Working with children for extended periods of time teaches you a lot. I have been working with children since 2008 when I started running the Active After School Care program through Proactivity. I still do the occasional shift for Proactivity usually a child’s birthday party or community event.
With the experience I got working with children during this time it gave me a strong application to apply for Camp America as a Sports Coach and a Life Guard and I ended up getting hired at Camp Crosley where I spent the summer of 2012 and 2013.
This fast tracked my learning experience working with children more than anything else ever could. I had a cabin of 8-12 children every single day for 12 weeks a year. The changeover was on Saturday afternoon and the new group of children arrived on Sunday morning which meant operating on minimal sleep a lot of the time.
Using all my previous experience I adapted very quickly to the working conditions and found a true passion for mentoring children. It was a rewarding experience that can’t be compared. Going back for a second year at Camp just consolidated those relationships you had built as a mentor the first time around and gives you a very real platform to be a real role model in these children’s lives.
I often got asked “Jimmy why are you always smiling” I never really thought about it much until after camp because I smile most of the time anyway but looking back now I can honestly say I was just genuinely happy at camp, disconnected from the outside world and just living in the present.
Working with children has taught me so much and here are the lessons I learnt.
1. The Extra Effort Is Worth It
At Camp you have these activities called ‘Camp Magic’. Camp Magic is essentially extra activities run by counselors for their cabins outside the normal camp routine. They are typically towards the end of the week to reward the well behaved cabins.
I still remember every camp magic we ran for our cabins whether it was a cookie jar mission at midnight or opening the jumping pillow for some star gazing or having a camp fire and reflecting on the week and letting every child known individually what we saw in them during the week and what we appreciated.
At times, especially in a camp setting you are very fatigued and lacking the energy required to go the extra mile. This separates the good counselors, from the counselors the children will never forget. The ones that are willing to give all they’ve got that week as if it was their first week. I never once looked back and thought ‘I wish I got more sleep that night’ I was always proud to know I pushed through to improve the camp experience of the children I was responsible for that week. That’s how I know the extra effort is worth it.
2. Having Patience Goes A Long Way
The relationships you build with children can often be summed up by how you react when you are in a slump. Having the patience to realise you are working with children and not everything is going to go the way you expect. It can often be the difference between you embracing the unknown or building a toxic frustration filled relationships. It is so important in any situation when working with children to be mindful that all they want to do is be entertained, have fun and enjoy the day.
3. Children Love To Take Short Cuts
Where ever there is a way to do something quickly a child will find it. Coaching an under 11’s basketball team if I have to ask repetitively for their attention they run laps based on how many times I had to ask (harsh I know, but it works). If it was 5 laps the children with strong morals and who want to improve will always do the 5 laps without question. The ones that are always looking for the easy way out will only ever run 2-3, cut corners or only run around half the court. It is a great test to do with anything where there are obvious short cuts to see who takes something seriously.
I always say to my under 11’s ‘boys if you want to run 3 laps instead of 5 laps that’s fine, but you are only cheating yourselves’.
When it comes to cleaning cabins some of the most common short cuts are throwing all your clothes under your blanked or everything under your bed and hoping no-one noticed. We set the standards and expectations for the children from the very first day and the mutual respect was always there and it’s amazing how quickly they respond to you when those respect levels are there.
4. They Speak Their Mind Openly and It’s So Refreshing
Here a child talk without the barriers of the world around them and all these preconceived ideas in their heads about how the world should be is so refreshing.
One of the funniest moments I have ever had was when I was taking a kayak class out in the Lake and one of the girls wanted to go back just as we reached the middle of the lake to go to the bathroom and I said no we would only be out here for another 15 minutes you went before we came out. To which she replied “Jimmy if we don’t go back right now I am going to swim over there and take a dump in your kayak” I still laugh out loud just typing that out. It’s probably not the most appropriate example of children talking their minds but it was definitely the funniest.
Another example is children at the camp fire. I found as the children got older into their teens they were less likely to open up with any meaning at the camp fires where the 7-9 year olds would tell you their whole life story without any fear of being judged by their peers and they would laugh about it and smile. It was a different form of mentoring compared to working with the older teenagers. To hear what they really wanted to say and how they felt about the week you have to build a relationship with them based on respect and trust. Where the 7-9 year olds you just needed to bring high energy levels and you were there hero no matter what you said.
With political correctness gone crazy in the world these days and more and more people struggling to convey any argument without offending minority groups it is nice to just hear the views of the world from a child, it just makes me smile.
5. Gullibility Levels Are High
Being an Australian in an American Summer Camp I used the gullibility of the children to make them laugh often telling them how I use to ride my Kangaroo to and from school and how dangerous drop bears were in the Australian outback. If I wanted to have dinner I would have to take out my boomerang and hunt for my dinner. The little kids hung on your every word and it was so funny hearing them tell their parents how their counselors rode Kangaroos to school.
During Kayaking (you can tell I had plenty of laughs every time I was out kayaking) we would paddle past houses on the Lake and myself and my co-counselor on the water would always make up stories about whose house we were paddling past. It changed every day sometimes it was Kobe Bryants, Neil Armstrong, President Clinton the list went on and on.
6. You Need To Think On Your Toes
Working with children if you aren’t creative and you can’t structure an entertaining program for an activity period or for the time you are responsible for the children you are looking after then you are in for a long day! I can say right now that a lesson rarely goes to plan and you need to be able to adapt and come up with new games or activities on the spot. If you recognise something isn’t working or it is boring the children to tears don’t keep doing it, change it up!
7. Their Ideas Are So Crazy They Are Amazing!
The ideas you hear come out of a child’s mouth are so ridiculous sometimes you have to try them. We played this game after it was recommended by a child who has made it up with a friend. It was called star gazing. We went out to an open field late at night and formed a circle. One child went in the middle and spun around as fast as they could for 20 second. Once that 20 seconds was up someone in the circle had a torch and shine it in the direction and the person who had just finished spinning had to try catching them. I lasted about 5 second before I was flat on butt. I was extremely sick for the rest of the night but the kids had a great time and that’s all that matters.
8. They Teach You As Much As You Teach Them
Children don’t necessarily teach us knew things we didn’t already know but they definitely take us back to much simpler times and remind us of the absolute basics of life and how to enjoy it. Their outlook is so pure and refreshing and it makes a lot of your problems seem very insignificant.
9. Reflect On You Own Child Hood
Hearing children’s stories and what life at home is like often made me reflect on my own time as a child and I definitely realised how good I had it and how amazing my parents are. Some of the children I have mentored came from a very rough background and volunteering with children from broken homes or who didn’t have a male role model in their life was very rewarding and a chance to give back as well. Sometimes we take what we have for granted even at a young age.
10. Never Yell At A Kid When You Are Angry!
This should almost be number 1 because it frustrates me the most. Yelling at a child doesn’t solve anything and most of the time just makes the situation worse. It is a little bit of a different situation if the kid is your own but if you are responsible for someone else’s child in a working capacity it is definitely not your place to yell at them in any capacity. Raising your voice as a coach instructing a team or disciplining them as a team is different I am more talking about singling out one child and talking down to them.
I remember coming back to the cabin after my lunch break find my co-counselor going absolutely bananas in the cabin at a couple of children in the cabin. I quickly defused the situation and got another counselor to come and watch my cabin while I took my co-counselor to calm down and he explained what happened. My look of concerned quickly turned into a look of anger when I found out that more or less it was a power-play by my co-counselor because the children didn’t do what he asked immediately. I told him there and then that it wasn’t acceptable at all to talk to children like that and there are other ways to handle those situations.
My honest opinion is that people who are great with working with children never have to raise their voice because they build the bonds quickly and that mutual respect is always there. A sure way to lose a child’s respect is to scream at them.
11. Give A Reason Behind The No.
If a child asks whether they can do something and the answer is no I found more often than not an explanation for why the answer is no is much better communicated than just saying no straight out. For example if a child asked ‘Jimmy can we go to on the jumping pillow tonight’ rather than just saying no a quick explanation with a compromise or alternative always gets received a lot better such as ‘No sorry not tonight another cabin is going there tonight, if we can get a free night I will book our cabin in if it’s something you all want to do.’
12. A Genuine Thank You From A Child Is Worth More Than Gold
I don’t need to elaborate on this too much as it speaks for itself. Hearing a child say thank you or express how you have impacted them is what fuels my passion for working with children. However small that thank you is you know you had an impact and that is so powerful. I have every letter I was ever sent from the children I worked with including gifts and friendship bracelets. It is the most rewarding feeling in the world knowing you have had some impact.
13. Taking The Time To Talk To Them
This one is especially turn for the teenagers, a lot of them go through their own struggles and sometimes having someone there who just genuinely wants to listen is all they need. Asking them how their day was and what parts of it they liked and didn’t like so much can go a long way. I often round up the week with a warm fuzzy circle where we go around the circle and say one nice thing about every person in the circle and it always helps everyone leave with a smile on their face and to help let them know that they were noticed and appreciated.
What tips do you have for working with children? Comment below and share you best ones.