By the time you finish reading this article, you will be able to identify over a dozen ways to improve the training you and your leadership team deliver. You will know how to craft training sessions where you say less and your learners retain more.

That prediction is itself an example of the first step in effective teaching: know before you go. Stating your objectives so your participants know what is ahead helps prepare their brains for receiving the information to come. It also may be phrased as the hook that excites your learners and sparks their curiosity.

So start training with a promise to the learner. This promise needs to share what benefit they can expect by taking part in this particular training, be it new knowledge, improved skills, or camp counselor superpowers. Such statements will also guide the creation of your lesson plan so that it leads to your desired outcome.

Start your promise by completing this sentence: “By the end of this lesson, the learners will be able to . . .” For example:

  • De-escalate a conflict
  • Restring an archery bow
  • Start a lanyard
  • Clean up a program area
  • Keep campers on task

In pedagogy, this is known as the “anticipatory set.” It is the way we prime the pump and excite the brain for new learning. You have seen this before if you have ever read a video title on YouTube. Why do you click on the link? Because this video promises it will “double your net worth”; “fix your leaking sink”; “show you a montage of cat videos.” In the vast world of information that exists at our fingertips, people need a bit of a roadmap to where they are heading in order to prepare their brains to categorize and retain the information they are about to receive.

Structuring Your Staff’s Instruction

The second step in effective teaching is writing a lesson plan. Because time is tight for staff training, we need to use this precious time as efficiently as possible. Having and executing a plan is a key tool in the camp director’s toolbox, and a lesson plan may be one of the most powerful aids of all.

Gone are the days where we put a list of topics on the orientation schedule then ask members of the leadership team to stand on the stage of the amphitheater and drone on to drowsy staff. Folks in charge of training must move away from lectures where learners simply sit-and-get from a “sage on the stage” (BEETLES, 2022).

Instead, we should train leaders to reimagine themselves as the “guides on the side” (BEETLES, 2022). Today’s learner is sophisticated enough to demand bite-sized chunks of learning that they see as valuable to them. They want to be involved in the learning. Adult learners, especially, want to share their prior knowledge and contribute. Just as camp should be fun, learning how to deliver camp should be fun as well as collaborative.

Consider how, if you have a leaky faucet at camp, you might search for a video to walk you through how to stop the leak. You play the video as you attempt to conduct the repair — pressing pause while you try your hand at what is shown in the video and replaying sections that are confusing.

Modern learners are used to practicing such hands-on skills. So instead of lecturing for an hour and then trying all the skills at once when the campers arrive, can we demonstrate a skill, pause our lecture, and allow learners to practice the skill they just learned?

By structuring a lesson this way, learners have a chance to populate questions as they apply their new knowledge. The questions that arise are more connected to the learners’ own understanding of the information. They connect with the material more deeply and gain a more profound understanding of how this new knowledge works in real time. As a bonus, the facilitator is able to frequently check each learner’s comprehension during practice.

In addition, this ongoing frequent practice-assessment-feedback cycle assuages the modern learner’s ever-nagging question, “Am I doing this right?”

Activities Are Awesome

Activity-based learning that enables adult learners to share prior knowledge on the topic at hand expands their engagement. In “Characteristics of Adult Learners,” Connie Malamed explains that adult learners like to share their “wealth of knowledge,” stating, “In the journey from childhood to adulthood, people accumulate a unique store of knowledge and experiences. They bring this depth and breadth of knowledge to the learning situation” (Malamed, 2009).

Drawing on staff members’ memories of childhood, their feelings about how they navigated congregate living and learning environments and their perspective on risk taking/risk management from their personal history can form an excellent basis for exploring the many staff orientation topics.

Activity-based learning is fun. Costumes, props, and music help too. When trying to find a good balance of content delivery and activity-based learning, try using the ratio of one-third lecture and two-thirds activity.

You have many types of activities at your disposal to mix in to your training techniques. Here is a list of examples:

  • Add-a-bit — Each person sequentially adds a part to the sequence.
  • Alphabet / A to Z — Brainstorm with participants a list of concepts and words related to the topic you are teaching.
  • Brainstorm — Generate a written list in which learners share whatever comes to mind.
  • Dad jokes — Tell hilarious jokes that offend nobody. Mostly they just make people groan at the pun.
  • Demonstration — Show whatever concept you are teaching about in real time. Demonstrate what it should look like, sound like, and feel like.
  • Fill in the blank — Distribute a handout with certain key words missing so participants can fill in the missing words as you teach.
  • Find your partner — Split up definitions or concepts on index cards, by definition and vocabulary word. Then, after partners have found each other based on matching cards, they will discuss.
  • Fish bowl — Have participants enact a scenario in the middle of a circle of the other participants.
  • Gallery walk — Create stations around the training space with large pieces of paper and markers. Learners rotate through the various stations in small groups at timed intervals and add input to each station.
  • Games — Have fun with these hands-on activities that can often be tied to or used as metaphors for the concepts you are teaching.
  • Opposites list — Generate a list of traits/skills/behaviors that are opposite to those you are training about.
  • Pair and share — Turn and talk to a neighbor (or neighbors) to discuss a question given to the group.
  • Phrase that pays — Ask learners to share one word or phrase about what they just learned that is meaningful to them.
  • Picture charades — Review knowledge shared by inviting participants to draw.
  • Quadrants — Use an X- and a Y-axis to create four areas where learners can categorize or voice opinions about what they’ve learned.
  • Quiz/Test — Test participant knowledge with an old-school pop quiz or test.
  • Rate 1–5 — Ask learners to hold up their fingers or a number written on paper to represent a rating from easiest to hardest, least funny to most funny, worst to best, etc.
  • Role-playing — Play out a scenario as if you were experiencing the real situation you are teaching about.
  • Stand up and sit down — Say to your learners, “Stand up if . . .” followed by statements that may apply to them as a way to gauge interest or make a connection.
  • Statues (move the person) — Act out a scenario with “statues”: actors who can speak but cannot move their own bodies. Other learners physically move those playing statues to show the actions to be taken.
  • Toss object — Engage your participants by throwing an object to one another.
  • Write It Before You Talk (WIBYT) — Invite participants to jot down their thoughts on paper or their phones before sharing out to their neighbor or group (Brandwein, 2003).

Elements of Effective Instruction

Madeline Hunter’s (2004) elements of effective instruction can dramatically improve camp training sessions. These include the:

  1. Anticipatory Set
  2. Objective
  3. Standards/Expectations
  4. Input
  5. Modeling
  6. Check of Understanding
  7. Guided Practice
  8. Independent Practice
  9. Closure

The following is an example of a modified version of a lesson plan that can be used at camp using research-based techniques for your lesson plan’s structure and delivery:

This is a lesson about ___________________.

Objectives — By the end of this lesson, the learner will be able to . . .

Materials — Items I need to deliver this lesson include . . .

Anticipatory Set — Start the session by saying to learners . . . (making sure this sentence conveys a clear and exciting direct benefit they can expect to have by the end of the session).

Content — Consider what participants already know and how you know this, what they need to know, and how you will know participants “got it.”

Process — One-third content delivery; two-thirds activities, discussion, and practice.

Reflect — Ask the following:

  • “What do you want to remember from this training?”
  • “How do you think you will use what you learned in this training?”
  • “What questions do you still have about the topics from this training?”

Time Is Tight — Teach with Two-Fers

A laundry list of topics that must be covered during staff training can appear daunting if every topic has its own space on the schedule. Consider how you can meet multiple objectives during one session.

Savvy trainers look for activities that teach a new concept and help bring their camp staff together. Take the example of a simple ice-breaker question. A prompt such as “Tell me something about yourself that I wouldn’t know just by looking at you” can get people to share about themselves and build camaraderie, but it can also provide the foundation for a discussion around assumptions, stereotyping, and prejudice.

You can also consider what systems could be taught for a variety of scenarios that might occur at camp. Instead of hosting individual, 30-minute training sessions where one is about homesickness, another about conflict, and one about behavior management and bullying, etc., try hosting one longer “Working with Campers” session that is structured as follows:

  1. Teach staff an easy-to-remember, four-step system and the objective of each step in a TED Talk-style lecture. For example, 1) listening, 2) validating, 3) problem-solving, and 4) planning.
  2. Guide learners in practicing each of these four steps and applying them to a variety of common situations at camp. Refer to the activities list previously shared for an assortment of ways to help participants discuss, practice, and brainstorm how this four-step system might play out at camp.
  3. Encourage staff to raise their questions or to work with one another to discuss potential flaws or problems with the system.
  4. Reflect on what was learned, what was useful, and what training is still needed on the topic.

Train Like Ted

Another place to find great examples of delivering compelling instruction is in the TV show Ted Lasso, a comedy series about an American college football coach who heads to England to manage a struggling English Premier League soccer team. TED Talks can also be helpful, offering videos of presentations from TED conferences and events. While Ted Lasso provides excellent examples of the social-emotional work of counselors and how to build amity, TED Talks provide excellent examples of hooking the learner with a great opening (“The most surprising thing about the day I died was . . .”) and use of concise and well-honed storytelling techniques to draw the learner into a deeper understanding.

Such storytelling can be a powerful way to convey a message, especially if the audience is allowed to learn from the speaker’s mistakes. When leaders own their mistakes and invite their followers to learn from them, it can build trust in the leader and help the followers avoid the same pitfalls.

There are great examples of solid training skills to share with your leadership team all around us. Many are inexpensive and easy to access. Ted Lasso is ostensibly a fish-out-of-water story of a befuddled American trying to navigate British culture. Looking deeper, it is about bringing out the best in people, highlighting their strengths, and uniting them. Sounds like camp.

Ted models empathy and caring in the role of coach, and watching episodes or even scenes with your leadership team and debriefing the skills on display might make a fun and useful exercise. Ted provides an example that skills and drills are important, but your staff training time can provide a critical opportunity to improve social and emotional muscles and develop a stronger team (Hunt et al., 2020).


BEETLES. (2022). Questioning strategies: How questions impact teaching and learning.…

Brandwein, M. (2003). Learning leadership: How to develop outstanding teen leadership training programs at camp. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.

Hunt, B., Lawrence, B., & Kelly, J. (2020). Ted Lasso. Apple TV.

Hunter, M. (2004). Mastery teaching: Increasing instructional effectiveness in elementary and secondary schools, Updated Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Malamed, C. (2009). Characteristics of adult learners. The eLearning Coach.

John Beitner is the American Camp Association’s western region director.

Stephanie "Ruby" Compton is a cohost on the Camp Code podcast and can be reached at

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