What Were You Thinking?

Please read that question over again in your mind; listen to your inner voice’s tone. Too often that question is asked with sarcasm or anger. What if we sincerely ask that question? What if we thoughtfully asked our staff what they were thinking? What if we authentically shared our own thought process? While training staff, how can we more directly connect our actions with our thought processes? The idea of meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) is challenging. We are fortunate that the science of brain research has come a long way, and there is much to glean from this research that applies to our staff development process. This article provides a quick overview of the research, applies the results to the context of camp, and offers some tips for incorporating the concepts into your staff development plan.

The brain craves camp! History shows that our brains learn best in unstable outdoor environments (Medina, 2008). When faced with the unexpected, we adapted, learned, and moved ahead. Memories, emotions, the senses, and new experiences are all needed to produce personal knowledge. Experience begets knowledge, and while we want to come to a collective understanding as a staff, learning is not only interpersonal but also individual. Experiences that are meaningful to the individual will be processed into knowledge. Experience is both in the past and present. Our brains take past and present experiences and transform them into knowledge for the future.

Camp is an experiential place of personal and cognitive learning for both campers and staff. Designing professional development to optimize the brain’s style of learning will not only produce knowledge, but it is more likely to be retained because it is “plugged in” to more than one “receptacle.” We, through the power of camp, can connect content, emotions, and experience.

Research about the brain and how it functions has blossomed over the last twenty-five years (see Torgovnick, 2012). The field of education has paid attention, but our experience and memory of how we learned has a tendency to override the availability of new knowledge. We feel confident (based on our experience) that we know the best way to do something, so we are less likely to connect the new information.

Sound familiar? We teach staff something new, but then see them do something “old.” They want to do well, so they default to what they “know” rather than to what we wanted them to “learn.” Memory, emotions, and senses are key components to building experiences that contribute to bridging the old experience and the new learning. Learning is a physical process with sensory inputs taken in at the synapse level, integrated, and transformed by the learner’s brain. Lifelong learning occurs because of the brain’s plasticity — in other words, the brain’s ability to change. Many things factor into the transformative nature of the brain. For each individual, the genetic makeup, environment, and actions throughout life play a role (Michelon, 2008). The brain loves activity and action. It is auspicious that what the brain needs is exactly what camp can offer: strangers coming together in strange places to do strange things (Bixler, personal communication). Novel experiences that are “doing” rather than telling — the heart of camp!

To understand how the brain learns, a brief review of the brain’s neural network helps (Zull, 2002; Wolfe, 2010). Most neurons are composed of a body (soma) with thousands of projections (dendrites) and a single axon. The dendrites receive information and axons send information. At the junction known as a synapse, messages are passed to other neurons using electrical and chemical signals. Expanding dendrites and synapse connections develop into neural networks. New connections are made, while others may be lost. The neural networks that are used often will expand and build. However, those that are not used often may shrink. Learning is the growth of one’s neural network. Information that fits into or adds to an existing network has a much better chance of storage than information that does not. The novel information needs to connect to something in order for it to “stick.”

Each experience adds to or changes the way synaptic connections are made within the brain. Memories begin as sensory input from our environment. Touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing all contribute to our memories and our learning (Zull, 2002; Wolfe, 2010). The brain always pays attention, mostly through automatic systems determining what is trivial and what is relevant information. When sensory input comes into the brain, it filters whether the stimulus is novel or familiar. Novelty grabs the brain’s attention (Johansen- Berg, 2011). Intensity and movement of stimuli affect attention. However, as the brain becomes familiar with a repeating stimulus, it becomes accustomed to it and eventually begins to ignore it (Zull, 2002; 2011). So we need to recognize what is new and seek to connect it to things we know.

Emotion significantly influences the brain’s ability to pay attention (Zull, 2002; 2011). Strong emotion and motivation interests become memories, which engage the attention of the brain (Cahill, 2000). Biologically, as a survival mechanism, the brain is programmed to attend first to information with strong emotion content and recall it longer! If you have been chased by a lion, in order to stay alive, your brain will pay very close attention to signs of a lion attack in the future. While lions do not often chase us, we want to create the neural network that responds to potential risk management issues when they are in the “might happen” stage instead of the “did happen” stage. Helping staff learn what to pay attention to is key.

Let’s break it down. Getting and keeping the attention of the brain is important. The senses, novelty, action, and emotion can be stimuli in gaining attention. If we are not familiar with or have no experience with a concept, then the brain will not pay attention or be able to make sense of it. We must help the brain by connecting new knowledge with prior knowledge and help the learner make meaning so they can take ownership in the knowledge.

Brain-Based Strategies for Staff Development

Embedding camp training with imagery-rich stimuli will help. Our brains absorb image-rich information at a faster rate than verbal information, which helps explain why television and the Internet are so successful at keeping the brain’s attention. Without rehearsal or constant attention, information remains in working memory only fifteen to twenty seconds. It needs to be repeated within ten minutes or it is likely forgotten (Medina, 2008). Camp staff development can be enhanced by imagery and variety. Bowman (2005) suggests “supplementing our words with pictures, photos, cartoons, drawings, doodles, metaphors, analogies, stories, symbols, icons, and so forth” (p.4). This strategy grabs the brain’s attention, helping to put information in existing neural networks and produce knowledge. Bowman further suggests designing training similar to the way television is presented, i.e. “short informational segments followed by quick breaks, and all of it packaged in high-energy, fast-paced, image-rich ways” (p.4).

We can still accomplish that “camp style” by giving new content and then breaking staff into small groups to present the information back as a “Review Crew” (Brandwein, 2008). Having staff repeat content in this manner will allow them to connect interpersonally (emotional connection/contact with others, develop relationships with each other) as well as practice their leadership and group facilitation. In addition, misunderstandings that surface can easily be corrected.

Organizing content so that it builds on itself is important. Introduce a new concept and then immediately give an opportunity to use it. Learning is sequential, and to learn, one must repeat. For example, let’s look at how to teach a camp’s emergency procedures. First, present specific scenarios and relevant procedures, and ask staff to create a checklist for each situation. Then compare their checklists to existing documentation. That simple challenge allows the brain to focus on each sequential task, yet build a frame of reference for emergency in general.

Emotional hooks connect with more than just cognition. The goal is to “feed” staff when they are “hungry” for the content. We need to help staff value why they need the information we want them to have. We also need to help them learn in a low-stress environment. So, on one hand, we want them to see the seriousness of the responsibility they have accepted at camp, and on the other, we also want them to know there is support as they learn the information. Simulations/ roleplaying, coaching/mentoring, and solving real-life problems are just a few types of emotional hooks that can be used in camp staff development. Because the person is “in” the situation, it taps into the emotional element.

Homesickness and behavior management are two skills that staff will be hungrier for once they have been challenged (Powell, Bixler & Switzer, 2002). Giving basic information to help them get started and then coming back with more details a few days into a camp session taps into their recent experience, and they will be ready for more tools to solve their challenge. Not only has this provided a novel experience, but it has guided the learner to a desired outcome — linking new learning to something personally relevant to the person. Having a parent describe what they value about the camp experience or talking about a tragedy will have more impact than a staff member giving abstract information.

As most camp directors know, design of the training matters. Creating immersive and engaging learning experiences that capture learners’ attention helps them add to their existing neural network. We have those heart-tugging success stories and plenty of fodder for case studies, so we can build on what we do and connect it with what staff know. Ask returning staff to write out scenarios of things that happened to them, and then lead new staff in a discussion to bring the problem-solving process to the surface. The answers are less important than the problem-solving process. Getting staff to ask for the opinion of others is the first step in critical thinking, which can lead to better problem solving on the fly during camp.

Experience Is Key

Camp experiences are powerful to our campers and staff. How we use those experiences from the past and present to shape staff development is important to consider. Camp professionals often use experiential education to shape staff development, and brain research offers an explanation of why it works. One element that we tap less often is that our staff walk in the door with experience, so connecting the new content to their “earned” experience is an important goal.

Training may take place in a group setting, but learning is something done individually. Creating reasons for staff to reflect on their learning as individuals is one tool building on what brain research shows about how learning occurs. Camp professionals have always known that experience is key, but understanding the “how” and “why” behind it will amplify staff learning.

Note: This article takes the principles from the resources in the reference list and suggests ways to apply them in the camp setting. Readers are encouraged to explore these resources to spark even more ideas.

Keys to Learning

Exercise and sleep play a key role in learning. At camp, we have an opportunity to model a healthy balance for both. Both aspects also play into keeping stress hormones lower even when stressful events occur. So, yes, a rest period during staff training is important, and seeking ways to include physical activity in training is important. Walking meetings can be short breaks that change up scenery and increase productivity. Have staff get into groups of two to three people and discuss a topic related to training while walking for ten minutes. Not only will a walk outside reenergize your staff, it will stimulate oxygen flow around the body, which increases brain function! The change of scenery, interaction, and exercise will help the brain problem solve faster and more creatively (Stein, 2008).



Bowman, S. L. (2005). The ten-minute trainer: 150 ways to teach it quick & make it stick! San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Brandwein, M. (2008). Training terrific staff, volume two. Lincolnshire, IL: Michael Brandwein.

Johansen-Berg, H. (2011 Nov 8). How does our brain learn new information? Scientific American. Retrieved from www.scientificamerican.com/ article.cfm?id=how-does-our-brain-learn

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 rules for surviving and thriving at home, work and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Powell, G.M., Bixler, R.D. & Switzer, D.M. (2003). Informal learning and socialization among new and returning seasonal camp staff. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 21(1), 62-76.

Stein, J. (2008 Sept 08). Take your brain out for a walk. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2008/sep/08/health/hewalking8

Torgovnick, K. (2012). 12 talks on understanding the brain. TED Blog. Retrieved from http://blog.ted.com/2012/09/24/12-talks-onunderstanding-the-brain

Wolfe, P. (2010). Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice (2nd edition). Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Zull, J. E. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Zull, J. E. (2011). From brain to mind: Using neuroscience to guide change in education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Joy James, PhD, is Recreation Management Department faculty at Appalachian State University. She has been involved in teaching, resident camps, and environmental education, and has experience internationally with camps in Russia and Ukraine.

Gwynn Powell, PhD, is Park, Recreation, Tourism Management Department faculty at Clemson University. She has been involved with ACA locally and nationally, has two decades of camp experience in the USA, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey, and serves as an ambassador for the International Camping Fellowship.

Originally published in the 2014 January/February Camping Magazine