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A Primer on Adventure Education in the Camp Setting



Aug 1, 2007, 12:49 PM

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A Primer on Adventure Education in the Camp Setting Can't Post

by Eric Nei

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

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.

Learning Cycle

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.

Comfort Zone

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

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.

Group Development

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.

In the forming stage, group members are focused on being busy with learning the routine of the group and assessing the tasks to be accomplished. Conversations at this level of group development could be labeled as superficial: “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” At this stage, the group leader should provide information about the expected routine and tasks and to facilitate initial conversations.

In the storming stage, conflicts between group members emerge. These conflicts may relate to the work of the group itself or to personalities and roles within the group. The group leader should help the group members explore healthy structures of conflict resolution. Leaders who are uncomfortable with conflict may have a tendency to suppress conflict in favor of task accomplishment or feigned harmony. These leaders should realize that, according to Tuckman’s model, their group will not progress without finding ways to resolve conflicts.

In the norming stage, group members now have an understanding and appreciation for each other. Rules of engagement (norms) have been established. There may be a sense of camaraderie and warmth in the group. However, even this pleasant stage comes with hazards. The group members may be resistant to change, especially from outside influences, because they may fear that the group will break up or revert to the storming stage. In addition, task accomplishment may actually suffer because the group members now enjoy interaction within the group. Simple decisions will attract long dialogue, because people are enjoying the interaction. The role of the group leader in this stage is to reassure the group that they now have the tools to resolve conflict and to help balance task-focus and process-focus.

Not all groups reach the performing stage. However, when they do there is a high degree of interdependence and flexibility. Roles and responsibilities change almost seamlessly because of high levels of trust and task mastery. The group clearly demonstrates that they know whether they need to focus on tasks or people. This high degree of comfort leads to high levels of efficiency and effectiveness. The role of the group leader in this stage is to reinforce high accomplishments and teach new technical skills as needed.

Finally, the adjourning stage occurs. Individuals disengage from both the task of the group and the people of the group. There is pride in what has been accomplished and joy in the relationships that have developed. The role of the leader in this stage is to prepare the group for the discomfort of adjournment. In general, people can mourn the loss of a superficial friendship easier than a close friendship. Therefore, group members may actually sabotage relationships to ease the pain of separation. One strategy the group leader can use to facilitate healthy adjournment is to talk with the group members early on about progression and eventual adjournment of the group. In this way, each of the stages can be celebrated and worked through, particularly the storming and adjourning stage.

Alternative Stage
Denise Mitten, instructor at Ferris State University in Michigan, offered an alternative to Tuckman’s model that is worth noting. She observed that the term storming implies and limits participants and leaders to a narrow range of possible interactive behaviors of interaction during the second stage of group development. Thus, leaders may actually force or structure toward conflict. With these thoughts in mind, she developed a model similar to Tuckman’s, but she excluded storming and included sorting as a stage. Her changes provide for two subtle but important differences. First, conflict may happen but it is no longer so easily equated with successful group development. Second, a wider variety of behaviors is seen as valuable at this stage than if storming behaviors are expected. She recognized that affirmation and other “positive” interactions actually might be the catalyst for group development in this second stage. Third, sorting brings attention to the work being accomplished in the group. Sorting more accurately reflects the process that the group members need to undergo to move to the next developmental phase. They are literally sorting out the norms — who does what, what happens when, and the like.

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.

Usually adventure education comes in two forms in the camp experience. If the adventure experience is part of a larger program, such as a ropes course event in the middle of a session, the camper has the opportunity to test the learning of the ropes course in the camp environment during the remainder of their camp session. If they find the learning valid, they are more likely to apply it in other environments. If the adventure experience is the program, as in multi-day tripping, the learning that occurs during the trip needs to be tested and validated beyond the camp experience. In either case, the adventure activity leader should always have a plan to help the camper make applications outside the camp environment. Failure to do this may actually cause the adventure experience to backfire.

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 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.

At the time of publication, Eric Nei was working toward his M.A. degree in educational ministry at Wheaton College. He had worked for more than twelve years in the camp profession, developing and leading adventure education programs, and presenting on this topic and others at various professional conferences.

  • Drexler, Sibbet, Russ Forrester. (1994). The Team Performance Model. Team Building: Blueprints for Productivity and Satisfaction. NTL Institute and University Associates.
  • Fisher, B. Aubrey. (1970). Decision emergence: Phases in group decision making. Speech Monographs, 37, 53-66.
  • Joplin, Laura. (1995). On Defining Experiential Education. The Theory of Experiential Education: A collection of articles addressing the historical philosophical, social and psychological foundations of experiential education, no. 15-22.
  • Luckner, John L. & Nadler, Reldan S. (1997). Processing the Experience: Strategies to Enhance and Generalize Learning. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.
  • Mitten, D. (1999). Leadership for community building. Adventure Programming.
  • Poole, Marshall Scott. (1981). Decision development in small groups: A comparison of two models. Communication Monographs, 48, 1-24.
  • Tubbs, Stewart. (1995). A Systems Approach To Small Group Interaction. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Tuckman, Bruce W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399
Originally published in the 2003 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

This article is reproduced with the permission of The American Camp Association.

American Camp Association
5000 State Road 67 North
Martinsville, IN 46151-7902
Map to ACA
Phone: 765-342-8456
Fax: 765-342-2065

(This post was edited by ACACamps on Aug 3, 2007, 10:17 AM)


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