Youth coaches, camp counselors, and after-school staff are committed to the well-being of the children in their programs. A vital part of this dedication includes engaging with children in games and other fun activities. Sometimes, however, staff members take this too far and end up injuring themselves or children. It’s important to train staff members and consistently remind them that their primary responsibilities are to supervise and ensure the safety of the children in their care.
While playing a challenging game of dodge ball with a group of campers, a counselor was running fast to catch a ball. He tripped and fell, tearing his ACL. This required extensive and painful surgery. On top of that, he had to spend the rest of his summer on crutches instead of swimming and hiking with his campers and fellow counselors.
The most common workers’ compensation injury we see is from athletic activity. These are injuries to staff from activities with children, such as being hit by a ball, falling while skating with campers, and sustaining a back injury from throwing kids in the air. On top of that are all the injuries children can experience when their counselors are playing too hard, such as broken bones and concussions. These can be very costly for an organization.
Preventing injuries like this isn’t a simple process. Staff members need to be engaging and interacting with the children in their care; this strengthens relationships and gets children interested in the activity. We cannot simply recommend that staff stop interacting with children since this is an integral part of their job; however, supervision and safety are much more important and this must be communicated to all staff members.
So how can a manager explain the importance of walking the fine line between participating and supervising to a young camp counselor? Focus on what will happen if they get hurt. If they tear an ACL, they may think they’ll just get to lay on the couch all summer and it won’t be a big deal. Instead, give them a list of all the light-duty work they’ll be required to do around the camp or Y, like paperwork, folding towels, sitting at the arts and crafts table, kitchen duty, and more. They’ll miss all the fun parts of being a counselor! This is a great way to drive home this point to young staff members.
It’s also very important to use well-crafted and accurate job descriptions. The American Camp Association has a sample job description for camp counselors that includes participating in activities with children but also lists supervision as the number-one essential job function. Spend time developing a job description that clearly explains what each counselor’s duties are. Supervision and safety should top the list. During hiring, be sure to review this with each staff member and emphasize important points, such as participating with children in a safe way.
One section of a job description for camp counselors must contain information about physical fitness requirements. Many jobs require employees to be able to lift 50 pounds; a camp counselor is no exception. Be sure to include physical activities you’ll expect your staff to be able to do. Have them sign off that they’re capable of performing these activities safely and without injury. Physically-fit staff members will be less likely to get hurt.
Participation and Other Staff Members
While playing a game with children, staff members should be focused on the kids who are struggling or not engaged in the activity. Keeping all children involved and participating is important. This will also prevent counselors from getting too competitive if they’re trying to find opportunities to include reluctant participants. Finally, empower staff members to speak up if they see another counselor getting too intense. Counselors can remind each other that the primary focus is the children and not the game.
Participating in sports and playing games are arguably some of the benefits of working with kids. It’s fun! Staff members, however, should always remember they’re interacting with children who are often much smaller than them. It’s not a competition; rather counselors are there to facilitate and manage the games. The best staff members will instruct and engage their kids and model appropriate sports behavior while still supervising and allowing the children to compete with each other. Establishing clear guidelines for staff members can help prevent costly injuries and keep kids safe.