Summer is here — no more tests, projects, or homework for months! You are no doubt excited to take on a different kind of challenge . . . working at camp! But just because summer is here doesn’t mean that the learning ends. No matter what your specific job title, you’ll have the opportunity to switch roles, going from the “student” to the “teacher.”
One of the great things about teaching in the camp environment is that the campers will not expect you to hand them a syllabus on the first day, assign homework, or give tests to ensure that they have mastered the material. Being a teacher myself, I find that I am ALWAYS trying to find ways to make my classroom more like camp and NEVER trying to make camp more like school. So, how do you go about preparing for your role as an activity instructor, especially if you have little or no experience being the person in charge of leading a group to learn where the outdoors is your classroom? Or, if you are a veteran staff member and in charge of a program area, how do you train the staff in your activity and ensure that the campers receive quality instruction? Stay tuned to find out what the Three Little Pigs, duct tape, and camp activities have in common, and you will be well on your way to planning and leading dynamic activity periods this summer!
One of my favorite children’s books is The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. In this book, the author takes the familiar folktale and gives the story a different ending. The Big Bad Wolf who is known for his “huffing and puffing until he blows the little pig’s house down” in the original version is given the opportunity to share the real story of how he was framed (it was all about a sneeze and a cup of sugar) in Scieszka’s book. This ending differs from the tale you most likely heard as a child — just as teaching activities at camp will diverge from the traditional classroom methods you are used to.
Just for a moment, suppose you are in charge of producing a play such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs for the drama program at camp this summer. What do you envision as the key elements or components for putting this together from start to finish? Don’t worry, you don’t have to don your director hat just yet, but the items you put on this brainstorm list — including developing the plot, selecting the venue, gathering up props, choosing costumes, setting the stage, celebrating an outstanding performance during the curtain call, and more — can actually be used as a guide to writing your own “script” to plan just about any activity you might find yourself leading or assisting.
Behind the Scenes
The key word that was just mentioned is PLAN — your success as an activity instructor starts long before you actually TEACH your first class. Just like the plot is important to every story, goals and objectives of a lesson are central to planning activity instruction. Without delving into too much detail, goals are broad statements about what is going to be learned; for example, an activity goal at camp might be hitting the target in archery. Objectives are the tools that will help campers reach this goal such as first watching a demonstration of an experienced archer go through the steps of shooting an arrow using proper techniques. The camper would then imitate these same steps and practice the sequence repeatedly while making the necessary adjustments with the help of coaching tips provided by the instructor until success is achieved.
In addition to the mechanics of learning a physical skill, such as how to do a backhandspring in gymnastics or make a clay pot in ceramics, there will be opportunities to go “behind the scenes” in an activity and teach life skills as well. Life skills may take the form of a camper learning persistence from the many tries it takes to master a back-handspring or patience through sticking with the multi-step process of building a clay pot by starting on the wheel and then achieving a finished product after glazing and firing. Life skills are not usually what a camper thinks of when taking gymnastics or ceramics, but they are just as vital to the activity as the goals and objectives. Great instructors who are aware of what happens “behind the scenes” in an activity can incorporate the teaching of these life skills into each lesson.
Considerations for venue (where will this activity be held?), props (what supplies are needed?), costumes (what will campers need to wear to do this activity?), and management of safety hazards (what risks are associated with this activity?) should be included in the planning phase before any teaching takes place. Some activities will be held indoors due to the nature of the activity (weaving) or outside in a specific location (soccer field), while others may offer options depending on the lesson (taking an off-camp canoe trip as the final activity for the session). No matter where your activity will take place, campers need to know where to meet you and be updated on any changes that might occur from day to day. Having the necessary supplies or equipment available is essential to running your activity. Doing a thorough inventory of what items are on hand at the beginning of the summer and then going through the proper channels to order or purchase additional items will keep your program area running smoothly.
Campers also need to be informed of what to wear or bring to your activity in order to participate, such as close-toed shoes in tennis or long pants and boots for horseback riding. Safety hazards should also be considered so that you can manage any risks that might be associated with a particular activity. This might include educating campers about the importance of swimming with a buddy or how to properly put on a harness and helmet before using the climbing wall. Your camp director will help you provide a safe learning experience for the campers in your activity through various policies and procedures that have already been established.
Thinking through a marketing strategy can be necessary to ensure the success of an activity, especially when campers choose their periods of instruction instead of being assigned to activities by a predetermined group. Staff who promote their activity and sell it to their potential participants will typically have more campers sign up to take the class. Songs, skits, or other creative methods will give campers a preview of the fun they will have in your activity in addition to some of the skills they will learn or goals that will be achieved. Some camps have pre-registration for activities prior to the camp season and then allow campers to make changes within the first few days. Others give campers the opportunity to preview all programs areas before signing up for activities on the first day of the session or have campers choose a daily activity schedule after getting the rundown of offerings at the start of each camp day. Regardless of how your camp handles this process, the enthusiasm and energy you have for your activity will play a large role in whether or not you have campers who are excited to join you!
Setting the Stage
The persons leading an activity should “set the stage” for campers so that they know what to expect at the beginning of each activity period; this will also cut down on many questions later. (Trust me — you will quickly learn to appreciate this!) It is also important to break down a lesson into “acts” or “scenes” of camper action. (What will campers DO throughout the activity period?)
- Scene One in a swimming class may be a warm-up exercise using a beach ball with an assortment of drills (fifteen bobs, twenty-five yards of flutter kick, etc.) written in permanent marker. Campers would then toss the ball around to different members of the group and then do the warmup closest to the right thumb of the person holding the ball when it comes to a stop.
- Scene Two might be focusing on the leg movements of each stroke through practice of the flutter, frog, scissors, and dolphin kicks using fun noodles.
- Scene Three could be playing the game of “Categories” while incorporating the different kicks.
- Scene Four would conclude the class by having campers play “Fox and Rabbit” while treading water using the various kicks and passing two beach balls around the circle.
You may also want to consider the element of surprise and include something in your activity that will add an unexpected “twist” to what campers normally anticipate will happen. This will keep campers on the “edge of their seats” and coming back for more. This may be as simple as playing basketball with a tennis ball or having three goals in soccer instead of two. Or it could be that campers are asked to bring their socks (use duct tape to keep socks on campers’ feet, otherwise there will be an excess of footwear at the bottom of the pool/lake!) to swim class on a day when they will be focusing on learning the different types of kicks as illustrated in Scenes One through Four above. (This innovative idea is from a staff member I had the pleasure of working with at Camp Illahee in North Carolina.)
It is always good to have a “plan B” in mind in the event something does not go according to the script, such as an unexpected change in the camp schedule or campers getting through something you had planned at lightning speed, leaving unfilled minutes in the period. An entire day of inclement weather can be a huge bummer if your activity is normally held outside, and lack of prior planning for this can make for a very long day for both you and your campers.
Another superstar Illahee counselor was extremely creative when it came to teaching soccer after several days of rain one summer. Because the fields were nothing but puddles of water and mud, this counselor took her entire class and had them playing hacky sack soccer under the eaves on the back porch of the lodge using overturned benches and other handy pieces of furniture. While many camp staff resort to playing “bored” games in this situation, this inventive staff member was able to keep some resemblance of her activity (and have fun while doing it!) regardless of the difficult conditions.
Planning ahead to manage certain scenarios that might occur while teaching your activity will help you adapt more easily should these potentially challenging circumstances actually occur. It is possible that you could end up with differences in age or skill levels within the same class, and it may be best to break up the class into smaller groups to be more effective than trying to handle all campers together. It is also helpful to be aware that there are times when class sizes are uneven, and so you may have a team sports period with three campers or an arts and crafts class with twenty-five (and there is only space for fifteen). Coordinating with the other staff teaching in your program area will help alleviate some of the challenges you will most likely face at some point as an activity instructor. I challenge you to come up with alternative plans for your activity BEFORE you ever have to use them!
As you approach the “final wrap” of each lesson, it will be helpful to think through how to bring an activity to a close and include campers in the clean-up process so that you aren’t left scrambling as one period ends and another begins. For example, have campers put canoe paddles on racks and hang up lifejackets on hooks in the beach house before transitioning to the next camp activity. Unfortunately, if this is not incorporated into your daily routine, you will be left to put all equipment/ supplies away by yourself.
Last but not least, the “curtain call” for your activity should include unique and specific ways to recognize campers for a job well done, whether that includes ongoing praise during an activity or at the end of a class or camp session. Some activities have designated awards for achieving various skill levels (American Red Cross swim program), or you may want to enlist the resourcefulness of your fellow staff to create your own awards or certificates to acknowledge the accomplishments of the campers in your classes.
Lights, camera, action! Now that the planning phase is complete (whew!), you are finally ready to actually TEACH your activity. The best advice that I can offer you is that being a great instructor is not a spectator sport. You may not be the star basketball player or the Picasso of arts and crafts, but your enthusiastic involvement throughout each activity period will provide campers with the best possible environment in which to learn new skills. As they say in show business, “Break a leg!”
What are some examples of the "behind the scenes" life skills that will be taught in addition to the physical skills for the activities you will be teaching this summer?
What is an unexpected "twist" you can incorporate into each activity that will take campers by surprise?
What are some creative "plan B" ideas that can be used in each activity in the event you need to deviate from your original lesson?
Kim Aycock, MST, has twenty-five years of experience blending the skills of a master teacher with the knowledge of a seasoned camp expert. She trains camp staff at all levels and speaks professionally at regional and nat