Building A Case

By Bob Carver

In Part 1 of this series, I examined group initiatives, or directives, that encourage a group to work together to solve a problem. This article focuses on low-ropes challenge courses.

The main difference between the two is that a challenge course is permanently constructed, designed exclusively for this type of activity and led by a trained facilitator.

Before a single person sets foot on a challenge course, several issues must be addressed, starting with construction and inspection. For safety and liability reasons, using a professional company in both steps is highly recommended.

Although there may be qualified people at camp who probably can do a good job and save some money, it is not advisable. If you choose that route, however, be sure to follow professional standards, and then have the course inspected by an independent company.

For Example
What exactly goes into a successful team-building activity? Let’s say a group has specified that it wants to build unity.

Here is a sample approach to that goal:

Introduction and safety-training activities:
These take about 15 to 20 minutes to complete. During this time, have the group stretch and check for jewelry, belts or any other items that might cause an injury.

Pre-course training is designed to do three things:

• Teach safety and spotting techniques
• Get the group working together
• Help the facilitator feel comfortable in taking the group on the course.

Group initiatives:
As part of the introduction, include one or two activities that demonstrate what the group will experience on the challenge course. Choose these activities based upon what is known of the group and its goals.

Challenge course:
Once there is a comfort level with a group, proceed to the challenge course. In a typical two-hour course, usually three to four elements can be completed. Use a story line to help get the group into the proper mood and create “handicaps” for additional challenges. After each element, take about five to 10 minutes to debrief.

This expands the educational experience after an initiative or challenge-course endeavor. It involves the introspection of group members as each person evaluates the activity he or she either just attempted or completed. In other words, what--if anything--have they learned in the process?

Many years ago, a facilitator suggested posing three questions:

• What happened?
• So what?
• Now what?

These questions provide an effective, brief outline for discussion. The last two questions are particularly applicable to life, which is ultimately what the entire exercise is about.

Trained Facilitators
Although the focus thus far has been on the program, it is important to recognize the role of an effective facilitator as well. When initially meeting with the group, there is an introductory period during which the facilitator’s role is developed. This is where the group develops respect for the facilitator’s authority.

A facilitator must recognize that one of his or her most valuable skills is an ability to observe without giving advice or making judgments. A facilitator must not rob participants of the joy of figuring it out themselves. The role of the facilitator is not to be the “hot dog” who has all the answers, but rather the one who encourages the team members to do it on their own.

Are Challenge Courses Safe?
There is always a question of possible injuries on challenge courses. While occasional scrapes, rope burns and bruises may occur, injuries are relatively minor. In fact, I’ve probably seen more injuries from games of Wiffle ball than from challenge courses for one simple reason: challenge courses are highly supervised. Any reports of serious injuries are typically related to the construction or facilitation of a challenge course.

Challenge courses are tools that convince people to trust each other and interact in ways that few other camp activities can. Talking about trust, communication, teamwork, community, leadership and a host of other group and individual dynamics doesn’t give the same shared sweat and practical experience that a challenge course brings.

From a pure amusement activity to counseling to corporate teambuilding, any group can use challenge programming, as long as the proper safety guidelines are in place.

Bob Carver has been in camp management for the past 33 years. He recently retired as executive director of Camp Allendale in Trafalgar, Ind., to become the camp's marketing director. He can be reached via e-mail at

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Looking For Ideas?
Here are some low-ropes challenge-course activities to get your participants revved up:

Cargo Net
The story: A crew is escaping a sinking ship to board another ship.

String a net horizontally about 4 feet to 8 feet off the ground. Participants climb in one side and go out the opposite side.

Space Antenna
The story: The antenna base must be “demagnetized.”

Using a 12-foot-high vertical pole, remove a tire from the base of the pole, touch it to the ground, and replace it on the pole.

Swinging Log
The story: Participants must cross a gorge without falling.

Wedge a log between two trees about 15 inches off the ground.

Barrel Roll
Alternate stories: The group is using a thermal fax machine and the paper cannot tear; or traversing through a black hole.

Participants--either connected or not--must traverse over the top of a barrel.

Wild Woosey
The story: Support of the group in spotting for safety.

String cables between three tees in a “V” 18 inches off ground. At the narrow end, two participants face each other--clasping each other’s hands--standing on the cables. Traverse toward the end as the gap between the cables widens.

The Wall
The story: Trapped in a bullfighting stadium, participants must escape using only each other to scale the wall.

Using a 12-foot wall that is 10 feet wide with a platform 4 feet from the top on the back side of the wall, participants must traverse over the wall using only their bodies.