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Co-Creating Emotionally Safe Environments at Camp: Training Staff to Facilitate Adventure Activities
Adventure experiences for children and teens have been a part of camp for as long as camps have been offering organized programming. In recent years, the camp industry has seen an unprecedented growth in programming additions such as high ropes courses, rock climbing, mountain biking, mountaineering, and wilderness expeditions for campers.
Nationally, we have also seen increased interest in wilderness survival and extreme adventure programming on television. Unfortunately, these national shows have demonstrated a total lack of ethical responsibility to the American public by using adventure programming for the purpose of corporate profit and increased television ratings. As a result, the public rarely sees adventure programming depicted as an effective tool to enhance the physical, psychological, and emotional development of our youth.
Benefits of Direct Participation in Adventure Experiencesfor Youth
Adventure educators have documented the benefits of structured adventure activities on camper development. Improvement of self-concept has been primary for children and youth. According to research by Cuff, Leiberman, Devos, and Radcliffe (Radcliffe, Prouty, and Schoel 1988), specific areas of participant self-concept, such as development of positive identity and self-satisfaction, are repeatedly noted as having increased during post-test adventure program research surveys. Gass and Priest (1997) further identified the benefits of participating in facilitated adventure activities as — the development of new confidence in oneself, increase in logical reasoning skills, increase in shared decision-making, and improvement in problem-solving skills.
However, the most important and somewhat obvious component required in order for campers to receive these benefits from adventure experiences is participation in the adventure itself. Cuff, Leiberman, Devos, and Radcliffe (Radcliffe, Prouty, and Schoel 1988) pointed out that adventure program research control groups, who did not participate in structured adventure activities, did not display significant improvements or growth in self-concept. In addition, Kraft and Sakof (1985) found that the first key element inherent to learning and growth from experiential programming is that learners must be participants and not just spectators in the education process.
The Challenge of Staff Training
Camp professionals have recognized that no matter how challenging and intriguing these adventures may seem to the public, staff must be trained in conducting these activities with camper physical safety as a priority. Often our attention is drawn to the glamour of adventure programming. We tend to forget how complicated it may be for camp staff to facilitate adventure experiences for campers — while working to create not only a physically safe experience but also one conducted in an emotionally safe environment. In addition, parents remind us that not only do they want us to challenge their children, but also facilitate their holistic growth as well.
Creating Emotionally Safe Camp Environments
Although numerous benefits exist for campers in adventure activities, emotional fear may prevent their participation. An emotionally safe adventure program environment could make the difference of increased camper participation and the realization of program outcomes. However, knowledge of which techniques to use in developing this environment of emotional safety is at the discretion of the facilitator. If an inexperienced counselor/facilitator uses inappropriate or inadequate facilitation techniques with campers, their emotional safety may be compromised and self-esteem damaged. This could be detrimental to not only individual and group development but also safety and program outcomes as well. In addition, the damage done to campers by an uninformed counselor could not only have major impact on them but to the camp’s ethical reputation as well.
It takes staff training, skill, and talent to create emotionally safe environments for campers. The organized camp community has identified this as an issue and has responded with recent articles such as Marla Coleman’s (Camping Magazine 1997) “Coaching Emotional Skills at Camp” and Denise Nelson’s (Camping Magazine 2000) “Building Bunk Group Buddies.” In addition, when discussing developments in staff training, Bob Ditter (Camping Magazine 1995) states that camps have“ . . . become even more concerned and informed about the emotional safety of campers (p. 40).”
Camp adventure facilitators have numerous choices from a variety of disciplines in which to create emotionally safe environments for their campers. Unfortunately, many camp adventure facilitators have not had the training necessary to discern the difference. They techniques. They may not know how to involve campers in determining their own individual and group adventure program goals and outcomes to maximize the value of these adventures to the camper experience.
Camp Responsibility and Program Outcomes
The camp administration’s responsibility is to empower staff with the responsibility of creating emotionally safe environments for campers in their adventure programs and provide the staff training for them to be successful. Coleman (1997) states, “When you arm your staff with tools that nurture emotional competence, you forge a bond in your camp community that empowers your counselors to have a profound, positive effect on campers (p. 21).”
However, much of staff training has focused on technical activity skills and planning the physical safety of the participants. Given the complex responsibilities of camp staff in running adventure programs, perhaps the weight of this responsibility often inhibits our adventure activity facilitators from encouraging participant input when devising group goals and standards of behavior within the group. Often, our camp staff do what they have experienced themselves without really understanding the process or progression that is needed to achieve program outcomes. Camp staff doing “the ten-minute read and preparation” right before conducting an adventure activity program delivery is rather scary and often unproductive in achieving program outcomes. Campers may get through it, but might lose out on reaching their maximum potential for success in the process.
In contrast, Ditter (1995) concluded that effective precamp training should include discussing child-related issues and coaching counselors to work more effectively with campers. Camp directors may need to ask themselves if they spend enough time on this topic in precamp training. Do they allow time for more advanced training during the camp season to help their counselors continue to develop facilitation techniques that create emotionally safe learning environments for their campers?
Using Cooperative Goal Setting
Before camp or program directors begin staff facilitator training, they may want to explore how cooperative goal setting can enhance camper emotional safety. The goal of establishing an emotionally safe adventure program environment is enhanced through co-creation of group goals. In this environment, group members feel safe to contribute to and commit to group goals. Research indicates that this shared responsibility may be extremely valuable for individual and group program outcomes. According to Pintrich and Schunk (1996), the most effective way to accomplish successfully reaching any goal is for participants to be committed to the goals. Eggen and Kauckak (1999) support this point when they indicated that “one way of increasing commitment is to guide students in setting their own goals, rather than to impose goals on them (p. 417).”
Developmental characteristics of campers seem to be a perfect match to handle and foster co-creation through cooperative goal setting. Ball and Ball (2000) cite that campers from ages fourteen to seventeen prefer to set their own goals, create and keep commitments, and desire adult roles. How the camp staff manages their facilitation skills to create an emotionally safe adventure program environment is extremely important with this age group.
Adventure program literature indicates that cooperative environments, with goal setting present, are inherent to adventure experiences (Burgess, 1991; Radcliffe, Prouty, and Schoel 1998). Furthermore, the process of assisting adventure groups in developing obtainable individual and group goals has become a noted cornerstone of effective adventure facilitation (Gass and Priest 1997).
Examining effective behavior in organizations shows us that cooperative goal setting has been used to motivate workers and also improve performance standards (Cohen, Fink, Gadon, and Willits 1992). Research also shows that agreed upon goals can reduce behavioral problems, build trust, and establish safe environments (Eggan and Kauchak 1999). For example, Eggan and Kauchak (1999) stated “that students who adopt learning goals persist in the face of difficulty; attribute success to internal, alterable causes; take risks and accept academic challenges; and focus on personal mastery (p.418).” It would seem that campers could realize these outcomes as well. Therefore, the camp director’s challenge is to devise staff training programs to enable their counselors to excel in this area.
Training Staff to Facilitate Co-creation of Emotionally Safe Environments
Ditter (1995) has also advocated the need for experiential training or active learning approaches as a key training strategy when working with staff. For example, a facilitation technique such as the “full value contract” can be used, but its co-creation should be the responsibility of all participants in the adventure activity (Racliffe, Prouty, and Schoel 1988). During this process the structure of the contract may be predetermined by the facilitator, but the responsibility of filling in the values of the contract is shared among the group. Guided by the facilitator, the participants may create and recreate the appropriate values and standards for behavior that are unique to their specific group. Possible applications could include hand tracing activities and value statements compiled onto large paper that could serve as motivation to create group goals. The larger paper “full value contract” signed by participants and facilitator is then posted for all to see.
Other Creative Techniques
Behavioral contracts can be developed to assist youth in developing appropriate behaviors and deterring them from unwanted actions. This technique can easily be applied to groups. After introspection, discussion, and democratic debate, the group may devise a mission statement describing their own emotionally safe environments and expected behaviors. Then creative signatures, fingerprints, or verbal acknowledgements can seal an individual’s commitment to these group goals (Eggen and Kauchak 1999).
These group mission statements can also be put onto badges worn by staff (Coleman 1997). Encourage staff to wear their badges daily throughout the precamp training. As campers arrive, counselors will be modeling mission statement badges that campers will be making. Short lesson plans should be available for counselors to facilitate the badge making.
Improving cooperation can be accomplished if a group shares a common source of threat (Cohen et al., 1992). The common source of threat for the adventure facilitator and the group could be individual or group actions that may decrease the emotional safety of individuals or the group. The group may write a short story. The goal in writing this is to create a story in which a triumphant camper defeats the threat to emotionally safe actions with agreed upon behaviors. This story can be acted out, signed, and/or followed up with discussion and agreements. Furthermore, the story can be read out loud by campers prior to their group’s involvement in an adventure activity.
Coleman (1997) suggests creating a “courage show” involving emotional skills in which camp staff star in main roles. In turn, the process described above can simply be part of staff training and then acted out for new campers. In addition, Nelson (2000) describes the importance of building this camaraderie and unity among bunk groups. She states, “Campers should help create bunk rules to enhance their self-esteem and to show them from the beginning how they, too, can have a part in the decision-making process of the team (p. 20).”
These plays aimed at addressing emotionally unsafe behaviors can be developed with help from counselors, acted out by bunk groups, and performed for the rest of the camp community. They can then be acted out again and again prior to involvement in adventure and other camp activities to increase camper participation and learning.
All of the above techniques to enhance camper emotional safety can be facilitated with staff during training and lesson plans for each activity can be kept on file. Furthermore, counselors should be encouraged and expected to refer to these lesson plans as reminders of how to facilitate these techniques prior to involvement in adventure and other camp activities. Senior staff can assist in developing this lesson plan file during each season and should continue to mentor younger staff throughout the camp season. Not only will junior staff benefit but also senior staff as well.
Achieving Your Goal
In order for campers to actualize the benefits of adventure activities, they must participate. Establishing an emotionally safe environment not only contributes to camper individual, group, and program outcomes, it also addresses the camp’s programming ethics as well. Using cooperative goal setting makes sense and has the potential to improve group safety through increased camper commitment to accomplishing individual, group, and program goals. In turn, camper participation and learning outcomes during adventure activities may flourish. According to Coleman (1997), once emotional themes become part of your camp community, “You will have carved out a valuable and vital role for the camp experience because you will have created the ultimate climate for success — a place where young people feel safe, loved, and capable (p.21).” Creating emotionally safe environments at camp in adventure programming is one way to achieve this goal.
Matt Brownlee was a graduate teaching assistant in Outdoor Pursuits Recreation Administration at Aurora University, Aurora, Illinois, and will graduate at the end of November.
Rita Yerkes, Ed.D., is a professor, assistant to the president, and dean of human services at Aurora University, Aurora, Illinois
Originally published in the 2003 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.