Play Ball: An Innovative Staff Training Helps Campers Acclimate

Michael Stern
March 2018

“They threw you a curveball,” suggests a brave staff member, after thinking it over for a moment.

“Be sure you cover all your bases,” offers another.

Thanking them for getting the ball rolling, I record their responses on poster board. They have just replied to my initial question asking the group to come up with commonly used phrases that are derived from baseball.

“What else?” I ask, prompting the group to continue brainstorming.

Soon the conversation really starts to flow, with contributions from other participants now coming more quickly:

“Give me a ballpark figure.”

“We’re in the home stretch.”

“You struck out.”

“She is on the ball.”

“It was hit or miss.”

“You’re on deck.”

“They’re playing hardball.”

“Go to bat for someone.”

“Knock it out of the park.”

“You’re batting a thousand.”

Right Off the Bat

These are just some of the ideas that participants share at the start of an engaging staff-training workshop. I write furiously trying to keep up with them. After about a minute, they have generated a fairly respectable list.

Then I ask the staff to listen to the following hypothetical: Imagine that a woman named Jenny has only recently arrived in the United States and is starting her first day of work for a major company. She is from a country where baseball is not part of the vernacular, nor does she follow the game. As her day begins, the manager of her department greets her with the following:

Hey, Jenny, today’s a brand new ballgame. I need you to step up to the plate and knock it out of the park. They may try to throw you a few curve balls, or ask a question out of left field, but if you swing for the fences, you should be safe. I have a feeling these guys are ready to play ball. Let’s touch base tomorrow so you can give me a play by play.

I encourage the staff members to consider the likely effects of this on Jenny. They unanimously agree that her manager’s statement would generate a range of emotions: frustration, confusion, insecurity, anxiety, regret, and anger. As they share these thoughts, I record them on the poster board for later reference.

In his book Born a Crime, Trevor Noah emphasizes that “language brings with it an identity and a culture” (2016). This is particularly true of a summer camp, whose identity is expressed in ways both explicit and implied. Communication between campers, staff members, and administrators reveals a camp’s true character. The actual words spoken and the manner in which they are conveyed are an overt expression of a camp’s principles. Another indication of these values lies in the unspoken language of camp — the ways in which campers and staff treat one another. Owners and directors often describe these intangibles as the “Camp X way.”

This camp language helps to create a kind of brand, distinguishing one camp from another (Zenkel, 2006). To consider themselves part of this culture, first-year campers have an enormous amount to learn in a relatively short period of time. This includes the overall daily rhythms of the camp (typical weekday, weekend, and rainy day schedules) as well as distinct features of departmentalized areas of instruction. After all, the expectations at the archery range, ropes course, waterfront, and tennis courts vary widely, while the procedures during lunch, rest hour, cleanup, and flag-raising are also unique.

Working with new campers and staff typically takes one of two forms. Some camps expect first-year campers and staff will figure out what is necessary simply by being immersed there — a kind of learning through osmosis. Others provide explicit guidance for those without the same prior experiences to help familiarize them with their surroundings. It is this deliberate focus on helping first-year campers acclimate to unfamiliar rules, routines, and traditions that allows them to succeed (Coleman, 2009; Walsh, 2015).

Play Ball

During the second phase of the training, participants deepen their empathy for first-year campers and staff members by playing a unique card game called “Barnga.” Originally developed in the 1980s by Sivasailam Thiagarajan, Barnga was first published in 1990. Since then, it has been used for training purposes in both academic and professional settings throughout the world (Snyder, 2015; Thiagarajan, 2016).

The game effectively simulates the feelings that children who are new to camp or new to a particular activity might experience without adequate direction. In the process, it heightens awareness of the cultural conflicts that can arise when people with different experiences interact. Andrea MacGregor stresses that among the most profound outcomes of Barnga is the degree to which “players learn that they must understand and reconcile these differences if they want to function effectively in a cross-cultural group” (MacGregor, 2003).

Caught Off Base

Overview of Barnga

At the beginning of the activity, the facilitator divides staff members into groups. Participants then play separate trump-style card games simultaneously. Unbeknownst to the staff, each game has nearly identical rules with the exception of a few subtle differences (e.g., trump suit, value of an ace). As play continues, certain people are instructed to rotate to a neighboring table where they quickly learn that the rules of play are slightly different. Because spoken communication is prohibited, it is these differences that ultimately (and quite intentionally) lead to temporary confusion and tension. Eventually, staff members debrief the experience and collaborate to develop practices that support new campers.

Ninety-minute or two-hour sessions are most effective. They provide ample time for participants to engage fully in the activity, to reflect on their experience, and to generate practical strategies for their work with campers and each other. With an ever-expanding pre-camp training agenda, some camps have smaller groups of staff members cycle through this activity while others are engaged in separate training experiences.

Setup and Materials

Before the game begins, the facilitator arranges four to six tables so participants can easily rotate from one table to another. One of the advantages of Barnga is how easily it can accommodate groups of any size. To illustrate this, a group of 12 can play using four tables of three players, while a group of 90 can be split into three different sections with six tables of five players per section. In this case, each section would play independently of the other two. Each table has a modified deck of cards. Depending on the size of the table groups, there can be anywhere from 20 cards (ace through five of each suit) to 40 cards (ace through ten of each suit). This ensures that players receive an adequate number of cards to begin. As soon as staff members are assigned to a table, the facilitator tells them they will all be playing the same card game, but they have been split into smaller groups to maximize playing time. This helps build the expectation that the rules are universal.

Next, the facilitator distributes one sheet of instructions to each table and tells each group to select one person to serve as the reader. Each group’s directions (adapted from Thiagarajan, 2016) contain the same information on how a basic trump-style card game is played. They also indicate whether aces are high or low, whether there is a trump suit or not, and what the trump suit is.

Playing the Game

Participants play a few practice rounds face up. This gives them an opportunity to get used to the rules of play and to ask any questions they may have. After a few minutes, the facilitator removes the instruction sheets and announces that they will now begin playing an actual game. However, moving forward, participants must play in absolute silence. Once staff members have played all their cards, the player at each table with the fewest tricks is instructed to rotate clockwise to the next table. Ties are either settled with a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” or both players rotate.

What happens next is the real key to Barnga. Participants who rotate do not realize they are starting a game with new guidelines. Likewise, participants who remain at a table do not realize that the newcomer has been playing by different rules. Predictably, the resulting confusion is compounded by the silence. Often, the newcomer begins to collect the trick after playing a card that would have won at the previous table. Shaking their heads, wagging their fingers, or physically intervening, the others unanimously reject this, leaving the newcomer bewildered.

Once the second game is over, the process repeats. The player with the fewest tricks at each table moves on. After several rounds of play the facilitator adds a twist. While the losing players continue rotating clockwise, the winning players now also rotate counter-clockwise. This allows more players to experience the frustration of not knowing the rules. As play continues, “the results are many and varied: confusion, accusations of cheating, frustration, assertions of authority, feeling of isolation, resignation, competitiveness, formation of alliances . . .” (Thompson, 2013).

The following (adapted from MacGregor, 2003) demonstrates a possible six-table configuration:

  • Table 1: Aces are high. No trump suit.
  • Table 2: Aces are low. Diamonds are trump.
  • Table 3: Aces are high. Clubs are trump.
  • Table 4: Aces are low. No trump suit.
  • Table 5: Aces are high. Hearts are trump.
  • Table 6: Aces are low. Spades are trump.

Reviewing the Play

One of the most important components of Barnga is debriefing the activity once it has ended. Because participants have been sitting for a while, I conduct a quick energizing activity, and then have the group form two concentric circles. Staff members in the inner circle face outwards and staff members in the outer circle face inwards, so everyone is partnered with someone in the opposite circle. I then ask five or six different questions to help participants process the game. Both partners share their thoughts before taking one step to their right so they are each facing a new partner.

Questions (adapted from Thiagarajan, 2016) include:

  • What is the first word that comes to your mind to describe this game, and was this a word that we used at the beginning of the training to describe the manager’s impact on Jenny?
  • In what ways was this challenging for those who rotated? What about those who did not?
  • What feelings and behaviors did you notice in yourself and in others?
  • In what ways does this experience reflect how new campers might feel?
  • In what areas of camp might explicit instruction benefit new campers?
  • If you were to try playing again, what could you do to enhance the experience for newcomers?

After sharing some responses, staff members play a few more rounds of Barnga. Although speaking is still prohibited, staff members become increasingly creative in welcoming newcomers to their table. Some participants use hand signs to indicate the trump suit. Others notice the supply of paper and pencils in the room and use these to facilitate communication. With a newly leveled playing field, the tenor of the room is more supportive. I suggest that if they are able to strengthen the relationships between players without speaking, they will excel at instructing new campers when they can speak.

Extra Innings

From the lyrics of their songs to their boundaries for Capture the Flag, from their Color War ceremonies to their final campfire customs, camps are remarkably unique. They are steeped in distinct routines, procedures, and traditions. Indeed, a camp’s rituals often help establish a magical sense of community that draws children to return summer after summer (American Camp Association, 2016). Given this, it is imperative to help new campers and staff members acclimate to the camp as a whole and to help returning campers become accustomed to activities they have yet to try.

Effective administrators develop a well-defined mission and impart these principles and objectives to their staff. Staff members, in turn, model these values for campers (Maine Summer Camps, 2014; Coleman, 2009). When they do this explicitly, the experience is overwhelmingly positive. However, with inadequate guidance and support, it can be challenging for first-year campers as they try adjusting to a different environment. “It’s scary not to know where you will eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. But it goes beyond just telling campers where these things will happen. [Counselors should] take care to explain when and how these daily activities take place, emphasizing that the campers won’t be in it alone” (Hillis, 2014).

In preparation for trainings, I often watch the promotional videos featured on a camp’s website. In one of them, a camper in her final year fights back a tear and addresses the community, announcing, “I will take with me my friends, the incredible memories, and feeling that I’m part of something.” Participants in this training develop a newfound appreciation for helping all campers deepen their understanding of a camp’s rules, routines, and traditions. Only then will the entire community feel like they are truly part of something special.

Photo courtesy of Rolling River Day Camp, East Rockaway, New York.


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Michael Stern is a public school teacher in Newton, Massachusetts. For 18 years, he has worked with elementary school children and families at different grade levels. His summers have always been connected in some meaningful way to camp. He has served as a camp counselor and administrator, having worked at a residential camp in Maine and various day camps in the Boston area. During the summers, Michael works with several camps as a staff trainer. His workshops focus primarily on helping first-year campers and staff members acclimate to a new setting.