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Challenge by Choice is not a magic wand!

A friend told me this story and then asked me a question.

“ I was on an outdoor program, and the design involved taking a dozen teenagers from the city for a 5–day hike into the mountains. It included carrying whatever we might need on our backs. We were 2 instructors assigned to the group. We spent a day at the campsite, getting to know each other, doing some teaming activities and preparing for the hike. One of the participants was a little heavier than the rest, and while there was no reason for me to believe he couldn’t do it, I asked him. He said there wouldn’t be a problem.

Half way through day-1 he had begun to show signs of struggle. By the time we reached the site for the first camp-out, he was way behind. One instructor stayed with him, while I went ahead with the rest of the group to prepare for the night. When he reached the site, he was tired, and declared that there was no way he was going to be able to go through the rest of the 4 days! He wanted to get back to our base-camp.

Question: How does Challenge by Choice play out in a situation like this one?”

My answer on that day was - It doesn’t! I haven’t seen a reason to change that yet. Let’s do some digging here and find out what the originators of this concept (Project Adventure Inc.) mean by Challenge by Choice (some like Challenge with Choice better).

"Challenge by Choice® (CBC) is a concept originated by Project Adventure. It asks that participants challenge themselves and participate fully in the experience at-hand. Recognizing that any activity or goal may pose a different level and type of challenge for each group member and that authentic personal change comes from within, Challenge by Choice creates an environment where participants are asked to search for opportunities to stretch and grow during the experience. The determination of what kind of participation represents an optimal learning opportunity and is the responsibility of each group member. All are asked to add value to the group experience by finding a way to contribute to the group’s efforts while also seeking to find value in the experience for themselves.

Accepting Challenge by Choice encourages all to respect thoughtful choices. Its use provides a supportive and caring atmosphere in which participants can stretch themselves. It recognizes the need for individuals and the group to accept responsibility for decisions. It creates opportunities for learning about how to set goals that are in neither the comfort nor the panic zone, but in that slightly uncomfortable stretch zone where the greatest opportunities for growth and learning lie."

It has taken me many years to build an understanding of how this concept plays out in the work that we do – this is true for both classroom and outdoor education. It has become easier to talk about it while teaching it, and it seems like there are multiple interpretations possible.

It is not to be used as a magic wand – something you pull out when the situation turns disastrous and un-manageable! In the above scenario, it would be unfair for the instructor to turn around and say “You knew what the challenge was. You made the choice of being here. Sorry, friend! You have to go on!”

  • CBC is a practice we put in place because we respect that people come with differing abilities, and each one’s 100% is different. In the above scenario, did we consider what kind of ability the hike was pitched at? A conversation about the impending experience and what it may need from us individually and collectively would have proved useful. It asks people to reach for strength from within in times of stretch.

  • When we have the conversation, the experience of the instructors must come useful. It must include ‘what if’ scenarios. It gets the group to consider possible situations and solutions prior to the experience. Examples might sound like – “What shall we do . . .

  • if one of us gets tired, OR

  • if one of us falls ill? OR

  • if we have a medical situation? OR

  • we find the most beautiful place and decide to stay there? OR

  • If any of us gives up?

  • If some of us find the load too heavy to carry?

  • When the group has such a conversation, they are in a better position to deal with all the different things that may emerge in the experience. They become aware that this is not about being or knowing the best. It’s about making decisions as we go along the journey.

  • The dialogue invites the group to consider the fact that support is, and can be made available from within the group. That members are willing to reach out to one another in times of need. It helps build a supportive environment all round.

  • When members feel safe about getting support, they are in a better position to stretch beyond their current abilities, knowing they can grab a hand when necessary. In that stretch is where new learning is most likely to happen – about oneself and others.

  • Through this dialogue, the group takes responsibility for its individual and collective decisions. Hereafter they own what goes into making it happen, and what they want to get out of it. They lay out the boundaries within which they choose to have the experience.

Classroom educators and teachers often wonder how this can be practiced in the traditional setting. Some things must change. For a while put aside the anxiety of completing the fixed-form worksheets that someone else made. Walk into the classroom and spend the next 2 weeks building a relationship with the children. Find out who they are, where they come from, their stories. Share your story. Get to know one another. Play. Laugh. Consider. Explore. Wonder.

Ask them what they would like to learn about. Find ways to have smaller groups explore topics of their interest. While they do that, our job as the adult guides is to find out how they can discover about what they need to learn, through the topic of their interest. They bring the energy and content; you bring the context! They bring the curiosity; you bring the meaningfulness. They take the risks; you lay out the safety net.

That safe space that we create through the laughter and play invites exploration and risk, discomfort and stretch, groans and growth – and not because you told them to do so, but because they chose the challenges they wanted to encounter.

Have faith. Know that people are far more capable of what they think, or what others think. All they need to know is that there is someone to catch them, in case!

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