Play The Part

By Chris Thurber

“In theory, role-plays are supposed to teach by offering staff practice with key skills. But in practice, role-plays often flop. They either escalate into hyperbole or degenerate into embarrassing farce. What are your suggestions, Chris?”
--Garth Altenberg, director of Camp Chewonki in Wiscasset, Maine


At most camps, role-plays are afterthoughts, tossed in at the end of a training module to “get the staff moving around.” In fact, the theory of learning by doing is rock-solid. Unfortunately, most camp directors don’t know how to facilitate effective role-plays.

To wit: Most role-play sessions at camp start with the leader stating, “OK, for this next bit, I need a couple of volunteers. We’re going to role-play this scenario.” At this point, all the staff members study their shoelaces, desperately hoping not to be chosen. After a few uncomfortable moments, the camp clown volunteers, and is met with sporadic whoops and jeers. This hapless volunteer steps forward, just as the leader chooses a second “volunteer,” who reluctantly joins his buddy in the front of the room.

The leader then sets the scene, and the actors are off, bumbling through one or more solutions to the problem, either with dramatic exaggeration or uncanny incompetence. Either way, the crowd cheers (secretly grateful they weren’t chosen and similarly humiliated), and the performers sit down, even less confident that they can perform the given skill in real life.

It’s hard to imagine a more ineffective implementation of an otherwise promising technique. So how are role-plays done right? There are three keys:

1. Realism
2. Iteration
3. Full participation.

Here’s an outline of how to transform role-plays into one of your most powerful staff-training techniques:

Step 1: Make it real. The best source for quality role-plays is the most experienced returning staff. The members lived through last summer, and have the maturity to portray events as they happened, without overdoing it. Take a core group of senior staff aside a few days before the role-play session, and assign topics to cover, such as “camper who refuses to participate,” “parent who imposes unreasonable demands,” “conflict between two staff” and “severely homesick child.”

When it comes time for the senior staff to portray these examples--along with plausible solutions--remind them to keep it realistic. You wouldn’t teach the crawl stroke by frantically pinwheeling your arms; there is no sense teaching leadership skills by wildly embellishing the truth. Notice that having senior staff demonstrate skills also obviates the need to call for volunteers. But rest assured, the entire group will participate.

Step 2: Iterate. Cycling through versions of a role-play gives everyone a chance to see techniques and outcomes from different angles. The two most effective ways of doing this are dubbed “feedback loop” and “wrong-right.” In feedback loop, you announce, “Two of our experienced staff members are now going to portray how you might work with a severely homesick camper. Watch and listen carefully because when they’re done, I’m going to ask them to stay up front, and you’ll have a chance to tell them what you liked about their approach and what you might do differently.” This iterative approach allows the senior staff team to role-play one approach, garner feedback from the group, and then role-play the same scenario at least once more, carefully integrating the group’s suggestions.

The wrong-right approach goes like this: The senior staff players first show the wrong way to handle a particular scenario. They might, for example, show a staff member defensively yelling back at an angry parent. Although this might get a chuckle from the newer staff, most of them will be thinking, ”Gosh, if I’m not careful, I might do exactly that.” The senior staff players then show a contrasting and more skilled approach to the same scenario, perhaps this time demonstrating empathy and problem-solving. Like feedback loop, the wrong-right approach gives everyone in the audience multiple opportunities to see the skillful leadership at work.

Step 3: Require full participation. Each staff member is there to work, whether paid or volunteer. Make the job count by ensuring that everyone takes part in role-play work. The best way to do this is to announce, at the conclusion of the senior staff demonstration, “Now, I’d like everyone to pair off. Find a partner and work through a similar scenario. You have three minutes, at the end of which I’ll ask you to switch roles and begin again.”

A lively alternative to dyads is triplets, where two people role-play and the third observes. At the end of three minutes, the observer can offer comments on the effectiveness of the interaction or intervention. Then, the group rotates roles until everyone has had a chance to role-play, and to observe and offer commentary. Naturally, whatever suggestions are made are woven into the next iteration of the role-play.

The richness of these small-group discussions and the value of live practice cannot be overstated. Some of the most powerful learning happens when the staff realizes that watching a skill and actually performing it are worlds apart. Moreover, learning by doing instills the confidence the staff will need to take a risk and try different strategies during the summer. It also gives the members practice giving and receiving feedback, an essential skill for any leader.

During this small-group work, you can circulate in the room, perhaps offering a comment here or there, but mostly watching to see what the staff can do. In some cases, you’ll be impressed by the members’ maturity and intuition; at other times, you’ll see opportunities for additional training. In either case, do not allow the training to stop there, or at the end of staff-training week for that matter. The most successful camps weave in-service training--including some role-playing--into their weekly all-staff meetings or unit meetings. Indeed, encountering tough cases during the summer provides an opportunity for everyone to learn more about leadership, discipline and management.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the creator of Leadership Essentials, an online library of video training modules for camp staff. Learn more by visiting Chris’s Web sites, and