High ropes courses are a fixture of summer camp life. The allure is unmistakable: suspended from the trees by ropes and wires, participants traverse great distances at great heights, facing fears and coming out with the knowledge that they did something they didn’t know they could. Elements like the zip line and the vine walk are high intensity and high reward, and most campers sign up for Challenge class with these in mind. But this is an ode to the less appreciated low ropes elements, where summer camp skills are made and perfected.

Like most people, I decided to become certified in Challenge course instruction because I wanted to climb around in trees, and facilitate kids’ learning about themselves while climbing around in trees. But as I learned more about Challenge course, I began to realize that the high ropes elements are merely the reward for working so hard on the low ropes course. In high ropes, campers work individually, but low ropes engages cooperative problem solving. One of my favorite elements is the Spider Web. The element is a complicated system of ropes creating various sized holes, and the objective is for the group to pass every member of the team through a hole, using each one only once, without touching the ropes at all.

When first presented with the challenge, most groups jump into activity right away, insisting that they can pass the larger members through lower, bigger holes and then, they say, “just toss the smaller people through the smaller, higher holes.” At this point I stop the action and ask a few safety questions. Campers then realize how unsafe their original plan was, and they begin to really think about things. It’s a kind of math, really: who can we send through who can support us from the other side? How do we make sure we leave enough big holes for the end? How will the last person get over without any help at all? As an instructor, this part is my favorite. The more I can step back and let the group discover their own collective strategy, the better it is.

When the group begins, one person at a time crawls or wheelbarrows or is lifted through the ropes. The team is focused and quiet and committed to the task at hand. As an instructor, my job is to be where the action is, making sure every move is safe, encouraging a rethink when necessary. Afterwards, when the whole group is through, I let them revel in the satisfaction of completing the difficult task, and then I help them decompress. Did you feel like the group listened to you? How do you think your group communicated during the challenge? What did you think was the highlight for your group as a whole?

Challenge course is incredibly fun, and for the most part, campers don’t even know that they’re learning valuable life skills like communication, sharing responsibility, trust, and creative problem solving. Yeah, the zip line is a fabulous reward, but the challenges themselves are a gift as well.

Other Tall Timbers Happenings

–       Jami Siegal made it to the top of the rock wall for the first time

–       Ethan Harrison was the only brave soul at Dippies this morning

–       In Flag Football, the Red Bulls and Orange Crush will face off in the last game before the playoffs

–       Ziggy and Ignacio will battle for the title of Ping Pong Champion