Gathering Again Takes on More Meaning During Covid

By Jim Grout

“This workshop gathering helped me emotionally come to terms with what was possible. I left feeling like we can do this.”
–Todd Bebeau – Hanover High School, NH

Returning to adventure programming during Covid is a challenge for most of us.  However, we are starting to see hope conquer fear.  Recently, a participant shared the quote (above) after attending our one-day experience-based adventure workshop Gathering Again.  While we’ve often heard workshop feedback like this before, as people pushed their comfort zones in various ways, from playing games to conquering the challenge course, what was unique this time was that the context was nothing we had experienced before. We were conducting an adventure workshop in the middle of a pandemic.  And, the reference was to overcoming barriers about feeling comfortable being with people again and returning to work. Who would have imagined such a scenario pre-Covid? We certainly didn’t.

Predicting Adventure Programming Outcomes is Full of Surprises

When we named our new in-person experience-based workshop Gathering Again, we were looking for a title that was inviting but would not create discomfort or fear in the era of Covid. We were anxious about inviting people back to our space at High 5 in Vermont. But we forged ahead and built in all the guidelines and precautions conceivable and set some dates. The goal of the workshop was to impart some new ideas and skills folks could take away to continue their work building connections with the various groups they serve.  And, to do so with safe physical and social distancing. Thus the workshop subtitle: Adventure Activities with Physical Distance.

This was a challenging goal to accomplish. But, predictably, the collective skills of our training team came up with a great design. What we didn’t predict was the equally important by-product of such a day together captured in the quote above.  It builds one’s confidence and hope in getting back to school, work, family, friends, etc., and to socializing again.

We then began to explore the recent evaluations from of the Gathering Again workshops, a trend started to emerge. Time and again, we saw comments that spoke to the initial anxieties, fears, discomfort and stress all related to the idea of “being with people again.” A perfectly normal and human practice just months ago was now producing fears and anxieties equivalent to the challenge course. But amazingly and in a very moving way people began to relax and feel increasingly comfortable throughout the day, feeling as Todd’s quote confirms… “we can do this.”


Adventure Programming Games to the Rescue

Ironically what was playing out is very much captured in an activity we do with our Edge of Leadership students called Challenge Circles.  This activity invites students to reflect on their own comfort, challenge and panic zones in relation to different scenarios. This allows students to practice both their self-awareness and social awareness skills and consider how they might step outside their comfort zone.

Typically, when we push outside our comfort zone, that is when learning and growth occur – that’s our challenge zone. Outside the challenge zone is the panic zone. This is when we push ourselves or others too far. In experiential education, we like to encourage people to stay within the challenge zone.

Our Gathering Again workshop participants are experiencing this very same transition from comfort to challenge. Many are arriving somewhere on the edge of their panic zone, but, over the course of the day, find themselves transitioning into their challenge or comfort zone. One of our trainers commented, “…it’s as if they are coming for one thing (skills training) and go away with the added benefit of renewed confidence and comfort in connecting with people, a wonderfully human trait and human need, yet one that has tested us all in ways we never imagined during our months of isolation.”

Take Small Steps Out of the Isolation Bubble

Undoubtedly, there are many psychological studies being conducted regarding this emerging social dilemma, but I like to think of it in terms of the beach. We’re all just trying to put our toe safely back in the water and need a little encouragement to do so.  Experienced-based adventure learning has always been a gateway for participants to try something new, and to confidently stretch their toe into their challenge zone. Many initiatives and games are linear by design, and allow for participants to take small steps. Our challenge by choice model, in which the participant has full decision-making ability, can help reduce anxiety and build confidence.  This is experiential learning in action.

This new found confidence and craving for socialization is not limited to our Gathering Again participants, it has also positively impacted the morale and creativity of our training team.  Observing the impact of Gathering Again on participants has been a reminder to all of us at High 5 Adventure about the power of making connections with each other, even in the face of adversity. We can do this, together.