Over the past few weeks I have been profiling some of our very talented coaches and teachers at our summer camp for 21st century skills in New Hampshire. Our staff do an incredible job simultaneously teaching both the hard skills -- like ground strokes, foul shots and throwing on the potter's wheel -- and vital non-cognitive soft skills like adaptability, critical thinking, and resilience. To understand our summer camp you really need to understand how they foster such incredible outcomes. If you missed any of them, here are some of the more recent staff profiles:
- Chris Straker, Basketball coach
- Andrew Disbrow, Ceramics teacher
- Kass Walsh, Tennis coach
- Tom Shanks, Soccer coach
This week I am pleased to introduce you to Jonno Whitham, our Director of our Ropes Course and Adventure area. Before coming to Kenwood and Evergreen Jonno worked as the leader of a climbing center in the United Kingdom, and has even led expeditions in far flung places like Dubai. He brings with him a wealth of technical and safety experience, and he's also just a really nice guy.
Jonno was so excited about sharing his thoughts about working and teaching at our overnight camp that he wrote the following essay:
For me, the ropes course is the perfect platform to work with campers. The beauty of a course is in the effect of perceived danger. Upon arrival, looking at the course for the very first time all you would see is a mess of ropes, high up in the trees. It’s a daunting prospect for any camper, the thought of being asked to go up there and dangle off a few of them. But looks can be deceiving. The truth is that at a well-maintained ropes or challenge course, run by professional, properly trained Adventure Course staff running, you are really in an extremely safe place to test yourself and your perceived boundaries.
It is easy to spend your life never testing the waters that lay beyond our own protective barriers that are also known as your ‘comfort zone’. In much of daily life this is by no means a bad thing. Our comfort zone is where we feel most at ease, most…comfortable. And yet this is what makes the ropes and adventure course quite unlike any other area of Camp, and why it is so valuable for campers looking to acquiring new 21st century skills.
As the director of the Ropes Course at Camps Kenwood and Evergreen, my team and I had the task of encouraging campers (in some cases the staff too) to see what its like to push out against the envelope every once in a while. By no means did we expect everyone to immediately give a two-footed leap, although one of the elements on the course did require just that! All we asked of them was to try something they perceived as difficult, challenging, or otherwise impossible for them to do. To draw campers outside of their comfort zones it is our role as the Ropes and Adventure team to provide technical help and emotional encouragement in a safe, controlled environment. We set out to do just that every single day of the summer.
21st century skills are a term people use quite a bit at our camp in New Hampshire. We incorporate the learning of this set of abilities – including independence, grit, resilience, critical thinking, and creativity -- into all areas of camp. And the ropes course is no exception. As the Director I want my activity area to be a tool to help children explore these skills in ways perhaps other areas of camp do not. Secured in a harness, suspended 60-ft in the air, campers suddenly find their 21st century skills are challenged in ways that don’t necessarily happen on a ball field or in an art studio.
Critical thinking and problem solving are classic examples of what we teach. On the course even simple questions like “which should I use next: my left hand or right hand?” become crucial to completing a task. As the adrenaline is pumping through your ears climbers suddenly realize that incorrect move could result in losing grasp of the rope or tree, requiring you to start your climb all over again. The Ropes Course teaches campers both how to make and carry out a plan, and how to adapt as a need for change suddenly becomes apparent.
Our amazing ropes team (from left to right): Adam Windell, Connor Saunders, Jonno Whitham, Luke Hewett, and Jared Wells
Another 21st century skill that we see campers developing at the course is creativity. Across every single climbing element you are forced to be creative and come up with your own specific solution to each and every problem or obstacle you are presented with. My team knows that real learning comes from trying and sometimes failing, so we don’t feed climbers their solutions. Instead, it is very much up to the camper to push through their frustration and find solutions. We coach and we guide, and we give tons of encouragement, but we let our climbers know that this is the place in Camp to work on developing their own answers to seemingly intractable problems.
As I think back on the past few summers, one particular activity period that stands out for me was with the Evergreen girls. This group of girls was particularly nervous, since none of them had ever visited the ropes course before. Collectively, they had decided that our massive zip line would be top of their bucket list for the session, despite their nerves! I am very pleased to say that even though they were nervous, and even though it took some of them longer than anticipated to step off of the platform, every one of the girls climbed the 60-ft tree and rode the zip line! To accomplish this they had to draw on a variety of skills learned throughout camp, including teamwork, effective communication, problem solving, grit, and determination. Many of the girls would not have completed their goal that day without the support of their many friends cheering for them on the ground.
Watch Jonno and the Ropes Team help a camper climb a 60-ft tree and ride the zip line for the first time!
I know that I speak for the entire Ropes Course team when I say how rewarding it is to spend each summer watching campers grow at our activity area. It such an interesting, challenging and exciting environment to work and teach in. What a fantastic thing to have access to in your 7 weeks as a camper!