When Competition Is Just Right

Mark Warren
November 2018

"I don't want my child to take part in this contest you've dreamed up," a visiting parent told me on the grounds of my camp. "I don't want him to lose. He's not good at this." She pointed out to the playing field where campers were practicing throwing bamboo spears, hurling rock ‘shot puts,' and leaping over high jump crossbars."

"It's called the 'Primitive Olympics,'" I explained. "Everyone is excited about it. Including your son."

She frowned out at the activity on the field. "But he can't do these things. He'll lose."

For a few seconds we both watched several children huddle together to talk, as if they were devising a strategy. "They're divided into two tribes," I explained. "It will be a tribe that loses, not a person. He'll have friends to share in the loss, or," I added optimistically, "the victory."

She looked at me with dead eyes. "What if they blame the loss on him?"

I could see her mind was set. I pointed to a series of logs lying in the grass.

"See that maze out there? That's one of the many contests in our Olympics. It's a memorization challenge. A contestant looks at it for 30 seconds, gets blindfolded, and then tries to walk the maze without touching the logs. He might take part in that one. Or maybe the balance contest. There are lots of options."

Her frown eased from three forehead creases to one. "You mean he doesn't have to do all these other things?"

I shook my head. "The tribe decides. The competitors are placed in their events according to their strongpoints. Each tribe works it out within the group."

The concerned parent thought about this. "OK," she finally said.

Out on the field her son took a turn at throwing the spear for distance. It was by no means a spectacular throw, but it stuck in the ground, for which our Olympians scored extra points. The boy had a big smile on his face as his tribe members applauded him. It was a nice epilogue for this conversation.

I remember a time in the 1990s when it was common to find literature about the evils of competition that we educators imposed upon our young wards in schools, summer camps, and sports teams. Those who wanted the contest-factor abolished from our youth argued that we could present a healthier group experience by having no winners or losers.

Opponents of this idea suggested that America would eventually fall from grace in the real Olympics, and there would be a general decline in the character of the average citizen. An analogy sometimes used was this: "So you want a swimming pool with no deep end?"

Personally, I think both doctrines have validity. It all depends upon the needs of the students.

In the early '70s, I directed a summer camp for the Georgia Conservancy, the state's premier conservation organization addressing ecological issues. This was the Conservancy's first venture into the camp world (and mine too), and because the agenda was oriented toward nature study, the campers who signed up really wanted to learn about their natural world. Because their parents were Conservancy members, many of the campers were already quite steeped in nature study.

The common demographic of environmentalists in those days was Caucasian, urban, upper middle class to wealthy. Which is to say, their children, more often than not, attended the best schools in the Atlanta area. In short, my campers tended to be smart; but their athletic prowess was all over the map. What they all had in common was a very intellectual curiosity about science. These children (their average age was 11) couldn't care less about who won the occasional athletic event. But give them a contest of wits, and they were cerebral warriors who wanted to win.

When I struck out on my own to teach primitive survival skills as a year-round venture, I often worked with the other end of the educational spectrum. Spending time with "at-risk" youth, I discovered that many students who ended up so labeled were those with behavioral problems because they did not perform well academically. They "acted up" as a compensation for their poor grades. Often these students carried learning disabilities. If I offered these struggling students an intellectual contest, a sudden quiet came over the group. If I pressed on, the experience usually fell flat. But give them an out-of-the-box physical challenge that involved a little derring-do, and they leapt in headfirst.

I learned that planning a camp agenda for any group took some foresight and a knowledge of these young people with whom I would be sharing an adventure. But competitions always took a place in my programs. I simply had to be mindful of what kind of contests would be acceptable — and which would not.

Let me tell you about two kinds of competitions that seem to work with any group.

A Good Story

Nothing gels a group around the campfire at night like the telling of a good story. The flames provide a canvas. Without any instruction at all, all eyes are fixed there. The beauty of a good story is that the campers render a painting from the words fed to them. It's a partnership, this telling and this constructing an image. Historically, this duet is as old as language itself. Possibly older. I consider this marriage of storyteller to audience a far better relationship than the one of computer screen to user. In the former, the child takes an active and creative part in the process. In the latter, no matter how glittery and captivating the screen, that same child is merely on the receiving end of a barrage of stimuli.

The day after one nighttime campfire story, my campers and I were eating lunch around the ashes of our fire pit. This group was diverse — their family demographics covering a good cross-section of both urban and rural lives. At meal's end, one child in the lunch crew announced, "There are four cookies left over. Who wants one?" Ten hands went up. We could have broken the cookies up, of course, but the still-hungry campers insisted on "whole cookies or nothing." And an idea was born.

"Welcome to ‘Wilderness Jeopardy,'" I said. "You'll have to earn your cookie. I will ask a question about last night's story. If you think you know the answer, ‘buzz' in with your name. I will call on the first name I hear, and that person will have one chance to give the correct answer for a cookie. If that person answers incorrectly, he or she is ineligible for a cookie for the remainder of the ‘quiz show.'"

I chose the most obscure details I could retrieve from the story. "From what plant was the medicine woman's robe made?" "What was the name of the mountain where she took her vision quest?" "Name three birds that played important roles in the story." "From which tree did the young man strip bark to make string for tying feathers to his arrow?" And so it went.

This contest was a big hit. Everyone was involved. On the next day at lunch they begged for "Wilderness Jeopardy" again. And the next day. And through the years that followed. This fun competition became a staple at camp.

When Knighthood Was in Re-Flower

Still in the early '70s, I had the good fortune to present a program to a school and camp that had just gotten on its feet — a place called High Meadows. When the owners asked me to join their summer camp staff to run wilderness programs, I began a 17-year stint that became one of the most important periods of my life.

At the time, I had no idea how my current reading interests would play into the camp's future. The books on my reading table included Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy starting with The Crystal Cave, various versions of Robin Hood, and, most importantly, T.H. White's The Once and Future King. As you can see, I was taken with the days of yore.

In planning for my first year at High Meadows Camp, I proposed a knighthood program in which the campers could choose to advance from page to squire to sentry to knight through the years as they returned each summer. Each level had clearly stated goals that increased in maturity and difficulty as a camper grew and scaled the echelons of knightly rank. A specifically colored shirt with an appropriate symbol was awarded for each level.

As long as a camper was interested in achieving it, the page level was virtually a given. Each activity at camp — nature, horseback riding, sports, canoeing, photography, pioneering, etc. — carried its own list of requirements for each knighthood level. If a beginning camper managed the page level in just three activities, he or she earned the title of page at camp. It took five individual squire levels (in five activities) to become a camp squire. Seven for sentry. Nine for knight.

Here's just one example of a knight requirement in nature: A camper must learn three species of trees so thoroughly by touch, smell, and sound that he or she can be led blindfolded into the forest to be introduced to five different trees and identify the familiar three. Such a student learns bark patterns, bark toughness, limb structure, presence or absence of spurs (dwarf twigs), size of leaf stalk, leaf arrangement (alternate, opposite, or whorled), shape of leaf, vein pattern, surface texture (think of redbud's rubber balloon feel), and even the sound of the leaves when gently wrinkled (papery or not) or collectively shaken on a branch. All the activities that went into this study made for wonderful camp memories and feelings of great accomplishment. I wonder, how many college students in forestry could do the same?

Because each camper was working on his or her own schedule, there was never an ongoing anxiety about who was achieving what. That picture was too broad; only the counselors really had a sense of it. Whenever someone achieved a new level, I never witnessed anything but joy and fanfare from the other campers — even from those who were not keen on climbing the knighthood ladder.

When someone reached the point of achieving knight, we put on a special ceremony inspired by one of the most mystical moments in the Arthurian legend. Into a hollow oak stump that existed at our common meeting place (it was our "Stonehenge"), I inserted an impressive old sword that had belonged to one of my relatives. Unknown to the campers, a small secret tunnel had been dug under the stump. Reaching through this opening I was able to attach a C-clamp to the tip of the blade so that the sword could not be extracted. When we held this evening ceremony, we addressed all the campers around the campfire and asked, "Who would now become a knight? Who is bold enough to try?"

We could always count on a show of hands, one of which belonged to our new knight-to-be. First, we asked two or three of the noncandidates to try. One by one, a hopeful would step forward, kneel, grasp the hilt of the sword, and with a required straightened arm (lest some strong camper overpower the C-clamp) try to lift the sword. It never yielded to one who had not earned it.

After the wannabees had made their attempts at a shortcut to knighthood, some remarkable event always occurred. This happened by design. Once it was the "Lady of the Lake" dressed in a flowing and gossamer gown. She arrived on horseback, an entourage of candle-bearers escorting her into the woods. Another time it was an ancient soldier wrapped from head to toe in aluminum foil. Whatever diversion we had chosen, every camper turned away from the sword to see the apparition arrive. That was the moment when I reached through the tunnel and unscrewed the C-clamp. It took all of three seconds.

At the next attempt to draw the sword, the entire camp witnessed something close to pure magic as the sword slipped free. On those nights I never heard a word of competitive envy, only awe and respect. Everyone had shared in a special evening never to be forgotten.


Mark Warren directed summer camps in north Georgia for 43 years. In 1980, the National Wildlife Federation awarded him Georgia's Conservation Educator of the Year. His wilderness school, Medicine Bow, offers classes for all ages in nature study and Cherokee survival skills. He is the author of a four-volume series, Secrets of the Forest, written for camp counselors and other outdoor leaders to provide teacher education and hundreds of original activities. His other books include Two Winters in a Tipi, Adobe Moon, and Born to the Badge. Learn more at secretsoftheforestbook.com.

Photo courtesy of Mark Warren.