A Day in the Life

by Jeremy Mortorff

Date: Any sweltering day in June, July, or August

Location: Unnamed aquatic facility in Central Pennsylvania

10:15am-Clocking in for the day

Getting in a little early for my shift today. Starting the day with adult fitness hour. Wonder how many fights I’ll have to break-up between the walkers and the lap swimmers? Can’t we all just get along?

10:30am-Grab my tube, hip pack, and head out to the stand

Looks like a pretty large group of patrons today for fitness hour. We have our regular lap swimmers and a few fresh faces. Must be because the local indoor fitness center pool is closed.

11:45am-Summer camp arrives

Ahhh yes, the influx of K-5 aged children. Hoping that the supervision is good today. We have summer camps from around the area that bring their groups to our facility on a weekly basis.

12:30pm-More people, more people

We are definitely reaching capacity today. That line at the admission desk hasn’t let up since we opened. Makes sense since it is the first 90 degree day we’ve had in a week or so. Hoping that the ”on-call” guard actually comes in today when requested…

2pm-I’m going in!!!

I scan my zone, left to right, top to middle, middle to bottom. Everything has gone great so far today. Parents have been really attentive, being right there within arm’s length of their children. Summer camp counselors have been outstanding. Other guards have been awesome too – addressing issues before they become large problems. I continue to scan…that child that just went down the waterslide…they look panicked. Their eyes are bugging out…they’re stuck in the current at the bottom of the slide…TWEET-TWEET-TWEET!!!


One of the responding guards carries a clipboard with a rescue report and we locate the adult responsible for the child. They are shocked that their child required saving. I explain that the current at the bottom of the water slide is very strong and that can sometimes present issues, even for a decent swimmer. We have the adult help us fill out the report. They tell the child they’ll have to skip the slide until they can get out of the current successfully. The adult thanks us for being there to keep their child safe. This makes it worth it!

4pm-People leaving…aka the Mass Exodus

It’s 4pm and a lot of guests are now leaving for the day. Off to get Chick-fil-A for their quick dinner before baseball and softball practice tonight. Summer camps have gone too, so the crowds are much more manageable now. Though it isn’t all sunshine and roses. There is a rowdy group of young men that are continually dismissing the requests of lifeguards and begin mocking them. I’m the lucky target right now…


“Sir, I’m sorry, but you can’t swim in denim pants.” The confused look on his face indicates to me that he doesn’t understand or just doesn’t care. I double tweet to get a manager out to take it from there. The manager comes out and immediately understands my struggle. They calmly explain to the guest the reasons why denim is not an acceptable form of swimming attire. The entire time I’m thinking to myself wet jeans CANNOT be comfortable…

7pm-Swim lessons

This is my favorite time of day. I love teaching our children and youth swimming skills. After all, swimming is a life-skill and everyone can benefit from it! The group of children I have this week are amazing! They are really engaged, listening, and trying all of the skills we present. The safety topic each day is my favorite part!

8pm-Closing time

It’s 8pm and we close the facility for the day. My chore today is the bath house, which is lovely because it usually takes all visitors at least 20 minutes to finish up in there after closing. What exactly are they doing in there???

Anyhow, I take the time to help out with the organizing of the guard office and bag a few rounds of trash. The amount of trash that is made on a busy day at an aquatic facility is mind-blowing.

The last patron exits the bath house and I head in there, gloved up, to assess the damages. Not too bad, amazingly. That means that my fellow guards did a great job when they had their checks throughout the day. It’s just a few paper towels, a diaper (really????), a pair of goggles and a towel.

I check in with the Head Guard and then head to the manager’s office to fill out my timesheet. Today is the end of our pay period, so I take a little extra time to check my math, total my timesheet, sign it, and hand it to the manager on duty.

As I head out to my car, I reflect on the day, especially the rescue that I had. Thank goodness for our in-service training schedule that keeps us sharp and ready to respond to any emergency that could come our way. While I dread the early mornings and late nights when they take place, these are the moments I’m grateful for the thoroughness of our training. 

Here’s to hoping that tomorrow someone doesn’t try to swim in a velour sweatsuit…


Communicating with Clarity

by Derek Muller

Welcome back to summer camp! You’ve booked your trips and entertainment, secured your basic supplies, and drafted your calendar of events. Your summer staff is on the payroll. Nothing can go wrong!

It’s the night before camp, and your email won’t stop buzzing. Parents have a million questions, and they’ve waited until the last minute to ask them. You answer their questions about lunches, medications, daily activities, staffing ratios, camp-appropriate clothing, and anything else that may be included in those emails. NOW you’re ready for tomorrow.

The morning comes, and you drive to camp. Parents immediately launch questions at you. Your counselors aren’t entirely sure what they should be doing with the kids as they’re signed in. When you finally get a chance to breathe, your mental to-do list is maxed out. You know you can’t do all of this by yourself, so now you need to delegate.

We all love the idea of delegating, but it’s very difficult for us in practice. It’s not because we’re control freaks. It’s hard because it involves a great deal of communication, and communicating effectively is challenging. When we develop our camps, festivals, and programs, it’s easy for us to picture every detail in our heads. Externalizing it for others takes intentionality and perspective.

Communication is a complex topic to tackle in a single blog post, so here are some quick tips on communication that I’ve found helpful in my career. They are framed around summer camp, but they can be translated to planning other programs and your community festivals.

Put It In Writing

Creating documents is tedious and time-consuming. However, they are necessary to provide clear information. Some documents that I’ve found helpful are:

• Registration Guides

• Parent Handbooks

• Staff Handbooks

Regularly Communicate

A simple email previewing the coming week works wonders. Sure, you probably shared the information for the whole season in your handbook or beginning of the year welcome email, but people forget. Sending timely reminders is key to effective communication with program participants and parents. Include your staff on these emails so they know what parents are being told.

Assign Tasks (Delegate)

How many times have you ended a conversation with, “Great! We’ll do that.”? There’s a good chance the task was either not completed, or that it was done twice. Delegating isn’t being pushy. By clarifying who is responsible for specific tasks, the potential for miscommunication and conflict is minimized. If you clearly task your Camp Director with creating the rosters for the upcoming week, they will get done. If you leave it as either you or your Camp Director will create the rosters for the upcoming week, you’ll end up with zero or two copies of the roster. Never leave a conversation without clearly defining the next action and who is responsible.

Use the Right Tools

There is a seemingly infinite number of communication channels and apps. While they were all designed to enhance our communication, using too many of these tools complicates communication. Meet with your team and choose the channels that will be used to communicate, and when each means will be used.

Keeping these four concepts in mind won’t completely end your communication troubles, but you will experience a much more streamlined process that keeps parents and staff alike on the same page.

Building Confident Campers

One of the most recognizable points of growth in our campers is of their confidence through opportunities for risky play in nature.

Summer was one of the most memorable times of childhood. As an environmental educator for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, I have the privilege of supporting these lifetime memories with the children and families who attend our summer camps.

At the Wissahickon Environmental Center (Tree House) specifically, we focus our camp on  youth-led experiences that allow for the whole child to grow based on their interest and abilities.

Camp is my favorite time for these experiences because we have them for at least a week, which enables them to build each day on the prior days’ successes

One of the most recognizable points of growth in our campers is of their confidence through opportunities for risky play in nature.

We learned the depth of this pattern by asking the following questions at the end of the week:

What was your favorite part of the week?

What was your biggest challenge?

What are you most proud of? 

The last two often correlate as they state they are most proud of overcoming their biggest challenge. This is where the true value of summer camp lies.

Although the Tree House has 100+ acres of nature surrounding it, nearby or neighborhood nature should never be overlooked. There is a wealth of nature and opportunities for risky play available at any playground. Have you ever witnessed the ants on spilled ice cream, butterflies on the ball field, or squirrels never far from picnic tables? How about climbing the backstop and seeing birds just as high, or digging in the extra mound of baseball sand and wondering where all the worms are? Asking questions like these is one way to help youth see that nature really is everywhere!

It is vital to a child’s success for these experiences to be supported by a trusted adult, so for us, this means that we become “hummingbird” teachers. (Are you picturing yourself as a hummingbird? I always do.) Basically, we stand back and allow our campers to work out their challenges, only swooping in when it is absolutely necessary. Of course this does not mean that they go unsupported, but when they are given the tools and autonomy to choose how they will navigate their world, the outcome is increased confidence. 

For example, before we climb rocks (or anything), I tell them to recognize what shoes they have on. What they may have been able to do on another day in a different pair of  shoes on the same set of rocks does not matter at that moment. Nor does what they see others doing. I encourage them to do what they can do, with what they have, listen to their body, and act on what’s best for them right then. When they are stuck, we demonstrate a few solutions, identify the risks, and they decide what’s best. Sometimes they move forward, and sometimes they return to flat ground with a plan to try again later. In either scenario, however, the camper never leaves the situation disappointed, which is key. 

In addition to building confidence, allowing kids to engage in risky play like climbing also results in more learning! They connect with different  rock formations and see plants and animals they may not have otherwise seen.

Injury is always a concern, and knock on wood, we have yet to have risky play injuries that needed more than a Band-Aid. We’ve needed to do more advanced first-aid for yellow jacket swarms, stinging nettle, and tick bites (all stories for another time), but the confidence risky play builds actually makes their play safer. We discuss First Aid at the beginning of camp which is another great example of how nature-based learning furthers independence.

Why all this talk about summer camp in January? Because that’s when camp planning begins. The thought of summer is never far from mind when programming in parks and recreation. 

Regardless of your site or camp structure, there is an opportunity for us all to incorporate risky-play and other opportunities that build confidence, independence and empowerment, and now is the time to dream big.  

Children climb rocks

Alexa, youth educator with Philadelphia Youth Network, supports campers as they climb an outcrop of Wissahickon Schist seen on their hike.

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