Many people outside of the profession are often surprised to discover the depth and breadth of the work that NIRSA members are leading on campuses across North America and beyond. The University of Michigan’s Adventure Leadership Program—an outdoor leadership and team building development program focused on physical challenges or activities based on strategy and collaboration—is one of those eye-opening examples of innovative approaches to developing leadership capacity through interaction with campus recreation.
Pushing boundaries on campus and across Michigan
The Adventure Leadership Program offers off and onsite learning opportunities with the latter taking place at Michigan’s Adventure Education Center, a 150-acre site in northeast Ann Arbor. The facility includes a 3,000 square foot building for meetings, retreats, and conferences; a multi-element low course; a two-tiered high ropes course; a 45-foot climbing tower; and two zip lines. Programs are customized based on participating groups’ interests and skills levels.
“Student and community member staff are trained in the skills of facilitation through an experiential education lens in order to provide participants opportunities to explore leadership, organizational behavior, and the environment through adventure practices and outdoor recreation,” explains Jessa Lytle, Assistant Director of Adventure Leadership. Every program is unique and activities vary widely—from dogsledding trips to wilderness first aid courses to onsite experiential learning courses.
First Ascent excursions, for example, are designed specifically for incoming UM students. In small groups, fellow freshmen are grouped together for camping, hiking, and paddling as they explore the state’s natural areas. “These trips are led by upper-level undergraduate or graduate students and center around the transition to college and all things Michigan,” explains John Swerdlow, Senior Assistant Director, Adventure Leadership Trips & Rentals.
University of Michigan students who take advantage of these opportunities—whether they come from out of state or from in state—get to explore some of the state’s great natural sites, without needing any prior outdoor adventure experience or equipment.
Onsite activities at the Adventure Education Center differ broadly. In one, participants develop a system to most efficiently transport marbles and golf balls across an open space using short pieces of halved PVC pipe and then collect those marbles and golf balls in a bucket. In another, participants use only verbal commands to guide blindfolded individuals in retrieving objects and safely returning them to a designated location. In yet another activity, participants must create a five-point star—or any variety of shapes—from a circle of rope without anyone speaking or letting go of the rope during the process.
The benefits of play
Jessa explains the appeal of these activities and the Adventure Leadership Program succinctly: “Simply put, not enough of us learn by playing when we become adults. As children, the benefits of play and recreation are obvious—it’s engaging, it increases self-esteem, encourages collaboration. Adventure and activity-based learning does the same thing for adults.” The fact that play is beneficial to adults is why Outdoor Adventures and the Challenge Program—the two entities that eventually merged to form the Adventure Leadership Program—were formed at the University of Michigan back in the 1990s.
The Adventure Leadership Program serves a diverse clientele—from grade school students to medical practices to corporations like Google, Denso International, Ford, and DTE. The program adapts deftly to serve each groups’ needs with the corporate groups not only offering student staff in the program valuable experience but also supporting the program financially. “Most student groups are looking to engage in a shared group experience where they get to know each other better and build community among their members,” explains Jessa.
“Corporate programs usually come to us looking for a way to break down silos and encourage cross-department collaboration. It all depends on the needs of the group.” That’s where student facilitators who love to get creative when designing customized activities and sequences come into play. As trained facilitators, these student employees are given a platform to showcase marketable skills to potential employers in various sectors—private, public, and volunteer. “By providing students a unique opportunity to train, learn, and work at an experiential education facility, the Adventure Leadership Program is helping individuals identify and practice effective leadership skills,” explains Jessa.
Building a stronger community
The Adventure Leadership Program is all about using adventure and activity-based learning to help adults explore their different abilities and feel more confident in their various skills. Just like play helps children develop resiliency and self-efficacy, Jessa explains that experiential learning helps adults explore “communication tendencies and socio-emotional behavior within a group.” After all, “understanding models of group development is best done by seeing them firsthand in a playful and safe environment, which is what we provide,” she says.
Staff at the program study and practically apply various experiential learning models and theories in their day-to-day work with participants, using them to help participants make sense of their outdoor recreation and team building experiences. “Our diverse clientele come to us with a variety of attitudes and tolerance towards outdoor recreation and team-building programs,” explains Jessa. “Our objective is to meet them where they are and use our processes to instill them with the self-efficacy to reach their personal goals and build a stronger community.”
The staff at the University of Michigan’s Adventure Leadership Program firmly believe that the more members of its community who learn how to better communicate and collaborate across cultural and professional spectrums, the more connected and robust their campus will become. Outdoor programs like the UM’s Adventure Leadership Program truly offer expanded opportunities for wellbeing—in its various forms—to a whole host of individuals in their communities.
Learn more about adventure leadership and experiential education
Elizabeth Speelman, Georgia College and Mark Wagstaff, Radford University authored a chapter about adventure leadership and experiential education in the 2015 sourcebook Student Leadership Development through Recreation and Athletics; the chapter “demonstrates how adventure education blends with the high-impact practices in student leadership development and discusses specific tools and theories used in adventure education by linking to contemporary practice of student leadership development.”
The publication is part of the New Directions for Student Leadership series from Jossey-Bass and NIRSA members can receive a 25% discount off the price of Jossey-Bass publications through the Association’s Discounts and Rewards program.
Additionally, NIRSA volunteer leaders produced and released a set of resources, compiled under the title “Intentional Student Leadership Development Resources for the Collegiate Recreation Professional” to compliment the sourcebook. It is available for free download on the NIRSA website.