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5 Things Summer Camp Can Teach You About Designing Training

My mother and uncle bought a children’s summer camp (Camp Kennebec) when I was two years old. From that day on, I spent all of my weekends and summers surrounded by crazily creative activity and lots and lots of kids.

The camp office was in our basement and I got to watch the activity planning process up close. The challenge of “What are we going to do with 200 kids for an entire day and blow their minds?” was a daily occurrence and I watched in awe a team of mostly under 20s plot, plan, scheme and create their way into what would become epic and unforgettable experiences for campers. Gross Out Day anyone? How about Royal Order of the Lima Bean? Girls vs. Boys Day? Every experience was inclusive, surprising, inspired, rewarding and usually completely nuts. And it wasn’t too long before I joined the ranks of the planners and had the unbelievably satisfying pleasure of watching hundreds of kids take part in the crazy adventure I’d created.

Cut to thirty years later – the Combustion offices – and not much has changed. We use exactly the same approach and creativity in designing a training program that creates major employee engagement as I did in making summer camp activities awesome. Here are some of the Summer Camp rules I still follow today:

1. Create experiences that feel like a rite of passage

At the end of most training, people just walk away feeling, at best, like they’ve learned some valuable ‘stuff’. But what if they felt like they’d been inducted into some kind of tribe? That they were now part of an elite group who shared a secret? Or knew something that would forever super power them? Creating rituals, a secret language, or new formulas for doing things are all key to this!

2. Remember everyone’s ‘freak’ is different

There’s a temptation to assume that everyone is like you when designing experiences. ”What would I like?” That’s a great intention but assumes we’re all the same. While I have learned that everyone has a freak factor, they come in a million different flavors. So the experiences have to allow people to yell a lot or whisper a little and still get the full benefit.

3. Don’t be afraid to include something scary as long as there’s a purpose

Just like I did when I had fifty kids doing a flashlight scavenger hunt in the woods at midnight, I find myself asking people to “trust me” a lot when I train. Because the real excitement of that scavenger hunt WAS that is was in the middle of the night. Otherwise it was just another activity. When people take risks, it changes, frees and empowers them. It also moves things around in their brains from ‘impossible’ to ‘doable’. That’s the definition of training. Just make sure you always have a bigger flashlight if they need it.

4. Make an ass outta yourself first and everyone else will follow

As a trainer, if you set the spirit you set the tone. Just like I stuck my face into the bowl of cold spaghetti after 25 other people did and chowed down on some noodles (Hello Gross Out Day), I would never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t be prepared to do first. So I always make sure my participants get a good laugh at my expense before I ask them to laugh at themselves. Always.

5. Play, play, play

No one ever bored anyone into learning anything. Doesn’t matter whether the lesson is that you have to be patient to win the game (Donkey Baseball – I kid you not) or that working together is better than alone (All Camp Relay Race), it has to be FUN. Maybe I should change the name of our experiences to Workshops to Playshops. Hmmm.

P.S.: Shout out to all Camp Kennebec alums (and to Brian Garnier for his photo). None of the above would have been possible without the insanity, creativity and wisdom of my mom Evelyn and my Uncle Stevie – who changed us all.


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