Leadership Notes #32 – Organization Focus: Project Adventure and Karl Rohnke

(This series of “notes” first appeared in the YahooGroup “VenturingList” and are written by Michael Brown. I thought that they were worth sharing with the Commissioner Corps.)

[As part of the Leadership Notes series I will highlight several organizations that may be useful to know or even be involved in as leaders.]

Back in Notes #12, I mentioned a “spin-off” group from Outward Bound (OB) called “Project Adventure” (PA). Project Adventure was established in the early 70s to bring the teachings of OB to everyone. This would be done not with the intense long-term outdoor experience of OB, but with the creation of “challenge courses” (aka “ropes courses”) and initiative games and activities. The purpose of this was to bring groups together, build trust, and break down some of the artificial barriers people build between themselves, and maybe gain a better understanding of themselves as well. While originally focused on high school students, they quickly branched out to other youth, including “at risk” youth, as well as adults. Some of their programs and concepts include Adventure Based Counseling, Challenge by Choice, and the Full Value Contract. If some of what they do sounds familiar, be aware that our Project: COPE is based on the work started by Project Adventure, and our “Venturing Leader Manual” includes several initiative games taken from their books.

A major figure in much of this is Karl Rohnke, http://karlrohnke.com/. A former OB instructor, he was one of the founders of PA and wrote many works there. He left in 1996 after being director and president, and later co-founded High 5 Adventure Learning Center.

So let’s take a look at some of the terms used. First off, some may dismiss this as just fun activities. Well, they are that, but they do serve a purpose. Some can be used with groups, to bring them together (with the use of “icebreaker” events), to break down barriers within groups (usually with “cooperative games”), and to bring them together in a team (with “teambuilding games”). And teambuilding games can be used to help a group become a team, as well as to help a team leader become a better leader. Some activities are referred to as “initiative problems”, where the team is given a challenge they must overcome (and not just physically, but something they must work out as a group).

As noted, many of these activities have a purpose. A mistake that many of us make is thinking we should explain the purpose before the activity. A sort of “in this activity, you will learn X”. Too often, this is a bad idea, as it can set wrong expectations. In such learning, it’s better to have the activity occur, then afterwards hold a debrief with the group, and using facilitation, asking open ended questions to draw from the participants their experiences and what they got out of it. This often difficult to do for many people, because we are often taught how to present, but not how to facilitate. And facilitation is critical for these activities to work well.

Project Adventure uses some other concepts as well. Adventure Based Counseling (ABC) is a group counseling model that uses a carefully sequenced and processed series of experiential activities to elicit behavior change. This is usually done with people in need of such counseling, including at-risk youth and others. So the aim is not just in a learning experience, but a change in behavior. Challenge by Choice is a cornerstone concept of PA. It’s about encouraging the participant to challenge themselves and participate fully in the experience at-hand, and not force them into the experience. The Full Value Contract is also an integral part of PA’s programs. It aims to create an emotionally and physically safe environment supported by all group members. It asks of the members to: 1) to create safe and respectful behavior that the group will operate under, 2) commitment to that behavior by everyone in the group, and 3) to accept the responsibility to maintain that behavior by all.

Some of the major works by Project Adventure & Karl Rohnke include:

“Cowstails and Cobras”, first published in 1977, and replaced by “Cowstails and Cobras II” in 1991, is their first book (written by Rohnke) on their approach to adventure games and challenge courses, and gives full info on how to implement the program. It’s a good book, but doesn’t have the large number of games & activities as others do, BUT does give information on how to use such activities.

For several years, Rohnke published a newsletter called “Bag of Tricks” that gave more games. Out of these several books were published. “Silver Bullets” was the first of these, first published in 1984 and recently updated/revamped with a new 25th Anniversary edition in 2009, and is one of their classic works on initiative games, adventure games and trust activities. There is not much information on how to put them to use, but I understand the revamped version does (I don’t yet have a copy of it).

Rohnke would put out further collections from “Bag of Tricks” (“Bottomless Bag”, “Bottomless Baggie”, and “Bottomless Bag Again”). All of these are out of print, but a revised edition of the last book has been released as “Bottomless Bag Revival” (2004). However, if you have that book, “Revival” is essentially the same work.

“Quicksilver” (1995) by Rohnke and Steve Butler, was created as a sort of sequel to “Silver Bullets”. More games and initiatives, but also included is a leadership/facilitation section that emphasized how they work, and how to apply them. Check out the “Foes & Questors” game in this book. Could this be used at a council or area venturing event as a large scale game for everyone to participate in??

“Youth Leadership in Action”, `written by and for youth leaders’ is a book of cooperative and group games intended for use by youth groups. A great resource for crew or VOA youth leaders to take a look at.

“Islands of Healing” is PA’s main work on “Adventure Based Counseling”, which is their combination of adventure education and group counseling. This is not something I’ve looked into, but if you are dealing with at-risk youth, this may be of use. They have a follow-on work, “Exploring Islands of Healing” as well.

Since leaving PA, Karl has continued to publish works.

“Backpocket Adventure” (1998) by Rohnke & Jim Grout is a small book of games and activities that DON’T need props (or props that would fit in your back pocket, hence the name). That is the thing with many of these games: you need to build up a collection of `stuff’ to use in them. Several adventure games sites will sell you the items (you sometimes need things beyond what you will find in your local toy or sports good store), and game leaders wind up with a large bag of such props. But what if you don’t have them? A few books like this one focus on “no props” games.

More recently, Rohnke started a new series of books called “Funn Stuff” to replace “Bag of Tricks”, but only 4 came out. The content of these has been compiled as “Funn ‘n Games” (2004), giving yet another big book of adventure games, initiatives, trust activities, and miscellaneous fun. “Funn”, by the way, stands for “Functional Understanding’s No Needed.”

Per Karl, he recommends getting “Funn ‘n Games” or “Quicksilver” as the first books to get, as they have lots of games.

As noted, after leaving Project Adventure, Karl helped found High 5 Adventure Learning Center. Like PA, High 5 provides program and services in the field of adventure games, including training and certification. They have a store with books and equipment for sale.

I recommend that people check out the sites at both PA and High 5, as well as Rohnke’s site. Both groups offers seminars and training, as well as on-line stores with resources (books, equipment, etc). I touched on only some of the works they have available at these 2 sites, the ones I’ve used and am aware of, and didn’t really get into out of print works (check out amazon or alibris). But there are many other works out there from other groups and individuals. Some of the major ones (in my opinion) will be covered in future Notes very soon.

To finish things out, here are some videos. Here is an interesting, if brief, interview with Karl. A video of a group that went to a No Prop workshop at PA.