From Cabin to Cubicle | 4 Lessons from Summer Camp

kids in a canoe

For many of us, childhood summers were spent catching fireflies in glass jars, sharing twin popsicles with neighbors, and coming home once the street lights turned on.

And for some, longer days and hotter nights also signaled the return to sleepaway camp—bags packed into the back of family cars, road trips across the state (or even country), and handwritten letters from home delivered after the regular morning flagpole salute. Those weeks spent bunking up with strangers and negotiating teamwork during “Capture the Flag” were the old-school way of both stepping outside the comfort zone and making life-long friends.

Grown-up changemakers may be more likely to spend summer in an office than in the woods. But lessons learned from sleepaway camp have a place in improving workplace culture, particularly during the dog days of adulthood summers. 

Embrace differences

Working across differences can result in numerous challenges, but summer camp teaches youngsters the importance of sticking together when the going gets tough. 

For some, it’s their first foray outside their hometown. Living with unfamiliar people and encountering the unknown isn’t always easy. Cabin assignments last weeks, or even months. Learning to overlook, or even embrace, less desirable parts of a bunkmate’s personality is essential to a successful summer. 

The same is true in the social-impact space, where diversity initiatives have more recently moved front and center. Embracing what makes colleagues and teammates unique can reduce friction at work. Fresh perspectives and varied experiences can also help boost productivity and creativity.

This lesson also applies to collaborating with difficult personalities in the office. Whether it’s the Chatty Charlie, the Inconsiderate Scheduler, or the Protective Project Manager, tapping into memories of tolerating (maybe even befriending) the know-it-all bunkmate from summer camp can go a long way toward cultivating compassion and empathy at work.

Try something new 

Summer camp is filled with newness: New people. New environments. New challenges. “Firsts” are practically a given on the daily schedule (think jumping into a lake, hiking through the woods, or picking up a bow and arrow). 

Of course there can be trepidation and sometimes fear around stepping into the unknown. But campers (and camp counselors) are great at encouraging exploration and seizing opportunity all summer long.

Taking these kinds of risks is equally important for those working in the social impact space. Whether it’s reaching out to a potential mentor, applying for a competitive fellowship, or attending a networking event alone, getting uncomfortable is key to both growth and professional development. 

Trying something new can be equally helpful when approaching a challenge or managing a project in the office. It’s easy to settle into the grind and rely on comfortable patterns when it comes to working solo or as part of a team. Thinking outside the box, seeking new perspectives, and navigating alternative approaches to the task at hand can result in outcomes never imagined; kind of like an afternoon spent basket weaving at camp.

Eat with your cabin

Summer camps will never be known for their culinary delights (we are pretty sure these seasonal dining halls are where “mystery meat” gets it name). But what they lack in flavor, they more than make up for in community.

These communal spaces encourage connection with bunkmates and fellow campers. They facilitate conversations through face-to-face interaction, and serve to strengthen relationships over shared meals⁠—even the mediocre ones. Summer camp breakfast, lunch, and dinner also serve as time for harmless pranks and friendly competition, which boosts morale and encourages positive culture building all summer long.

Just like eating with fellow campers has its benefits, breaking bread with co-workers and teammates has perks as well. Sharing a meal offers a chance to foster deeper relationships with those you see from 9 to 5, and sometimes only communicate with via email.

Meals are a great time to talk about grant applications or project deadlines in a more casual and comfortable way. But they’re also an opportunity to connect on a personal, intimate level as well. 

Hosting team meals once a week can encourage a sense of community at work, and baking the occasional office treats to share with colleagues can go a long way toward fostering a positive and joyful culture on the job.

Keep in touch

Mail from home is one of the highlights of camp. And while texts and emails may have taken over in most parts of the world, handwritten letters from Mom still have a place today in this summertime right of passage. 

Receiving letters during mail call is almost as exciting as opening the mailbox to find hand-scrawled messages from a new friend upon returning home. Correspondence serves as a reminder of the importance of not only meeting new people, but staying intentionally connected as well. 

Similarly, handwritten thank-you notes can be a nice touch after an important interview. And follow-up calls or emails to fellow social-impact professionals can serve as an essential step in fostering new connections to build a broader, more inclusive network.

And while written communication is the norm in many work settings, taking time to check in face-to-face can be a helpful reminder of connection and community during the often busy work day. 

Camp taught us that keeping in touch is key to surviving summer, and this lesson proves equally true when it comes to mastering professional lives as well. 

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Have a favorite lesson from camp that applies in the work world? Share it with us in the comments below.  

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Jill Nawrocki is a Licensed Social Worker and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer living in Brooklyn. She is an ultra runner, freelance writer, and social justice warrior with a background in program management, direct practice, mindfulness, and advocacy.
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