Nightmare #97: Who’s Running Your Challenge Course?

Sylvia Dresser

More and more camps are incorporating challenge courses into their activities offered to campers. As a tool for group development, personal development, and some good plain fun, the challenge course fits well in the camp environment.

Staffing a challenge course can be somewhat daunting because of the relative newness of the industry (as compared to waterfront activities, for example) and the lack of cohesion within the industry as to what constitutes appropriate training for facilitation of challenge course activities. Help is coming for this issue but probably not for this year’s camp season!

Seeking Consistency

Many companies offer challenge course training. Some companies conduct a skills verification at the end of the session and offer a certificate. Others only offer the training with verification of attendance. A total lack of standardization in what is covered in the training and what skills are verified makes the training process even more complicated.

The challenge course field is served professionally by the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), a trade association that will be eleven years old this summer. As the association has matured, so has the sophistication and level of service within the industry. The next big project to be undertaken by the association is to create a set of standards governing certification of challenge course facilitators, so that a level of consistency can be developed among companies as to what should be covered in training and how the requirements should be defined to become "certified."

Because of the current inconsistencies in challenge course training programs, you should look at potential staff in terms of what training they bring with them. Ask for listings of training attended and the company giving the training. You can then follow up with the company in question and find out what was covered in the training.

Later this spring, ACCT will release the 6th edition of its Challenge Course Standards. Part of those standards cover challenge course operations and list specific competencies that must be held by all staff and competencies that must be held among the challenge course staff team. These lists should help you considerably when looking at staff for your challenge course.

First-Generation Training Versus Second-Generation Training

Unfortunately, training for facilitators does not come cheaply. It takes time and repetition for these skills to really be mastered. One temptation is to send only part of your camp staff to training and then expect those staff members to come back and train the rest of the staff. We know that those staff members who attend the actual training absorb only part of what is delivered — we are all only human. We also know that they will unintentionally omit even more when they are trying to train staff. This fact always reminds me of the game "Telephone" that I played as a child — to whisper a phrase into your neighbors’ ear and see how distorted it gets as it travels around the circle.

Last summer, there were several incidents and near misses that seemed to be directly attributable to staff training that had been diluted in this second-hand training fashion — sometimes referred to as second- or third-generation training, where sending someone to be trained directly by a trainer would be first-generation training.

Training Recommendations

One Training for All
I often recommend that camps, which are geographically close, band together and hire a qualified training company to train all staff in one training program (I think this is a throwback to my 60s Food Co-op mentality!). If you do this, or if you send staff off site anywhere to be trained, you also want to ensure that they have site-specific training, which could be done by a fellow staff member.

Site-Specific Training
The purpose of site-specific training is to translate the general knowledge a staff member might have to specific knowledge to be used in camp — where is the emergency phone list? Where is the rescue bag? Where do we put damaged equipment for this facility? All facilities are in fact slightly different. Site-specific training helps you to create an awareness of all of those little things that can influence how you manage your camp surroundings and facilities. This also applies to the individual elements of a challenge course: how they are set up and taken down, where the trees and other environmental factors are, and what local operating procedures should be in place.

In many camps, the person directly responsible for the challenge course is a seasonal staff member. In these instances, it is critical to have a full-time staff member who also understands the issues involved in running the course and in hiring staff.

Have an incident-free season!


Originally published in the 2004 Spring issue of The CampLine.