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A Primer on Adventure Education in the Camp Setting
When they leave on the backpacking trip, they are a bunch of clean, fresh adolescents. When they come back, they are a dirty, stinky, cohesive group of campers who has somehow grown up a little. When they embark on a canoe trip, they wear mosquito repellent like a protective shield. When they come back, they proudly display their mosquito bites and brag of miles paddled. Before they climb into the ropes course, they are quietly apprehensive. When they come down from the course, they are quietly confident. When they leave on the bike trip, they see their religious life as something they do. When they return, they see their faith as a living, vibrant relationship. What’s going on during these adventure activities that are becoming increasingly more popular in camping? An explanation may be found in experiential education theory and the application of this theory to adventure programming.
Laura Joplin defines experiential education as a learning theory that combines direct experience with reflection. Examples include on-the-job training, role-playing, and business simulations. In the camp setting, there is the potential to create high impact, youth development tools by combining experiential education theory with adventure activities. The adventure activities might be as common as the ropes course or as uncommon as several weeks trekking in the backcountry. Whatever the adventure activity, experiential education theory plus adventure activities equals adventure education. The camp director who wants to maximize the impact of his or her camp’s adventure program does not need to be an expert in adventure education. However, a basic knowledge of the central concepts of adventure education allows you to spot staff candidates who are knowledgeable about the theory of experiential education and create training that can take your adventure education program to the next level.
Every educational process can be enhanced through assessment of the learner. Assessing the readiness (mental, physical, spiritual, emotional) of a camper to participate in an adventure activity can be a whole system function in the camp setting. Administration will probably take care of medical screening through the registration and check-in process. However, those with the most direct contact with the camper may be in the best position to assess readiness. In most camps, that will be the cabin or group counselor. The value of any staff contribution to assessment corresponds to their skills in assessment and their time with the camper. With this in mind, another role of administration emerges. The administration needs to provide a way to gather and organize assessment information if they are to optimally match the adventure activities to readiness of the camper to participate in adventure education.
In addition, a basic understanding of child development is helpful. This provides staff with a framework of interpretation as they observe behaviors that may or may not be developmentally appropriate. It will also help them select appropriate language, provide necessary breaks, and set reasonable expectations around issues of cooperation and communication.
Activity sequencing refers to what activities are presented to campers, when they are presented, and why they are presented. Activity sequencing is the art that balances success with challenge. Regardless of the level of challenge, the activity leader starts by giving the campers the information they need to safely participate in an activity. This may be how to put on a life jacket, how to tie a knot, or how to use a compass. The activity leader then allows the camper to practice and demonstrate the new skills in an activity in which successful completion of the task takes precedence over the level of challenge or difficulty of the task. For instance, after teaching basic paddling skills, the activity leader begins with flat water and then may progress to Class 1 moving water. As a sequence of activities progresses, the intent is to provide a challenge level that calls upon campers to use the skills they have and desire skills they do not have to accomplish future tasks.
Most learning models include a cyclical process where current learning affects the interpretation of past learning and the process of future learning. There are several other common concepts. First, learning begins with the acquisition of information through our senses. The more senses we use in gathering information the better we retain information. Second, while not one of the five senses, movement can enhance the gathering of information. Not many adventure activities include sitting still. Third, information needs to be organized. If the campers can provide a narrative of the activity and share some of their own thoughts and feelings, they are beginning to organize information generated by participation in the activity. Fourth, information needs to have meaning attached to it. There is some meaning attached as campers experience joy, frustration, community, and fun while they participate. However, for the lessons of an adventure activity to have lasting effect, the lessons of the activity need to be transferred into the daily life of the camper. Researchers have identified several techniques to create a successful transfer of lessons learned.
John Luckner and Reldan Nadler in their book, Processing the Adventure Experience, illustrate the comfort zone as a target. The center of the target represents the conditions that foster the highest level of comfort for an individual. This does not imply being sedentary and well fed. It is more related to familiarity with a given situation. The farthest edge of the target can represent a place where the level of stress is such that learning has ceased. Somewhere between the middle and the edge is a place of optimal learning. The activity leader wants to take each camper to this place of optimal learning. For some campers, optimal learning takes place close to the center of the target. For others, it will take place closer to the edge. One of the most common mistakes made by adventure activity leaders is a misapplication of this concept. Too often the inexperienced activity leader thinks that if a camper has completed a very uncomfortable task that his or her job is done — that the camper has learned in a life-changing way. However, what has the camper learned? Maybe the camper learned that the leader and her peer group are coercive, or that her voice has little significance in decision making, or, perhaps, that personal boundaries have been violated . . . again.
Imagine this scenario: A young girl sits at the top of a zip line. She chooses not to complete the zip line. She wants to climb back down. But she is already clipped in and sitting on the edge of the platform. Others are waiting their turn. With only good intentions, the staff managing the zip-line platform uses his “encouraging routine.” He tells her, “There is no need to scream or cry. This will be over in just a moment. Don’t think about it. Just do it. You’ll feel better going through with this than backing out and climbing down. Close your eyes and trust me.” What he doesn’t know is that the camper has been sexually abused in the past. These encouraging words are all too familiar even if they are in a completely different context. Her refusing to participate in the zip-line activity is a good thing.
Your camp philosophy should not equate completing uncomfortable activities with success. The written outcomes that are part of your strategic plan and the participation of staff and campers in those outcomes measure success.
Activity framing involves focusing the campers’ attention before the activity on the potential learning that could occur. A camp may want to help campers improve decision-making skills. Each activity then becomes a tool to practice decision-making. For instance, at the beginning of a multi-day bicycle trip the staff model and draw attention to effective decision-making while they teach technical skills. As the trip progresses, the activity leader expects developmentally appropriate decision-making skills to be demonstrated. This is reviewed throughout the bicycle trip. The focus of any framing by default eliminates other foci. Campers and staff can give their attention to only so many things. Pick your learning frame carefully and make certain it is one of your intended outcomes.
Task Goals Versus Process Goals
Task goals are the completion of tasks or events. On a sea kayak trip it may mean learning to safely enter a kayak or traveling a certain number of miles in a day. Process goals refer to developmental processes of the group. What interpersonal skills is the group working on as tasks are being accomplished? An effective adventure activity facilitator has one eye on the task in hand and the other on the group process. Failure to recognize a breakdown in process may result in frustrated people, minimal task accomplishment, and unsafe behavior. Staff need to remember that they are at camp for the kids, not for the activities. The leader who fails to recognize and deal with issues of power sharing, respect, and communication may not understand why the group can’t complete tasks when the necessary skills have been previously demonstrated. Group processes can prevent task accomplishment regardless of task mastery.
Many social theorists including Fishers, Kerr, Tuckman, Poole, and Tubs have developed models of group development. Most present a linear progression of group development that includes distinct stages and transitions. These stages and transitions are most often marked by particular behaviors. Tuckman’s model is particularly useful in the camp setting because it is easy to learn and apply. In his model there are five stages of group development — forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. When Tuckman originally presented his model in 1965, it had four stages. Ten years later he revisited his work and added the fifth stage.
Finally, realize that these are only models. In reality, group development is much more complex and fluid than any one model can describe. Any number of variables can cause a group to change its place in a group development model. As such, the usefulness of a model comes in providing the leader, and perhaps the group members, with some “hints” about what is occurring in the group and how to respond. A good group leader, just like a good model of group development, is fluid and adaptable to the presenting behaviors of the group.
It is important to emphasize that the effective adventure activity leader and camp counselor should have at least a basic knowledge of group development. Such an understanding helps them recognize their role in the group at any given time. Failure to grasp the relevance of these concepts may cause the activity leader to ask the group to do more or less than it is capable.
Processing, also known as debriefing, refers to the ongoing reflection about the experience in which participants are engaged. A familiar form of processing is facilitated discussions. Members gather in a circle and talk. There are other ways to process, including journaling, one-on-one discussions, and group portfolios, to name a few. Whichever processing method the group leader utilizes, the goal should be the same — to transfer the learning that occurs in the adventure experience to environments outside the adventure experience. There may be several structured steps to help get to transfer, but transfer should be the goal.
Life is more intense in the midst of an adventure education experience. Consequently, participants may set transfer goals that are correspondingly intense and inflated. When they return to the “real world,” the emotional accomplishment of those goals may seem less realistic if not impossible. The emotional high of the activity fails to sustain effort for very long after. In this way, the participants may feel defeated in their daily “real world” efforts. They set their goals at the height of intensity and benchmark their “real world” experiences over and against their adventure education experience. Furthermore, to quiet this discomfort they may devalue the adventure education experience as less than real, not really having an impact, or simply entertaining for a short time. The next time they are given the opportunity to engage in the adventure education process they may bring with them a learned expectation that as fun as an adventure activity might be, little will come of it in the long run. Campers who are serious about personal growth — the kind of campers we all want at our camp — may not return at all because they find more relevant uses for their time. On the other hand, an adventure activity that effectively fosters transfer of learning will have campers choosing camp above many other options.
In short, the adventure education process provides the format for two very important lifelong skills. First, campers have the opportunity to learn how to learn. They come to recognize life lessons upon reflection of their own experience, and the experience of others. Second, they learn how to apply their learning. For instance, the campers who realize they can support others through empathetic dialog may find themselves in school as peer mentors. Wisdom is born when knowledge finds a purposeful outlet. For instance, the campers who realize they can support others through empathetic dialogue may find themselves in school as peer mentors. Wisdom is born when knowledge finds a purposeful outlet.
Most camps now include some type of adventure activity. Camps should always hire staff who have the required technical expertise to lead activities or provide the necessary training. Similarly, make the commitment to select and train adventure staff with the concepts of experiential education in mind. Design interview questions that reveal the candidate’s theoretical knowledge and provide ongoing training to enhance that knowledge. Include a healthy dose of experiential learning theory to transform your adventure activities into meaningful adventure education.
Eric Nei is currently working toward his M.A. degree in educational ministry at Wheaton College. He has worked for more than twelve years in the camp profession, developing and leading adventure education programs, and has presented on this topic and others at various professional conferences.