Reflections on Best practices, Research and Applying what we know



If we look honestly at the research that is out there about experiential education—specifically with regards to our beloved challenge courses, zip lines and related activities, there is really not a lot of concrete evidence and research that says there are definite positive outcomes met simply by virtue of participation in these activities. There are lots of words thrown around in this industry like “leadership,” “confidence,” “self-esteem,” self-efficacy, “social and emotional skills” and many similar things. We certainly have a lot of anecdotal “evidence” and stories about positive impacts, but in reality we simply do not know for sure what the impacts are—positive or negative.

The closest thing we really have is all of the educational neuroscience research about learning, learning pathways and related things. It’s clear repetition, choice, exploration, relevancy, reflection, etc. are all keys to learning and establishing effective learning environments. However, many of us that have been involved in this industry for a long time can tell you that, while many good things happen in experiential and adventure programming, there is just as much likelihood that negative things can happen as well. This is especially true if choice, autonomy,  research on threat reactions as an impediment to learning, and related things are not taken into consideration. As an example, when does support or encouragement cross a line into coercion or peer and authority pressure—whether real or just perceived. Since we generally can’t know the history and background of groups and participants, how can we avoid having experiences be negative for some participants. I’m also not just talking about high challenge course experiences. Challenges can also happen for some participants at any part of the experiential process. What can we do with regards to set-up, framing, activity choice, activity development, scheduling or sequencing, or even through our own words and actions to minimize the negative and maximize the positive?


One of the principals that underlie our industry may give us a direction in this regard, and involves the idea of “carefully chosen experiences (Association for Experiential Education Principals of Practice).” Once again there is research in neuroscience to back this up as well. We know that people learn best through incremental, achievable challenges based on the learner’s ability (Willis 2010). In other words, building skills and confidence step by step with feedback and reflection is really how humans learn best. Those experiences also need to have a perceived relevancy.

I think it is clear then that If we are able to take this research and apply it specifically in our respective programs we will definitely be on the cutting edge regarding best practices in the area of learning and personal growth. To do that though, we have to be aware, purposeful and willing to change, adapt, improvise and meet participants where they are. It is also important to be aware that activities and experiences really have no meaning in and of themselves. It is up to us to purposefully frame and sequence those activities, and work towards specific goals based on the needs of our participants. Everything we do can have an impact. You can literally change someone’s life in a moment if you say or do the right thing.

With that in mind, here are some things I have learned over the years that seem to be best practices in the best experiential and adventure programs:

  • Program around a theme. The theme can be very simple such as “who are you?” This gives you a focal point for activities and processing.
  • Be as specific as possible about your goals and outcomes.
  • When possible, try to have the goals driven by the participants and their needs. Values inquiries, group contracts and related are great ways to allow participants to develop their own themes, goals and focus.
  • Facilitate in such a way that activities, and the lessons from those activities, build upon one another. There should be a point and purpose to each activity as it relates to the goal or theme
  • Group activities in short sequences around a common lesson or concept. I usually do 3 to 4 activities in a row that relate to a theme or specific lesson, allow for reflection or discussion on those activities, and then give participants a break to decompress
  • Give participants frequent breaks from serious programming. This is taxing work and takes a lot of emotional and brain power
  • Incorporate mindfulness, visualization and other experiences that give participants time to decompress and reflect
  • Use the theme and related language and concepts in processing sessions as much as possible. If it is a participant developed theme, consider having participants rank specific goals and score themselves as part of processing/debrief time
  • Use the theme and related language, concepts and goals to frame activities so that there is a focus
  • Consider how your carefully chosen and framed activities have relevancy to the real lives of participants.
  • Use stories—including your own personal experiences—along with songs, poems, visuals, videos, etc. as key tools in framing and processing experiences and helping establish relevancy
  • Always keep in mind that few activities have meaning in and of themselves. They will remain just silly and odd things that may or may not create interest or significance in the minds of participants, UNLESS they are set up purposefully in some of the ways described above.

While there may be a time and a place for random, unconnected activities—especially if the intent is to blow off steam—experience has shown that the more focused and intentional you are in your work, the better the overall impact and outcomes.


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Mark Zanoni, Camp Manito-wish YMCA