The ABCD’s of Orientation Planning

by Greg Cronin, CCD

So many topics . . . so little time. Planning staff orientation is one of the most time-consuming, difficult tasks camp directors do. Each year, in addition to camp-specific content, new regulations must be included in already overtaxed schedules. With changing weather patterns and school schedules becoming unpredictable, how are camp leaders going to have time to produce quality orientations?

This logistical programming puzzle begins the amazing experience we call camp. Even with all the constraints, most of the important topics get covered, and it seems like just yesterday we were hearing old Uncle Bill tell everyone to conserve water and not to use too much toilet paper. While that speech may never get old, preparing staff for summer 2007 requires a fresh approach with lots of insight. By now you should have a well-prepared, interactive, and fun schedule planned, which features more theater than teaching.

Open your orientation file to assure your existing plan contains exactly the right content to meet your expectations. Start by visualizing the ending (what you want to have accomplished) and work back towards the beginning. Include a variety of tactics for transferring important information while you simultaneously model preferred teaching methods. Important note: keep the orientation schedule as close to the actual schedule as possible. This will help staff become accustomed to their new environment using the natural rhythm of a typical camp day.

Set the Tone

Directors have the responsibility to set the tone for the summer. The three most common ways staff interpret camp culture are:

  • unspoken actions appearing in director behavior;
  • stories/examples used by supervisors; and
  • what is allowed to happen.

Staff will carefully observe everything leaders do and immediately form judgments. New staff will use their backgrounds as students and mentally evaluate everyone in the same manner as they do their teachers. Returning staff will look to reinforce their opinions from the previous year, or in the case of a difficult summer, wait to “see” changes. Caution: camp leaders should transmit both form and structure when using stories as a training technique. This type of teaching provides a direction for the expected norm by conveying trust through relevant camp experiences.

Preparing staff to be proficient in all aspects of camp life is an extremely difficult task. Regardless of the type of camp you run, the precamp orientation time is all about informing staff of policies and procedures while helping them with their own personal transition. Remember, they just finished school and final examinations, some have come directly from school to camp with no break, others are worried about being away from home, a few will question their decision to be there, and some will have reasons unbeknownst to you.

Staff are accustomed to knowing what the course contents are for their classes or what skills they must possess to make a team—camp should be no different. It is important to inform staff what your objectives are for orientation and how they support the camp’s mission. Do this early on day one of orientation. Don’t go “objective crazy” when you write or (re-write) these, but it does take some time. You should have at least ten to fifteen objectives for orientation, and some camps have a lot more. It is important to remember your purpose for orientation. Staff can only effectively absorb so much before they begin to disengage. By the time they seem bored, lackadaisical, or disinterested, they have already checked out mentally. When introducing new material, make it interesting!

Writing Objectives

Quality objectives take time to write and should include four essential components. The ABCD’s of writing objectives ensure you will include:

  • Audience
  • Behavior
  • Conditions
  • Degree

The audience is who will be doing the learning. Behavior is described as a verb and object which describes an observable action. Conditions are the limitations placed on staff when they are evaluated. Degree is the decision point or acceptable performance the staff member attains to prove they have mastered the objective.

For example, let’s say your orientation list includes an objective like “all staff will get acquainted with each other.” The idea is good, and you obviously see the intrinsic value in staff becoming familiar with one another, so how do we make it better? In other words, how do you know each staff member is actually accomplishing this task? Remembering our ABCD’s, we could improve the objective by restating it as follows: Through a series of social interaction activities (condition), all staff (audience) will actively participate (behavior) in a five-day precamp orientation (degree). It is now your responsibility to carefully plan the type of games, special events, skits, role-playing, or team building that will accomplish your objective.

Other common areas for typical orientation objectives are: learning about health and safety procedures, becoming familiar with behavior management philosophy, following daily camp routines, skill development, getting to know group or cabin campers, knowing special-event procedures, how to integrate new and returning campers, dining hall policies, specialty area expectations, and the like.

Incorporate Critical Absolutes

Being able to incorporate these ideas with necessary day-to-day camp operations is a seemingly daunting task. Even though orientation time is short, successful programs are able to accomplish their objectives because they understand how to incorporate several critical absolutes known as FOID (fun, organized, interactive, directors).

Without getting into a literal discussion about what is or is not fun, decide—based on your clientele—how to make the orientation experience fun. Do not wait until the campers arrive and hope the staff will automatically change their collective attitude and “know” how to have fun. Having fun can be difficult, and many times it is a learned skill. In addition to the activities themselves, ensure senior staff incorporate a brief “how to” when leading these activities. They can mention camp-specific examples when it comes to planning, teaching, equipment and facility usage, supervision, rules, or expectations.

Each aspect of orientation must be organized. Remember, model the behavior you want your staff to emulate. To accomplish this, quality camps meet with senior staff prior to orientation in order to present a united front. During these meetings, decide how and when information will be presented. This includes reviewing the overall schedule for content, logistics, and time. Don’t forget to incorporate areas like food service, office, health center, transportation, and maintenance. When organizing the times and activities, make the orientation experience as close to the “regular” camp schedule as possible. Plan activities and/or workshops to reflect typical periods or mods. In addition, carefully organize when active and interactive activities are offered. For each topic presented, keep in mind what it follows, what time of day it is, what day of orientation it is, and who is doing the leading. By doing this, you will set the standard by which all activities will be conducted when the campers arrive.

To maximize the time and effort spent to counselor participation ratio, specifically include a lot of interactive activities. Not only will staff learn by doing, but they will also appreciate being included in the creation of what they produce. If you think historically about their background of being in school or having to follow some sort of curriculum, getting a chance to affect an outcome via personal involvement is magic. Young people are not often asked to participate in the creation of what they do—but they like it. Including staff in carefully selected aspects of program development will begin to instill a sense of personal pride toward job performance.

To form a meaningful parallel process of appropriate actions, direction comes from the top down. This means directors take an active role in orientation. The way to contribute without compromising authority is to pick your spots for participation. Have specific moments like greeting staff when they arrive, wearing a costume, or making an important announcement built into your schedule. Camp leaders participate in activities (even if you do so by proclamation) and be on hand for the results. While working with a camp last summer, the director told me his time was extremely limited and could not think of a way to participate in activities. It turned out the “crazy T-shirt fashion show” was scheduled for the evening activity. I suggested he call in the CITs and have them make him one. Just before the contest, the CITs proudly presented him an awesome shirt he wore to kick off the show.

Understanding the Camp Experience

Throughout the orientation experience, staff need to be informed in a manner and language they understand. Since their learning patterns are heavily influenced by instant information/gratification (Internet, cell phones, ATM cards), use orientation to teach them the value in understanding the camp experience. Staff are conditioned to having personal wants quickly resolved or they get impatient. Crucial Camp Concepts (the three C’s) such as making friends, developing desired behavior, listening, skill development, respecting others, and the like take time to accomplish. Herein lies your big dilemma. Aahh!! You are asking staff to work on a process of child development when they, themselves, need time to acquire some of the same skills.

The magic of camp lies in the process of children (and staff) learning life skills while challenging personal limits. Because camps use fun activities as a vehicle to accomplish this, most campers do not realize what they are learning. Choose orientation directors for their ability to be fun, firm, and sensitive. When carefully done, orientation will begin to empower staff to make good decisions on a consistent basis.

Setting the Stage

Staff have every possible emotion when it comes to orientation. Some will count the days with eager anticipation while others will virtually dread the thought of being asked to participate in uncomfortable situations. Directors can quickly blend both sides of this emotional continuum together by giving staff some basic suggestions for developing good working relationships:

  • Begin by telling them the administrative staff is there to support their needs.
  • Let them know you will be available in the difficult times as the complexities of the summer become stressful.
  • Be proactive by explaining you will be fair, professional, and nonjudgmental.
  • Give them examples of what being “fair” or “professional” means.
  • Ease their anxiety by outlining what you have planned for staff-only recreation. Create an option for them to participate in this process.
  • Tell staff everyone has something to offer. Explain that the camp experience will be greatly enhanced by knowing what hidden talents people have.
  • Stress to staff that their ideas are important. It not only leads to great suggestions, it helps the camp to come together by fostering a “we” attitude.
  • Thank them in advance for their contributions. Their daily decisions will be the foundation by which moral and behavioral decisions are made.

These are all good points and you can add a lot more, but do not stop here. Educate staff to recognize what building positive relationships will look like once camp starts. Remember, if you are going to model the behavior you want them to follow, lead by example. It is not enough to make caring statements during orientation and hope they are followed. Your credibility as a director is at stake. Everyone in camp will judge you on everything you do and say. From the staff’s perspective, what you do (or allow) is often more powerful than what you say. Experienced directors use this to their advantage and acknowledge examples of staff being professional, fair, or supportive.

Highly effective tools which acknowledge staff for specific acts of relationship building should be a daily part of camp life. Once these are started during orientation, staff will strive to create new “types” of achievement which often reflect their unique personalities. Examples of this kind of creativity are: staff fuzzies, meal time staff trivia, star boards for divisional awards, specialty area “things” for recognizing great behavior, “I caught you doing something good” tell-a-grams, or positive postings for weekly heroics.

Driven by Purpose

Successful orientations should be driven as much by purpose as they are by schedule. While the majority of time is taken by responsibilities, skills, program functions, and communication techniques, transition time is frequently overlooked. This awkward time in the schedule is not just going from one place to another. Sometimes it happens when a specialist is late or inclement weather prevents normal programming and suddenly you have an extra ten or fifteen minutes of pure counselor stress. Put a scenario like this in orientation, and talk about the concept of “never a wasted moment.” You can tell who your great counselors are by how they fill this time. Make sure all staff have several quick activities they can do when these moments arise.

In addition to quirks in the schedule, staff can quickly become frustrated if they are lost or unsure with whom to talk to about a problem. During orientation have staff learn where to go by modeling the process you want them to follow. Be innovative, inclusive, and fun as you describe how they will learn where everything is. Approach this differently each year by using a game, scavenger hunt, map contest, riddles, mystery, relay, or location bingo.

Each day of orientation have counselors, specialists, CITs, or any group play SLT or staff laser tag. The idea is to have all staff meet directors, supervisors, support staff, and anyone they may have to seek out to get a problem resolved. Instead of lasers, have staff fire questions to prepare them for the summer. Rotate groups and have everyone compare answers over a make-your-own sundae assembly.

The Well-Planned Orientation

Creating an effective orientation, given the constraints of time and content, can be difficult. By planning carefully and working from the end toward the beginning, you will be successful. Begin with directors setting the tone for establishing camp culture. Use this to help individual staff with their personal transitions as they get used to the new environment. Fine tune orientation content by creating objectives using the ABCD method. Successful programs incorporate critical absolutes known as FOID. Staff trained in a language they understand will enable them to interpret the three C’s. This is accomplished by assuring staff the benefits of developing good relationships and how to handle transition time. To relieve potential logistical frustration, staff will learn where to go and whom to contact for information.

You will see immediate results from a well-planned orientation. Once staff are empowered with culture, skills, and knowledge, they will be motivated to lead your campers through an unforgettable experience which will forever change their lives.

Greg Cronin, CCD, of Cronin Consultants and Training has over twenty-five years of resident and day camp management experience. For information on staff trainings, workshops, and conference presentations, please call 703-395-6661 or e-mail

Originally published in the 2007 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.