When it comes to challenge, you’ve likely heard of the three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone. It’s an idea based on the belief that all of us can benefit from a challenge. If we push ourselves with a task or an experience that we find difficult, it will allow us to grow as human beings. Those three zones represent that ability to grow. Push too much, and you’ll just be anxious, uncomfortable, and primed for a negative experience. Never push at all, and you’ll miss out on all that important growth. Seems simple enough in theory, but there’s more than a little nuisance to consider, and plenty of important questions to ask. How does one manage challenge in a group where everyone’s comfort zones are different, for example. And, what are the best strategies for navigating the comfort zones of children – an age that perhaps is the least willing to exit comfort, but where growth and learning are critical? These are important questions, and ones any youth, outdoor adventure program worth their salt needs to ask.
For us it begins and ends with relationships. If exploring outside of one’s comfort zone is the objective, then it’s crucial that they get to do it with someone whom makes them feel safe. It’s also a boon if this person is someone people generally want to be around. That’s step one. A warm and nurturing counselor doesn’t just make cabin life easier for a camper. The best counselors ease camper anxieties by being present and proactive. For a large number of campers, simply being away from home for an extended amount of time is already a trip far outside their comfort zones, let alone in a place without lights or technology, and with an entirely new group of people.
The social element can’t be understated. When we think of challenge – particularly at a summer camp – we tend to think of hiking or roughing it under a tarp in the wilderness. And while those experiences are certainly adventures, for the average child, so too very much is the experience of going to a new place and trying to fit in. Unfortunately, it’s also often one that is often filled with fear and unease. Awareness of this fact and a system of what I like to call “unrelenting support” seem to be the best tools for treating these anxieties. A small camper to counselor ratio certainly helps. Two counselors in an intimate communal cabin of eight or ten campers helps ensure no child will slip through the cracks. As do staff trainings on what to watch out for, and how best to identify and care for campers who may be quietly not having the best time whether it be due to homesickness or difficulty finding their place. Empathy, redirection, and inclusion are aces. Is there a camper looking sad? Hear them out, then get ‘em in an activity. Camper sitting alone on the lodge porch? Get one of their cabin mates to ask them to join their card game. Simply put: it’s hard to feel anxious when you’re enjoying yourself. And at the end of the day, a child who gains the knowledge and confidence that they could go to a new place and make new friends is a value you can’t put a price on.
Though tackling the challenge of being away from home and entering a different social situation are certainly significant for many and ones we don’t want to ignore, they’re not the ones most commonly cited by campers as difficulties. It’s definitely the notion of multi-day trips into the woods. It’s something most new campers have had little experience with, and it’s easily the most intimidating thing that we do. Carrying a hiking backpack and sleeping on the ground isn’t easy, and they know it won’t be. It also doesn’t mean that they can’t do it, nor that they shouldn’t. By far, one of my favorite moments as a director is always greeting the campers as they hike into camp with a high five when they return from a trip with a big smile on their face. The same camper who, days before, was swearing they’d never be able to do it has now gained the feeling of accomplishment that they could and did complete that challenge!
My belief is that it all comes down to presentation and packaging. We already know that the campers can comfortably do the trips because we’ve been watching them do these same trips for decades. However, the scale can become tipped in the wrong direction if we hype up the challenge too much. The reason for the hype around the trips is so that campers can become excited for the grand adventure ahead, and to feel all the more satisfied when they accomplish it. Yet, too much “Ra! Ra! It’s gonna be so hard!” framing around the trip to campers during the preparation can easily push them into their panic zones, and set the tone for the whole outing. We don’t want them to feel like they’re heading into an impossible journey. Because then, when it inevitably does get hard, they might feel like they’re being punished or pushed needlessly.
Again, it’s about relationships; that comfort that they feel developing with their counselor through the support and the attention they receive in camp should carry on to the trail. If trips are framed as fun adventures rather than grueling tests of might, then the level of anxiety and stress campers feel before and during the trip will definitely drop. From there, it’s simply a matter of delivering that same compassion and care throughout the whole trip. That support morphs from “You can do this! You can do it!” to, “Look, you’re totally doing it! Look at you go!”
If challenge is something that we all agree is important to a child’s development then it’s critical that we properly invest ourselves in ensuring that it’s healthy, wholesome, productive, and – yes – even fun. Challenge can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant. And here we get to ask: how can the challenge we offer also be something that campers also look forward to all year?