Many camp staff are responsible for activities instruction as part of their job. If you have never taught before, the idea of instructing a group of campers can be a scary proposition. Being in front of a group presenting material can be challenging — and for some activities, a seemingly unlimited amount of material must be taught to campers in a limited amount of time.

But there is no better place to learn to teach than at camp, a place filled with enthusiastic learners and a supportive environment. And, while it might be scary at first, there’s no better way to learn how to teach than just jumping in and doing it. Here are some tips and teaching techniques designed to help inexperienced camp instructors have a productive summer filled with learning and excitement. Take a deep breath; you’ve got this!

One: Have a Plan

It has been said, “Prior preparation prevents poor performance.” When teaching, there is no such thing as being too prepared. Make a lesson plan — know exactly what, and how, you are teaching each activity period. Also have a plan for instructing activity rules/procedures. If it’s a topic you know little about, take the time to understand the material well enough to solve problems and answer questions; look at prior lesson plans, research, ask questions, practice skills so you can demonstrate them, etc. Prior to activity periods, clean and arrange activity spaces, and obtain supplies needed and have them in place. Survey activity areas for safety issues. No matter how well you know the content, campers can’t learn in a chaotic environment. Taking the time to prepare will help lower your stress and anxiety, especially if you are new to instructing.

Two: Always Start with the End

Before selecting activities, games, etc., and creating the lesson plan, look at what the outcomes are supposed to be. Think of outcomes as the changes in knowledge, skills, or behaviors that are going to occur as a result of participating in the activities. The activities are important but only insofar as what the campers learn or gain because of the activity. You should be able to state specific outcomes, such as “after participation in  activity, the campers will increase their ability to (understanding of, etc.)  . Examples might include such things as increasing reaction or performance time, improving an ability to do a specific skill, or ability to describe a specific term or concept and explain why it is important. The intent is to use a form-follows-function approach, where teaching is designed based on what the campers need to learn. What is it you want the campers to learn as a result of participating in the activity?

Three: Try “Whole-Part-Whole”

While there are dozens of instructional methods out there, whole-part-whole is an easily implemented teaching process that typically yields good results — making it a great starting method for the novice instructor. Whole-part-whole is a teaching method where the skills/tasks are broken down into essential parts, the parts are taught and practiced, and then get recombined back into the whole.

The whole skill is first demonstrated (typically by the instructor or skilled peer) before being broken into the individual elements and practiced by the participants, and then the whole skill is put back together. This is an effective teaching method because most activities require a mastery of fundamental skills that are interdependent. For example, swimming using a particular stroke requires first mastering the parts, such as breath control, proper kicking, and arm movement. Teaching a part involves isolating a component, such as the kick, and using a float in the hands to ensure the camper is using only the legs, before putting the whole stroke back together. This gives the learner a sense of the whole skill before they break it down and improve on the parts.

As campers master a few parts of a technique/skill, you can start putting the parts together. Begin by having the camper practice the first part, then have the camper practice it together with the next part. Continue by progressing through each part of the skill technique until they are finally practicing the entire technique. This is sometimes known as the chaining method, as the parts of a skill are practiced individually, in order, before being linked together and expanded.

Using whole-part-whole is not limited to teaching physical skills. For example, culinary skills can be mastered by breaking down and practicing the various cooking processes required for each portion of the recipe, or art class participants can learn brush stroke techniques and color mixing before attempting to complete a painting.

Four: Use Games as Teaching Tools

Campers are more likely to learn, enjoy, and return to an activity they had fun doing. Using games is a way to add variety to the curriculum and keep campers interested. A key point to mastering and retaining a new skill is practice. By including games and fun activities in instruction, you provide opportunities for campers to put new skills into practice in a fun way — learning by participating and doing. Further, playing is often a more relaxed way of practicing skills, where campers are not overthinking but rather are fully engaged “in the doing.” When used in an instructional setting, the game or activity selected should be connected to the specific learning to be accomplished. Think of games as “skill builders” that will be used to learn or reinforce the skills you are teaching.

Often the campers who benefit most from skills practice will be the lesser-skilled, so it’s important to keep them participating by playing games where they have success. For example, consider tag games where players who are tagged are not out of the game, but rather continue to participate in a changed role as a player to help ensure they keep practicing/participating.

Pro Tip: If it’s a game they really like and want to play again, try to mix it up and come back to that game later so no one burns out from playing the same thing too many times.

Five: Make Instruction Specific to the Campers Participating

A key to quality instruction is selecting activities for the specific campers participating. Expect to vary or select different activities for each camper group you work with, as the needs, abilities, previous experience, and skill level of participants will be different.

Readiness and Cognitive Capacity

Be sure participants are ready for the activity. Select learning activities appropriate to the participants’ skills and abilities. Consider the differences between campers, such as attention spans, social and emotional intelligence, and maturity. Remember the level of concentration required to participate should be appropriate for the ages of the campers participating. Activities that are too challenging will only serve to frustrate.

Physical Ability of Participants

The level of activity should be appropriate to the campers’ abilities, physical development, energy level, and physical condition. Also take emotional safety into consideration — especially with anything that includes competition. Be prepared to vary the length and intensity of activities; the pace should change with the participants’ needs. If campers are starting to tire, take a break, change activities, or modify the activity by changing things like boundaries, rules, equipment, number of players, teams, etc.

Pro Tip: Always try to end a game before it ends itself; end while the energy level and interest are still high.

Six: Try Unpredictable Equipment

The use of traditional, familiar sports equipment, such as a football, tends to bring out a predictable mindset in participants. Campers adept at sports will embrace the activity, while those who are not may feel an additional level of stress and performance anxiety and prefer not to participate. Objects other than traditional sports equipment, such as rubber chickens, bathtub ducks, balloons, sponges, etc., are handy because they don’t automatically imply a need to “be good at sports” to participate.

Seven: Carefully Consider Competition

The role of competition in each camp is different; how it is managed is, ideally, aligned with the mission and program goals of the camp. Be sure you clearly understand the camp’s philosophy before adding competition in your lesson plans.

Before using competition in learning activities, it’s important to recognize that competition in instruction is a double-edged sword. On one side, competition creates fear, anxiety, and stress, which can cripple a camper’s ability to learn and perform — defeating the whole instructional purpose. On the other side, there will be campers who thrive on performing in a competitive environment, or even become bored and disengage without it.

Be aware that competition can be a significant instructional challenge, because it is easy to totally miss the learning objective. Campers may become so focused on winning that practicing, improving, or learning any specific skill is lost. And, for campers who don’t learn well or shut down in a competitive setting, emotions such as tension, timidity, and anxiety are realities to consider. Competition may also discourage and frustrate lesser-skilled participants. Also recognize that competition may push some campers to try to participate beyond their ability — which can create both physical and emotional safety issues.

Eight: Stop Talking, Start Doing

Don’t kill your instructional mojo by talking the campers to death. They don’t want to stand around listening to you talk about what they might be doing; they want to get out there and do it! A common rookie instructor mistake is to get so bogged down in giving information that most of the activity time is taken up by the instructor, with very little time “doing” for the participants.

After ensuring participant safety, it’s often okay to jump right in to the activity. You can keep teaching during the activity — and you may find it more effective. For example, kids who get stuck on the bank in their canoe are going to be far more ready and willing to listen to your paddling instructions than they were when standing on the dock . . . in the hot sun . . . watching the snake swim past . . . while throwing rocks at their cabinmate. (By the way, there is a direct correlation between spending too much time lecturing, bored campers, and disruptive behavior!)

Pro Tip: When talking to a group outdoors, the instructor should be the one facing the sun; participants should have their backs to the bright sunlight to help reduce distraction and discomfort. (Extra points if you take off your sunglasses and make eye contact with the campers.)

Nine: Let the Campers Figure It Out

The best outcomes occur when campers are active in their own learning. Camper-directed learning allows campers to make their own choices so that learning is much more meaningful, relevant, and effective. Try giving campers greater control, ownership, and accountability over their learning. Invite campers to help in goal setting, selecting activities, or lesson planning. Don’t be afraid to give them choices. Use problem solving as an instructional tool. Let the campers teach each other. Ask open-ended questions. Try using the “art of guidance,” recognizing when and how to assist the camper, and then knowing when to step out of the way, allowing them to learn by doing and figure some of it out on their own. Aside from always maintaining appropriate activity safety and supervision of campers, you don’t always have to be the one “at the front of the room.”

Pro Tip: If you get stuck, try asking, “What did you try, and where did you get stuck?” This will help buy time to think while you listen to the camper’s answer and pinpoint where to focus your response. Another approach is to verbalize your thought process: “Let’s try such and such and see what happens.” This allows you to think through things without feeling like you must know the answer ahead of time, and it teaches campers how to problem solve.

Ten: Be Flexible and Prepared to Change It Up

It is impossible to predict what will happen with every group. The same lesson plan is not going to work every time, and not every activity is going to work for all campers. Remember, the activities are important only if they help in meeting the learning objectives. If something doesn’t work, don’t take it personally; it happens — simply change what you are doing.

Also, remember that the whole lesson plan should facilitate a dynamic learning process. If you overhear a camper say something like “this sucks,” take it as an indicator that change is needed. If you don’t get a sense your campers think this was the coolest thing ever, go back and look at what, and how, instruction is being provided. Assuming the problems are not caused by staff (poor attitude, not paying enough attention to participants, being a “fun killer,” etc.), look at the fun elements in your lesson plans. Remove anything that is a wet blanket to your program. Be creative (while keeping activities safe), and find ways to keep the participants engaged and happy.

Pro Tip: Be ready with some extra games in your bag of tricks in case campers get through the planned activity quicker than anticipated (or the other activities planned that day bombed).

Discussion Questions

  1. Think about one activity you will lead this summer. What outcomes — changes in your campers’ knowledge, skills, and/or behaviors — do you expect to occur as a result of that activity?
  2. What fun game might you employ to help teach hand-eye coordination skills? What game might be good for teaching listening skills?
  3. How will you encourage your campers to take a turn “at the front of the room” and learn by doing rather than being specifically led?

Photo courtesy of  Camp Jewell YMCA, Colebrook, Connecticut

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, has over 25 years of professional experience working within the camp, youth development, and education fields with for-profit and nonprofit camps and organizations. Diane is the owner and director of Chef Camp, a residential culinary immersion program for teens, and CEO of Frog Pond Consulting, providing integrated solutions to help meet ever-changing marketplace challenges for universities, private schools, camps, recreational facilities, and nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at