[ How Being A Camp Counselor Made Me A Better Organizer ]
June 01, 2016
It’s June 1st and even hundreds of miles away from Branson, Missouri I can feel the excitement, wonder, and joy of camp starting. For five summers post-college I worked at Kanakuk Kamps as a counselor, unit coordinator, or office girl. At K-Kountry (one of the Kanakuk Kamps) we provided sports and activities for 7-11 year old kiddos (and even a few 6 year olds we let sneak in).
I was a counselor in Barn One (obviously our cabins were “barns” since we were in the “kountry”) which was the youngest group. Most cabins had two counselors and twelve kids, but in Barn One (affectionately called “Diaper Duty”) we had three counselors and eleven 7 year olds. One room, lots of bunks and cubbies... and Silly Bands, lonely socks, glow sticks, wet bathing suits, stickers, Chapsticks, dirty laundry, and flip flops. The kids came from all over the country (and world) and most of them didn’t know a soul when they arrived. They came from varying backgrounds and parenting styles. And you better believe that there were many different personalities!
Despite their unique backgrounds, within 24 hours the cabin was orderly and everything had a place, the kids already had the schedule memorized, and everyone was on the same page. For the two weeks we had each group, it was a well oiled machine. Dirty laundry found it’s place each day, swimsuits got hung on the clothesline to dry, kids were on time to activities, the toilet got cleaned and the floor swept, and the kids were having the time of their lives.
The only way that was possible was because Kamp had systems and routines in place. They had carefully thought through the schedule and systems, which allowed the kids to adopt routines quickly. One day in and the kids could tell me what was coming up next. The schedule included time for education, rest/naps, cleaning the cabin, pool time, activities (ziplines, boating trips, canoeing, archery, “the blob”, crafts, etc), large group parties where screaming was encouraged, and of course time for meals, showers, and bedtime.
What I learned from those years was this: #1 Have a place for everything; #2 Kids thrive on routines; and #3 Organization & routines make everyone’s life better! Some kids came from really structured homes and others from homes where they didn’t have rules or boundaries. Some kids had never swept a floor before Kamp (or done any chores), some could hardly read, some were extremely extroverted, some were right-brained creatives. Yet all of them learned the routines quickly and were able to function and thrive in the system. We got them up and dressed, got them to activities on time, and got everyone to bed before T.A.P.S. (Which for us stood for “Totally All Persons Silent”). They knew where to put their toothbrush when they were done and where to find their shoes in the morning. So now when I work with families, I make sure everything has a proper place and I encourage routines to maintain the organization! If it's possible at Kamp, it's possible at home.
Kids can learn routines, they like knowing what’s coming next, and they are capable of learning to tidy up (and even to organize from scratch). The effect is that they are enjoying lots more activities, their living spaces are comfortable and danger-free, and the adults are sane (which obviously makes everyone happier and able to have more fun!). This is especially valuable if you are a stay at home parent or a single parent. You want to enjoy the time with your kids, not be constantly overwhelmed by chaos to the point that you don’t want to be around your children (No judgment! It happens to the best of ‘em!).
Whether you make a chart or hang up a schedule or use stars or smiley faces, just have routines! A daily schedule they can plan by, even if there’s variation on the weekend. Which, by the way, “activity time,” “free time,” or “family time” is plenty structure for times where the specific activities might change weekly/daily. For example: At Kamp, “activity time” one day might be the pool trapeze and blob, and the next day they are learning to kayak during that time. This might mean you have a “morning routine” and “after school” and/or “bedtime” routines. But getting kids in the rhythm of brushing their teeth, getting dressed, and picking up their toys is a glorious habit that will benefit them the rest of their lives.
Routines are good for parents too. As counselors we were on duty 22 hours a day- giving piggy-back rides, getting Band-Aides and making sure everyone had sunscreen on, changing sheets that had been wet, teaching activities, getting kids “hype” at parties, dishing out dinner, and being woken up if someone got homesick at 3am. But the routines worked in our favor as well. We were able to sustain the grueling schedule because there were breaks built in for us too. There were guidelines for us to get to sleep too. The routines made getting kids out the door easy (Seriously. 11 seven year olds and it was easy), minimized the “what are we doing next?” questions, and saved our sanity. We even had time and energy to braid everyone’s hair the same way before dinner and to have talent shows. If we hadn't had Best Barn everyday (our designated time to tidy and clean the cabin) we would have been buried in dirty socks and underwear in days, and the bathroom would've been a sticky mess of toothpaste, pony tails, and detangling spray. If we hadn’t had F.O.B. (Flat On Bed time aka nap or rest time for the older kids) we might not have had the energy or patience to face the after lunch activities. Imagine having some time to yourself during the day. Imagine having the kids in bed on a regular schedule and having the time (and energy) to enjoy your marriage! A happy and healthy marriage is the best gift you can give your kids!
In addition to having your kids on a routine, you can also apply the concept of routines to your daily schedule at home/work. Before Kamp I didn’t think I liked routines. But I found out that I thrived with them! Having a consistent bedtime and wake up call worked for me more than I would have guessed. When I started my first job after college I set up some routines for weekly tasks I had to do, and those were the things that were always guaranteed to get done. When I have a habit in place, those tasks aren’t dreaded and are easier to tackle. I still give myself the freedom to change up my schedule, but I employ routines to make sure I get things done.
During training, the Kamp directors told us that being a camp counselor was the best preparation for parenthood (and marriage) you could ever have, and I believe it. I’m not a parent, but because of my experience as a “Summer Mother” at Kanakuk (in addition to working with 3rd-12th graders as my full-time job for 5 years and being trained to organize by women who have children) I’ve been able to successfully organize for a lot of families and share some of the helpful tips I’ve learned working with hundreds of kids. Here are the bare bones:
*Have a spot for everything: With 14 people living in one cabin, it can get crazy. But everyone having their designated spot for clothes, toiletries, and shoes helped keep the peace. Make sure you’ve organized your home and set up systems. If your kids don’t have an easy to access spot for their toys, they aren’t going to put them away.
*Don’t expect them to be perfect: Basically, don’t expect your kids to have your standards of organization yet. Start with broad categories (Legos, Barbies, other toys) and keep it simple. If the toys or clothes get in the right bin/drawer, that’s a success even if it’s not pretty or could be better. They have to start somewhere!
*Model it: Practice what you preach. Making your kids put their stuff away, while leaving your papers all over the dining room table every night might make enforcing this difficult. If they see you learning the new habit and doing what you ought to even when you don’t want to, it is no longer “us against them”, but a team effort and everyone doing their part. Again, the older they are, the more challenging this is to begin, but it’s definitely doable. Kanakuk Kamps has Kamps for kids up to 18 years old, and if they can learn it at Kamp they can learn it at home (they just need the right motivation, incentives, and encouragement!).
*Teach kids to tidy up: What a life skill! Imagine them being able to go off to college and being able to keep the dorm room tidy. Keeping it clean might be another issue, but at least you’ll have more than just a path from the door to the bed. By teaching your kids (or students) to put things away when they're done, clean up activities when it’s time for a different activity, and to do a “daily tidy-up” you teach them habits that will make their lives easier, make living on their own easier, and make them more successful when they begin their careers and families. Not to mention, it makes your life infinitely easier. They are capable. If you aren’t starting this when they are in diapers (which you absolutely can!), then you’ll have to share the vision, set the expectation, set goals, and work towards independence and cooperation; don’t expect them to change their whole system in one day. It works in one day at camp because it’s a new environment and they have the positive peer pressure of the other kids and cool counselors, but if they are used to getting their way at home and don’t obey what you say now, making the switch will be a marathon, not a sprint. You may have to wean them off having your help to do things. Be patient, be full of grace, be consistent.
*Have rewards: (And consequences) At Kamp we had Best Barn time everyday except Sundays, and the barns got graded. The barn with the best grade at the end of two weeks got an awesome “Best Barn Trip”. For us that meant water slides, lazy rivers, and pop and candy. But use what works for your budget and what would motivate your kids: having a sleepover, getting money to put toward a big purchase, or having pop and candy (which in Boulder is a treat!). You’ll have to really incentivize the high schoolers, and they may do better with consequences (i.e. “If these 5 chores aren’t done you don’t get to use your iPad/car/whatever this weekend”). For 2nd-7th graders here’s a crazy idea: What if you could get their friends on board? Talk to the parents of your child’s closest friends (chances are they might be having the same struggle!) and see if they want to participate. Make a list of “Beautiful Bedroom” or “Baller Bedroom” chores (keep it simple) and a grading scale. Instead of it being a competition, maybe if they all average A’s for the month they get a special sleepover/event/trip/party. Having the positive peer pressure from friends is super helpful if you’re starting to implement chores and routines for an older child.
*Make it fun: My personal opinion: You’re a parent, not a drill sergeant. While I believe kids need boundaries and rules and a parent not a friend, you probably want your kids to remember you as loving and nurturing and not as barking orders or never being pleased with them. If you find ways to make tidying fun (at least in the beginning and while they’re young) you’ll see more success than with the “Because I said so” approach. Let them blast music while they pick up their stuff, sing “Let It Go” with them and dance when the job is done, make it a race- you tidy up your room, they tidy up their room, winner gets to pick where to get dinner.
*Find what works for your family: There’s no “one size fits all” for organizing or for building routines and systems. Be creative and brainstorm with your kids to find what will work. Maybe make lists of how your lives and relationships will be improved by being more organized/tidy/having routines. You may need to go through some trial and error too. While what it specifically looks like for each kid will differ, the important thing is them taking the time to adopt routines and see the positive impact it will have on their lives and your families. It may be difficult to build the habits, but once they do (or once you do!), it will make life so much better. After all, life’s better when it’s put together!
Thanks so much for reading! Send me your best routine/system/incentive ideas and maybe I’ll feature you on the website!
Christina + The Organizing Co.