Camp Confluence and Partners for Youth Empowerment.

5 07 2017

sara3By: Sarah Worl     Photos: Marty Oppenheimer and PYE Global

With support from our Instructor Development Funds, I was able to attend Camp Confluence, organized by Partners for Youth Empowerment (PYE) in Whidbey Island, Washington. Camp Confluence was a 6-day gathering of camp directors, lead facilitators, and staff that are involved with camps based on the Creative Community Model. The Creative Community Model was developed by PYE over decades of youth summer camps across the globe. In their own words from the PYE website:

“With arts-based practices and leading-edge group facilitation strategies, Creative Community Facilitators cultivate environments in which people can realize their potential. By embracing positive risk-taking and free creative expression, youth and adults alike open up to new possibilities. Research shows that creative expression—in a supportive setting—nurtures qualities like empathy, teamwork, and problem solving, while also fostering joy, hope, and the desire for a meaningful life”

At Camp Confluence we talked a lot about the “Emotional Arc” that a camper experiences from the day they enter camp to when they leave, and how to support that transformative experience with community agreements, plenary activities, supported creative risk-taking, free time, nature time, and more. I appreciated the emphasis on the camper’s experience and curating the week’s activities to support their journey.

We also spent a whole day talking about how to further Equity and Anti-Oppression in all levels of our summer camps; from camp staff demographics, to camper recruitment, to food and sleeping arrangements, to incorporating explicit community agreements around equity in the beginning of the camp. It is rare that I am in a space of people so committed, honest, and eager to talk about Anti-Oppression in their institutions and programs and I am very grateful to have participated in those conversations and to emerge with a greater awareness of actions I can bring back to my work. I am looking forward to my upcoming outdoor recreation and summer camp season to see how I can incorporate bits of the creative community model into my work.

I’ve learned a lot of very practical facilitation skills from the PYE trainings and camps I’ve been involved in over the years. I’ve also witnessed many young people and adults (including myself) overcome old stories of fear and self doubt as we explore our creativity, connection to ourselves, connection to others, and connections to nature together in a supportive environment. I believe many of you that work with youth know what I’m talking about when I say that those moments of witnessing youth light up with hope, joy, and connection are what keep me coming back to this work, and giving me hope for the present and future. I am so grateful to be a part of the community at the River House Outdoor Program; a community that is so committed to fostering these types of magical and transformative experiences for youth and adults.

P.S and Fun Fact: A local summer camp hosted by the Oregon Country Fair called Culture Jam is based on the Creative Community Model and brings in facilitators that have led PYE camps across the U.S and internationally. The River House supports Culture Jam each year with a couple days of outdoor play at Fern Ridge! PYE also offers facilitation trainings in the Pacific Northwest each year- check them out at  Their website also contains many great summer camp and youth program resources!

-The River House Instructor Development Fund (IDF) is an investment in our staff to seek extra training and experiences that can be brought back to their work and personal lives to help enrich experiences for both participants and instructors.


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A Falcon’s Last Flight

16 01 2015

 It happened on a dark and stormy night…Falcon's Fallen

Occasionally during the winter months our community receives wind storms that blow through town and for the most part damage is mild.  At least it only feels mild when it happens somewhere else.  This year the Spencer Butte Challenge Course; located at Spencer Butte Park, was at the center of the effects of nature and a beloved element was damaged.

Falcon DownOne tree fell during a gusty windstorm and in turn brought down another tree.  Element cables were snapped, bolts bent, and when it was all over nature created a spectacle of what gravity is capable of in a short amount of time.

Falcon’s Flight is a giant swing activity.  A universal element enjoyed by groups of all ages and ability levels; Falcon’s has provided a teachable and thrilling addition to the Spencer Butte Challenge Course since it was installed in 2004.  A participant is attached to a cable suspended 12’ off the ground and gets connected to a haul rope.  With the help of their team the group pulls the participant into the sky, as high as they want to go.  The participant can be pulled up to a height of over 50’ off the ground where they sit in their harness, looking around the forest from a new perspective, listening to the quiet, or hearing the encouraging words from their teammates; taking their time before the next step.

FlightWhen ready the participant releases themselves from the group and soars, swinging through the air.  The only sound they hear is the wind rushing past their ears, maybe the cheers from their group, or their own vocal response to the rush of falling then swinging a distance spanning over 75’ in just a few seconds; a literal interpretation of the word breathtaking!

It’s a great experience, a thrill, and for most people so much more.  People who have never done an activity like this describe their experience as terrifying and yet doable.  Others who have never been more than 10 feet off the ground, and never thought they would do something like this, experience that we are capable of more than we think.

In gratitude of the many groups that have experienced this element over the years I thought I would reach out to a group that utilizes the challenge course anywhere from 1-3 times per year; Mobility International  USA.  (MIUSA)    MIUSA works to provide delegates, both students and adults from around the world, experiences, resources, and knowledge to improve the rights of people with disabilities.  They utilize the Challenge Course and other River House Outdoor Program activities to create experiences where people can achieve more together than they thought possible.

Upon hearing of the recent damage to Falcon’s, staff from MIUSA sent us quotes and pictures of what former delegates shared after participating in the Falcon’s Flight activity:

Mariam at SBCC“this program was about enabling disabled young people to truly discover their capabilities and learn how to reach to the very top of their potential and, in many cases, exceed such potential -literally achieving what they perceived to be impossible. This concept was given physical embodiment at the Spencer Butte Challenge Course on July 22. When Jack reached the top of the trees he quite literally soared above the limitations that his disability presented him with and, in the most spectacular of fashions, showed us all and most importantly himself that we was capable of just about anything.” Conrad Will (UK Youth delegation)

2014 UK Delegates talked about how meaningful it was to see Sam participating in the falcon’s flight (especially Sam himself). The link below has a story about it, and here is a quote from Sam:

“Swinging and flying high up through the trees was definitely one of the best moments of my life. I was a bit concerned about how the organizers would adapt all these things for me but they always had a trick up their sleeves. How they got me up there I never knew but everyone was going to take part, no matter what!” Sam Waddington (UK Youth delegation)

“For many people [the challenge course] showed that disability is not inability.” – Stella Tiyoy 2012 High School student from Kenya

2014 MIUSAWhen asked about the most important skills, knowledge, or idea gained at WILD: “Swinging in the trees, even though it was my first time, at the end I became very happy because it gave me courage that I should also train my fellow blind women in our country” Emeldah Mapulanga (WILD 2013 woman from Zambia)

IMG_0437Falcon's Fallen2

Clean up of Falcon’s and the rebuilding process are already underway!  The fallen trees will be reused around the course and in the park to create seating space for future groups to discuss what they are experiencing or learning from the activities.  Other work to install new cables and belay systems will begin in the Spring.

Thank you all for your support of the Falcon’s Flight element and other Challenge Course activities that provide a rich learning resource to the community and others around the world that visit us on the course.

Written by:

Robert Brack; Spencer Butte Challenge Course Director 

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Have Fun, Play, and then who knows?… You might learn something!

7 12 2012


I have received numerous articles and videos recently of some respected people who are championing the value of “Play”.  Here are a couple of recent ones that I highly recommend:

Play is more than fun it’s vital!

The Importance Of Play

In light of these great resources I wanted to take the discussion to the next step and provide you with some tips and suggestions to lead others in playful games and activities and point you in a direction to find further resources to PLAY!  Who knows where you can take it from there, but chances are you might learn something.

So here we go:


from the SBCC Manual

Start with the group as it is, considering the age range, clothing, available play area, and their psychological readiness to interact with each other and go on from there.

Aim for games where everyone is involved. Standing around idle is opportunity for shoving, etc. And nobody likes to be “eliminated” from play for a long period of time and have to just stand around watching.

Be very open and welcoming to everyone, even a bit silly, modeling the style of play you want to encourage. Assure them with words and gestures that each game will be fun. Dress up the games with names promising fun, add appropriate “pretend” elements, and develop the group’s ability to play together.

Whatever the situation begin with simple games, easily explained, with simple equipment that provide easy access and that have few rules, that will end quickly so transition can be made to new games. Make room for new arrivals or latecomers and quickly incorporate them into play. Be ready to shift games as group size changes.

Form a circle. This is an easy way to establish that everyone is included and allows for the group to be able to see you giving instructions.  Remove sunglasses when talking to the group and try to position yourself facing the sun so that your participants are not looking into the sun while trying to look at you.

Begin with a general description of the game including its imagery, objective and if possible a familiar game category. Try to give them choices as to who plays what. Practice any special moves or phrases ahead of time.

Have a balance of strenuous and lower activity games. Let players stretch their bodies and feelings slowly at first. Try to conclude with an appropriate “wind-down” game as well. Be sensitive to when the players are getting tired and may need a less strenuous game, or even to stop playing.

Be very safety conscious, and give clear safety instructions to the participants. Make it clear that the objective is a good time for everyone. Use “Bumpers Up,” and “Wog” where appropriate.  Stress the use of strategy and teamwork.  Avoid rough contact games.


Work towards building trusting relationships between players. Balance individual expression with group awareness and community sharing. Play down aggressive competition, stress cooperation.

Keep your sense of humor. As the Referee-leader, don’t take yourself too seriously.  One outburst of anger can turn everybody off. Encourage and keep alive the make-believe imagery of the games. Play with them as much as practical and possible. Ideal situations are those where the children take over the leadership of the play.

Try to keep teams evenly matched – Some kids will always try to stay together, boys and girls will tend to separate from each other, some will need some “nudging” to get them involved, hopefully most will show some enthusiasm once you get started. Expect some resistance, be enthusiastic! Have some “Divider Games” in your tool-kit.

Have a signal for “everyone refocus and pay attention” such as everyone raising the “one way” sign. Learn some effective “Attention Getter” activities.

Be prepared to modify the game to maintain or create a balance in the level of challenge. Keep the game from being too goal-oriented. Give everyone equal opportunity to play different roles, and don’t allow certain people to dominate. Adjust the challenge, simplify or complicate moves, in order to adjust the speed of the game, its and the ease of achieving its goal. You want everyone to have as an opportunity to enjoy participation in the game.

Be flexible – if a game isn’t working, adapt the game or do something else.

End the game or change to a different game at the height of FUN.  As a facilitator you need to be aware of the group’s energy and interest level.  Ending a game when everyone is having a good time will keep the energy of the group up and the individuals engaged to listen to what’s next.  Don’t play a game and wait for everyone to be tired or bored in order for you to introduce the new activity.  For some groups, you’ve already lost them.

Watch your time!


Recently a new game book has come out entitled “Find Something to Do” by Jim Cain.  It is a small book containing 123 Games and activities using little to no equipment.  I recommend the book as a helpful quick reference to get the ball rolling and play with groups.  The activities are written to be useful for a variety of leaders so I would encourage you to take a look.

A suggested activity that I have played for years to get the fun and play going with one of your groups is one of my favorite games called Transformer Tag


Heads and Tails Tag

Objective:  to tag the other team

Description:Demonstrate to the participants the two body positions suitable for wogging (moving at the speed between walking and jogging!) Some participants will place one hand on top of the head, while others will place one hand on their rear-end.  Have participants stand with their hands by their sides.  Each participant will be allowed to decide which team they are on when you say “GO!!!”

Participants then immediately declare their identity on their head or their tail. One team (the heads) attempts to tag the other team (tails) and vice versa. When tagged, the tail is transformed into a member of the heads team and vice versa. The game continues until one team (heads or tails) has dominated the world, transforming all of the other teams’ members! Can be repeated although I usually do not play it more than 3 times in a row.

Robert Brack, Spencer Butte Challenge Course Director

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A New Element at the Spencer Butte Challenge Course

4 09 2012

We are introducing a new high element at the Spencer Butte Challenge Course, the McKenzie Crossing!  This element has been in the works for a while and, with continued input from staff, was installed this year.  Here are some photos during a staff event where we featured the element and tested it out. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The inaugural program that used the element for the first time was a  recent River House 4R’s Camp.  One participant described the feeling of doing the element as “Exciting!  Standing on the first platform before you go made me very nervous, and then I just did it and once I was out there I just kept going.”

We are happy to have this element up and running.  Consider coming out to the Challenge Course Adventure Day September 15th.  You can look up more information here ( or contact Robert Brack at the River House.  (541.682-6324)

written by:

Robert Brack

Spencer Butte Challenge Course Director


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Mother’s Day Adventure Challenge

17 05 2012

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day and a host of families celebrated by having an adventure on the Spencer Butte Challenge Course!  Excellent promotion and gorgeous weather contributed to a full class of over 23 people who encouraged each other as they participated with Mom in ground events and activities at heights between 25 and 50 feet off the ground.  SBCC Director Robert Brack says, “Our course provides the environment for groups to challenge themselves and learn while solving tasks on the ground and in the air, all while being  supported and encouraged by others participating alongside you.  What a great opportunity for families to have experienced this activity with each other!”  There will be a Father’s Day event June 17th that will provide another chance for families to experience the Spencer Butte Challenge Course.

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Theory of Experiential Education

11 05 2012

The practice of “Learning by Doing,” Experiential Education is a foundational educational approach to learning new information or behaviors.  It is the idea that people learn best while experiencing the material, being immersed, “failing-forward”, adjusting and adapting, while getting direct feedback. 

It is more characterized by Doing & Thinking, Doing & Thinking, Doing & Thinking, etc… 

Photo by Lance Eagen

People like John Dewey, Kurt Hahn, and more recently Sir Ken Robinson embrace this teaching style in their writings and profession.  The reason is because what is being learned is itself real.  Dewey has been summarized to state that:

  • Individuals need to be involved in what they are learning
  • What is being taught must be immediately relevant
  • Individuals must act and live for the present as well as the future
  • Learning must assist learners in preparing for a changing world 

There are essentially 2 ways to learn; Experience and Memorization.

 Experience    —    More Emotion    —    More Engaging    —    Less Controlled            More Effective

 Memorization    —    Less Emotion    —    Less Engaging    —    More Controlled            Less Effective

Think of memorization as “information assimilation.” Learning is achieved by going from Structure to Substance: 

  1. Receiving information about a general principle via symbols
  2. Assimilate and organize information as new knowledge
  3. Infer specific application from general principles
  4. Act on the application and test the general principle

(a great example is learning your multiplication tables.)

 Consider the Experiential approach.  Learning is achieved by going from Substance to Structure: 

  1. Acting and Observing cause and effect of that action
  2. Understanding cause and effect to predict a general principle
  3. Understanding general principles in various circumstances
  4. Applying general principles in a new situation

The intent here is to not pit these two approaches against each other, rather identify which approach, or maybe the combination of approaches, may be more beneficial and therefore appropriate. 

If you are involved in teaching, consider your approach.  Is there opportunity for people to learn by doing, or to be more engaged in their learning and create their own emotions to enhance what is being learned? 

-Robert Brack, Spencer Butte Challenge Course Director

**By the way, if you are bored after reading this AND have seen the weather report for the Eugene area this week (Sunny, 80, and Lovely!), then I do not know why you are still here Go Outside and Play!**

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The Knots Your Headphones Know

9 04 2012

This is a follow up to my post about the “5 Knots Everyone Should Know.”  I was recently sent this picture after my orginal post and thought I would share it here. 

I think I will start to take a closer look at my headphones and see what knot they are trying to teach me.  Who knows, maybe the next update will be the “5 Knots Everyone Should Know How to Untie!”

-Robert Brack, Spencer Butte Challenge Course Director

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