Adding Character to Camp Programs: Using Ropes Courses to Teach Values

by Jack Rothschild

As seven-year-old Mary swung on a rope to a small platform of the low ropes course, she shouted to the other girls in her unit, “I’m a good friend because I share my things!” Then Adina swung to the platform and yelled, “Because I say nice things to people!” Susie shouted, “Because I’m fun to play with!” Before long, Mary’s unit of ten girls stood on the small wooden platform hugging each other to avoid falling off and having gained a new understanding of why they were such good friends. Friendship, a character value of the camp’s philosophy, was being reinforced in the adventure ropes program.

Integrating character values with curriculum is a positive way of teaching campers important life lessons. In fact, many organizations, such as the YMCA, include character constellations in their mission statements or learning objectives. At Camp Thoreau, in Concord, Massachusetts, the character curriculum program is named ROPES (recognition of performance and excellence in skills). In the program, campers complete age-appropriate activities that help them develop character values (see ROPES sidebar on page 20).

Integrating Values

When integrating character values, it is important to make sure that they align with and support the camp program’s curriculum. At Camp Thoreau, the character values that are considered to be crucial to camper development and growth include friendship, respect, responsibility, teamwork, and risk-taking. The ROPES’s curriculum is designed so that while the group grows together as a team, it also grows in self-confidence. For example, Camp Thoreau’s risk-taking goal provides initiatives that require the group to take risks and support each other to be successful.

Incentives Help Motivate

As the campers arrive at the hanging vines station of the low ropes course, they are told that it will be lots of fun if used responsibly. The instructors ask them what they need to do to be responsible for one another. In unison, they shout, “SPOT each other.” They practice the correct “stance,” “positioning,” ways of correctly “observing” the person, and how to “take” the fall (SPOT). After the campers successfully demonstrate their spotting techniques, they are awarded green stickers for completing the responsibility level of the character value curriculum.

While integrating curriculum and character values, staff members find it worthwhile to use incentives to increase motivation. To create a sense of team cohesion, campers are presented with colored stickers when all the campers in a unit complete the requirements for that character value level. The colors of the stickers correspond to the camp’s character value flag and are applied to a certificate that describes the programs in which the campers earned their award. Another advantage of motivating campers with incentives is to get them interested in doing more than just focusing on climbing on the high ropes course so that they will fully participate in group initiatives, games, and trust activities.

Teamwork in action
Ten-year-old Keith came to camp as a shy and remote boy. He was much smaller than the other boys, had a speech impediment, wore thick glasses, often sat on the side throwing a ball to himself, and would try to run away. Occasionally, he would join the group for some course initiatives and, to the surprise of many of the other campers, understood and participated fully.

One day, shouting echoed through the woods as Keith attempted to cross the catwalk, a horizontal log suspended thirty-five feet above the ground. “You can do it! Don’t stop! Way to go!” the other campers and staff shouted. As he got to the end of the log, the boys in his unit were so excited and pleased that he had climbed the tree and crossed the catwalk that they couldn’t hold back their enthusiasm. Keith’s smile continued to grow as he was lowered on the belay line, and as he touched the ground and removed his carabiner, he screamed and jumped into the arms of the other boys. They had just completed their risk-taking goal! But more important was the bigger picture of how far Keith had progressed with the group’s help.

The first time Keith tried to climb the catwalk, he got just to the top of the 10-foot ladder. On his second attempt, he got to the second foothold on the tree, which was about 15-feet high. Thanks to his team’s support and his increased courage, he was successful on his third attempt. The next day, Keith couldn’t wait to go on the zip line. He was the first one up the tree to the 40-foot platform and never hesitated to zip down the 200-foot cable.

Key Ingredients to Integrating Character Values

When integrating character values with your curriculum, consider the following key points:

  • Have a vision, a purpose for the program, that helps set the objectives that you want campers to learn.
  • Choose a set of character values. Understand these and how your camp or organization defines them so you maintain consistency through all programs and so that campers clearly understand these values and can start using them at camp and at home.
  • Develop a curriculum that relates character values to your program activities.
  • Choose group and individual incentives or levels to encourage participation in activities; match incentive levels to appropriate curriculum activities. Use stickers, certificates, cards, or equivalent to reinforce achievement.
  • Design the program so that all levels of the program can be completed within the time allotted for the camp session.
  • Make sure the program is age-appropriate and can accommodate the size of the group; increase the difficulty of the activities and the length of briefings and debriefings for older campers.
  • Provide staff training and a program manual. Discuss how you have designed the program with the staff and your expectations. Provide further details for staff to reference in your manual or guide as there is usually limited training time provided and the program director is not always available to answer questions.
  • Track campers’ progress on appropriate forms. Instructors may need to change groups due to scheduling conflicts, so it is important for each group to have a record of activities completed and suggestions for what to do next. It also allows instructors to vary initiatives and other activities as the program is repeated during new camp sessions.
  • During and after the program, survey program participants and make necessary adjustments.

Feedback Enhances Program

At Camp Thoreau, the ropes instructors and camp counselors provided helpful feedback on the program. Overall, they felt the structure of the program was well designed and accomplished the intended objectives. The instructors found that the ROPES manual was an important guide, especially at the beginning of the program, as it made it easy to prepare for each group and keep track of which units had already been completed.

The staff also contributed constructive revisions and suggestions for the next year’s program. Revisions included:

  • reducing the number of adventure activities required at several levels due to time constraints
  • replacing a group challenge with a cooperative game for middle campers as it made it easier for them to discuss and understand teamwork
  • acknowledging camper units with verbal recognition as levels were achieved
  • distributing cards or stickers at the end of the session

Campers and counselors helped with the course evaluations by completing surveys and offering verbal responses. In general, responses to the program were positive. Counselor comments included:

  • “They improved on their teamwork.”
  • “Stepping stones and Mohawk walk built teamwork abilities with my unit.”
  • “Flying squirrel and name games were very helpful.”

Camper comments included:

  • “When can we climb?”
  • “Our unit has friendship, respect, responsibility, teamwork, and risk-taking with each other.”
  • “I love coming here.”

There were many touching and memorable moments of campers climbing the ropes course initiatives and breaking through by meeting the challenges — taking one more step when they didn’t think they could and then taking another and another! Mary, Keith, and the other campers had an opportunity to go beyond a normal ropes course program, to participate and grow more confident, to learn to trust and be trusted by their peers, and to experience having fun as part of a team.

Jack Rothschild is a teacher who has served as a camp waterfront director and ropes course instructor and director. He developed the ROPES program. You can contact him at

Originally published in the 2001 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.