Play The Part

“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.

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