for activities that usually help meet the skill levels of all campers – this includes allowing the use of varying sizes of equipment and changing distances or the duration of the activity.
  • Sometimes campers can explain directions to other campers better than you can.
  • Whenever possible, keep things simple. It’s nice to plan big activities once in a while, but the more complicated you make them, the more room there is for error.

If you plan well, stay fair and consistent, create structure, have a backup plan, and stay present, you will do just fine running activities for the first time.  With time, it will get easier and feel more natural to you. Camp counselors can develop a nice set of activities and a sense of how to run them well. Plus, if you stay at the same camp for a while, you will get to know the campers and they will know your style, which will make things a little simpler as time goes on.

About the Author:

literacy in physical educationCharles Silberman is a physical education and health teacher with 14 years of teaching experience has worked as a counselor and camp PE teacher for over 25 years. He has become a leader and advocate for incoming physical educators by running workshops on teaching in limited space at staff in-services and conferences, assisting with new teacher orientations, and other initiatives. He has experience writing curriculum from scratch and writing published information specific to physical education in state and nationally recognized publications and websites. Charles has also created a niche as a physical education specialist who fuses technology and primary instructional subjects into physical education lessons.

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