by Scott Arizala
What’s their secret? Often at camp we have certain counselors, program specialists, and other group leaders that make facilitating activities and getting campers engaged and excited look so simple. Is it that they have some special gift? Maybe they understand something that the rest of us don’tÛ_ it is simple. By simple I mean that they employ simple techniques that are very effective. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to find specialists and counselors that have lots of experience, maybe some outside training or certification in specialized areas, confidence in their knowledge and experience, and a willingness to get out there and try. But if you watch the ÛÏgreatÛ activity leaders, the best teachers, the amazing presenters and educators, they all have a few things in common. They use simple techniques that you can identify, practice and eventually learn that will help you and your staff be more successful.
Here are ten of the best activity leadership techniques that are guaranteed to make every counselor as successful as those that seemed to be blessed with a gift.
– Generate Excitement or what I like to call Fake Enthusiasm. Anyone that has worked with kids (especially younger ones) knows that occasionally you have to be more interested, excited and enthusiastic than you feel. Make eye contact, nod your head, smile, move around, raise your voice, use your arms when you talk, look impressed, say things like ÛÏwow,Û ÛÏamazing,Û ÛÏreally?,Û ÛÏthis is my favorite,Û etc. and you are well on your way to a more exciting activity.
– Participate in the activity. Nothing indicates boredom more than sitting out of an activity. Unfortunately, we often only say that for campers; it is also true for the staff and campers know it. I have actually witnessed a group of 15 year old boys having a fun and exciting time playing Duck, Duck, Goose (not an easy feat) because their counselor was not only involved and participating but was excited and flexible (more on flexibility in a minute).
– Use props when you are presenting an activity. Whether that is a completed project, things that will be used during the activity, nonsense things that have nothing to do with what you are talking about, or even campers as Û÷actors’ in your presentation, this can keep their attention and generate some interest in the activity.
– Start with a bang. Introduce an activity by uncovering a mystery, beginning an adventure, telling a story, singing a song, doing something funny, doing a magic trickÛ_. anything that will get their attention and heighten interest in what we are doing. Now they know that right from the start this will be a fun and exciting activity.
– Change things up, in other words be creative. Ask yourself what the campers are expecting when they come to this activity and then do something different or change something slightly so that there is something unexpected. If it’s soccer, use more than one ball, if it’s archery, score the targets backwards, if it’s a traditional A&C activity use different or the ÛÏwrongÛ materials, if it’s basketball, don’t dribbleÛ_ you get the point. A note of caution about creativity, often staff members assume that when they are asked to be more creative they are really being asked to come up with something new, something never done before, something profound and earth-shattering. I prefer to think of creativity as a ÛÏquarter turn of the screw,Û something that is just a variation or a little different.
– Pause when you are giving directions or presenting the activity. A well-placed pause in your speech can give the instructions, description or just plain dialogue a dramatic or suspenseful quality. This can really help keep campers attention and makes just listening to the activity leader more fun.
– Always have a back-up plan or idea. One of the most impressive techniques that great counselors use is their ability to pull something out of thin air that can keep campers engaged, interested and busy. Well, they don’t come out of thin air, they usually come from experienced staff that know they need to be ready to do something different at a moment’s notice. Don’t be afraid to change things up and do something else.
– Ask more questions than you use statements. This technique helps all activities become more interactive and less adult- or counselor-driven. It often helps with problem solving, developing expectations for the activity, and giving the campers a sense of control.
– Be flexible. In the example above with the 15 year old boys, one of the ways the counselor engaged them and got them interested in playing Duck, Duck, Goose was that he was flexible with the rules. He actually asked them to make up more rules as they went along, which offered a challenge and made it more interactive. He let them change the categories (Duck and Goose) to whatever each person that was Û÷it’ wanted them to be. Being flexible also means being able to compromise with campers when the scheduled activity is not what they are interested in doing. Each camp is different and we may not be able to just do something different, but you can always acknowledge and discuss why they would like to do something else and then work towards changing things for next time.
– Give directions without sounding like it. Use the way you present an activity and how you emphasize its steps as a way to minimize ÛÏgiving the rules.Û A great way to do this is to try and turn everything you want to give as a rule into something you expect. So, instead of saying something negative like ÛÏDon’t put your hands in the hot waxÛ (for candle making) you could say ÛÏWhen you are dipping your candle wick, only the wick goes in the hot wax.Û Campers are constantly receiving ÛÏNo, Stop, Don’tÛ rules in their lives at camp and at home. The problem with these rules, while sometimes necessary, is that they may not explain what they should be doing as well. By stating things in the positive you explain to them your expectations for what they should be doing and sometimes can eliminate the need for ÛÏrulesÛ altogether.
– These are just a few ways that those ÛÏspecialÛ counselors do their magic. It’s not really magic at all. It is important to realize that these are skills that can be practiced, learned and incorporated into every counselor’s repertoire. In order to become good at anything you must practice and make mistakes. Campers are great at identifying whether someone is being genuine or not. With some of these techniques, you may make mistakes, fumble with your words, or wear your ÛÏactingÛ on your sleeve. Keep trying and in time these techniques will become second nature.
*Scott Arizala is a well-known camping professional who has presented workshops at the ACA Tri-state, Upstate New York, Southern States Camping Conferences. Scott has developed a core curriculum for summer camp staff training and is currently working on a book for educators, caregivers and others working in the world of children. Scott is an independent camp consultant, specializing in training, education, and speaking engagements.
Contact Scott for more information.