One of my favorite things to do at camp is lead low ropes/team-building/challenge course. I experience genuine joy working with a group and challenging them in new ways. Being a witness to and a part of their growth, watching them move from being tentative to open and working together, from struggling with a task to problem-solving and figuring out what it all means; it can be a full blown lesson in transformation.
What’s really neat in a challenge course experience is the way you as a facilitator actually get to see emotional growth of the participants —sometimes as a group, other times as individuals and, occasionally, both. One particular time I was working with a group—they were in middle school, 6th & 7th graders mostly—that was having difficulty on a particular element. Lots of fussing, talking over each other, failing to acknowledge ideas …so I had them choose a leader. They chose the “popular” guy in the bunch, so I then asked him to choose the leader. He chose a much quieter, reserved guy. The way this young, seemingly timid teen took leadership was so natural and so at ease the rest of the group fell quickly into step and, from that point, they were able to quickly accomplish the task. As we wrapped up we were talking about what they’d experienced and what they were going to take home. Here, the answer that has stuck with me for years, the boy leader said, “I’ve learned that I can actually lead people. I had no idea.”
Yes! He didn’t even know before, and now in this safe place he was able to discover the ability to work, as a leader, with a group of peers. I like to think it was an opportunity for him—and the entire group—to practice emotional intelligence. He was able to calm the group and move them toward success by listening to the variety of ideas with an accepting and gracious demeanor.
I would describe emotional intelligence as the ability to know what emotions and feelings are present in yourself and in the people around you, to know how to manage yourself, and to influence others’ behaviors.
Just like the hard skills of learning a language, math equations, chemistry formulas, or the techniques and skills of learning how to lay brick, repair plumbing, or style hair—individuals might be able to pick up bits and pieces without exercising drive or desire. But to really get good at these things I would argue that you’ve got to want it. (Yes, there are occasionally geniuses and natural prodigies; for this, we’re going with the idea that most of us have to actually put in the effort to get good.) You’ve got to open your mind and put in the time to hone your skills, to practice, to try and fail and try again, to do it and do it and do it until you become competent.
Like any other competency we want to develop, emotional intelligence requires this same commitment and effort. Our camps and retreat centers offer a unique, safe playground for just the kind of practice that builds emotional intelligence. Campers, counselors, guests, volunteers, staff—anyone you can imagine being at camp—each has opportunities all day long to strengthen and challenge their emotional intelligence, whether they know it or not.
To practice emotional intelligence we basically have to “work out” four main areas:
Self-awareness: the ability to recognize our own emotions and how they impact others
Self-management: managing our emotions and behaviors in healthy ways
Social awareness: understanding the emotions, feelings, and behaviors of others based on emotional cues and group dynamics
Relationship management: building quality relationships, knowing how to influence, inspire, and work with others
Imagining camp as our playground, let’s use the playground equipment to work out our emotional intelligence muscles. Campers arrive as strangers or loose federations of friends, and they are placed into cabins to have, basically, giant, multi-day sleepovers. How much fun/terrifying is that? During this time, campers and their counselors living in this community will traverse through a variety of skill building opportunities. There will be campers who feel left out or homesick and must figure out (with the help of highly trained and amazing staff) how to manage this behavior. Sometimes campers aren’t super successful at managing it, but it’s still practice! Other times campers start out with tensions but are able to sort through those moments (with the help of those aforementioned counselors) and they actually do go home with a practiced and polished skill in self-management.
Oh, and the opportunities abound to practice self-awareness at camp! How many times did I, as a counselor, realize that my mood and body language were impacting how enthusiastic or engaged the campers were? Most every camp counselor has heard, “If you’re into it the campers will be into it.” The best counselors—the ones I admired the absolute most—were the ones who were so good at self-awareness that they knew when it was time for a break, recognized when they needed personal time, and when they were down or tired, could identify when their negative energy was having a direct influence on the campers.
Certainly campers, counselors, and other camp staff are perpetually being put into situation after situation that calls for increased social awareness. It’s important if we’re going to live with each other 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that each person is attentive to social cues. Perhaps as directors we learn early on that one of the counselors is superb at leading a small group discussion but lacks greatly in getting up in front of camp and leading group singing. That’s an example of how we are noting and practicing social awareness. Or as counselors, we quickly discern that one of the girls in our bunk wakes up early no matter what—how are we going to deal with that? Campers, too, are smart and usually learn quickly which of the staff is “cool,” and they’ll respond to that accordingly.
Social awareness is exercised all over the place at camp: at the pool, during meals, at Bible Study, on the lake, at the archery range, during unstructured time, practicing a skit, worship, the talent show, challenge course, etc. Each one of these, in their own ways, offers a multitude of stretches for our social awareness —how to notice and respond to signs of discomfort or fatigue, signs of hyperactivity or enthusiasm, even confusion and embarrassment.
With all the play and practice of self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness at camp, relationship management seems to come as a fruit from these three. It seems that if we’re self-aware, that if we manage our emotions and we are cognizant of social cues, then our ability to form relationships and to influence others will naturally flow. However, those relationships and our ability to inspire and influence should still be practiced. We see relationship management muscles being flexed all over camp: counselors who are connecting to a group of campers, campers making personal connections with one another, and camp administrators determining how to best motivate staff. Those connections and relationships are forged through vulnerable moments, shared laughter, and honest conversations.
Living in community the way we do at camp offers a multitude of times for that vulnerability, honesty, and laughter. Our camp playgrounds, if you will, with moments sharing a meal, cabin time, learning a new skill, solving conflicts with old friends and making new friends—are filled with opportunities to practice emotional intelligence. As we are in our mega-busy seasons, let us as camp leaders seek to identify and help staff and campers identify those opportunities. With mindful intentionality we could certainly send our guests, our staff, and our campers (not to mention ourselves) back into the “real” world with heightened and sharpened emotional intelligence skills.
Cat Holbert, the Director at the “emotional intelligence playground” of Lazy W Ranch (CA), has a long history in camping and a passion for the transformation that living in a camp community brings. She serves on the UMCRM Association Board, as an ACA Visitor, and as the 2017 Event Chair for the National Camp & Retreat Leaders’ Gathering. (Interested in being on the team?–Contact Cat at firstname.lastname@example.org). Cat loves homemade pizza, playing guitar, and hanging out with her dog and husband!