Adventure Integration: Incorporating Challenge Beyond the Challenge Course
“I don’t know if I can go any further…”
There was a hint of alarm in Jack’s voice as he called down to the group below, clinging to the hard granite and fighting the ‘Elvis leg’ shakes of the fatigued climber.
At 12 years old, this was his first time at camp, his first time rock climbing, and his first fearful, mid-climb freeze-up. He was about halfway up the rock face while his counselor belayed and looked on from the ground with the rest of the group.
“You can do it, you’re almost there!” his counselor replied. The response was echoed by the others with encouraging cries of “You can do it!” and “See that big foothold where your left knee is?”
After a short back-and-forth between climber and belayer confirming Jack’s desire to keep going, Jack summoned the courage to make one more move – and then another – and then another – until he finally reached the squeaky air horn that would signal his victory.
“That was awesome! I did it!” Jack kept saying, as he was lowered back down to a cheering group of fellow campers and staff.
Although not every experience is quite as dramatic, this is a familiar story to those of us involved in camp and retreat ministry. Whether you’ve heard reports like this from other campers and staff or experienced it personally, it’s probably a safe bet that you can relate to the powerful sense of accomplishment that comes from facing a challenge and succeeding. It’s one of the reasons we do what we do!
Having been in full time camp and retreat ministry for less than three years, I understand the importance of learning from those with more experience and expertise than myself, and I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some incredibly passionate and knowledgeable people, both here at Glisson and beyond. Just before I came on, the year-round program team began to reevaluate our challenge course philosophy, intentionally aligning it with our mission – in practice as well as in theory. Most notably, we became more deliberate about how our challenge elements support and enhance the group process. In the [metaphorical] heat of summer camp, when it seems critical to get “x” amount of participants through an element in “x” amount of time, it can be hard not to turn the challenge course into a human conveyor belt.
So we redefined the goal. Instead of trying to get as many people through as possible, we focused on group development during the activity. We switched from primary belay, where one staff person belays each camper, to team belay, where each camper is belayed by their own group in a multi-person belay system. We also incorporated adaptations such as allowing for more time at low elements and encouraging increased debriefing time. We learned that when the group’s well-being is the goal, the activity simply becomes a means to that end, and as the focus shifts from maximum efficiency to maximum effectiveness, the culture shifts as well.
Any activity or event itself, as fun and empowering as it can be, is only the beginning of the “good stuff”. Adventure experiences encourage us to push beyond our comfort zones to a state of openness that makes us ripe for growth. There is a happy medium, or place of optimal learning, between being comfortable and being overwhelmed, that produces fertile ground for untold personal, interpersonal, and spiritual development. It is similar to Simon Priest’s concept of “peak adventure” and is the focus of study among many educational psychologists. This vulnerable state can open the door to increased trust and self-confidence, which can be transferred beyond the initial event and into the real world.
Challenge experiences are an important part of what happens at camp, but they don’t just happen on the challenge course. Because each individual’s “happy medium” is different, one person’s ideal adventure may be either a complete bore or a total nightmare for someone else. That means that a camper’s measure of success may not be the same as his or her fellow group member. “Making it to the top” might not be the best goal for a camper whose optimal experience could be going halfway, or even just reaching the launch platform.
It also means that an appropriate level of progression is a vital aspect of camp programming. In order to encourage campers to move outside their own comfort zones by teaching new skills or introducing new activities, we must find where their comfort zone is to begin with and meet them where they are. A skill progression, in particular, has become an important part of our outdoor adventure program, Outpost. We’ve found that learning how to build a fire, cook on a camp stove, or tie the perfect knot for a tarp shelter can be just as challenging – and rewarding – as participating in high adventure activities.
Just as those high adventure activities such as rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, and high elements may provide the perfect challenge for some, so might going down the slip ‘n’ slide, or camping outside for the first time, or meeting new people, or praying out loud in a group of peers. This is experiential education at its best, and it’s one of the reasons camp is so impactful! Camp naturally creates experiences that push the limits of comfort and ability so that campers can grow by learning from their successes and their failures in a safe environment.
So bump the adventure up a notch and challenge your staff, your campers, and yourself this summer. Focus on your program’s true goals and use everything else as a means of accomplishing those goals. And whether it’s an intense high ropes event, an outdoor living skills program, or just about any other camp activity, there’s always a way to find that happy medium.
Stephen Ward is Program Director of Adventure Camps at Glisson Camp and Retreat Center in the North Georgia Annual Conference, where he manages challenge course operations and Glisson’s off-site adventure program, Outpost.