Originally published in the May 2015 issue of “Programming Magazine”.
I like to take children into the woods. Really, I like to take children into the woods. In the summer, it’s my job. I’m a camp counselor, a wilderness guide and a trip leader. As a camp counselor, I have been very fortunate to go on hundreds of camping trips with different groups of students, campers and staff. I love it. We go to the woods to experience something new, to challenge ourselves individually, and to learn new ways to become better team players.
Henry David Thoreau “went to the woods” to get away from the everyday, to leave the big city, to think about where he had been in his life and to contemplate where he was going. He needed a place where he could escape and get a new perspective. He went on a “retreat.” That is what we do at summer camp when we go on guided camping trips. And it is what we do on our campuses when we “go away” with our teams, committees and fellow student leaders. We go away with the goal of learning more about each other and to learn to work together more productively. We leave the everyday routine to contemplate where we’ve been and to dream about where we’d like to go.
The one important thing we recognize in all of these examples is that we “go away.” We change the scene and experience something new. We do this because it is good for us; it challenges and stimulates the brain. It encourages everyone, teacher and student, advisor and committee, to look at things from a different perspective. When we go to a new location, our minds open up. The sights, smells and sounds of our new environment help to invigorate our senses, making us more alert and open to new ideas.
It’s also important for educators and advisors to learn to teach from a new platform, a new stage, a new pile of dirt in the woods. When we teach and facilitate in a new environment, we do so with a renewed energy, and we become more attuned to what we want to accomplish. This new space raises our awareness, as well as that of our audience. Perhaps we prepare a little bit more for these events when we know there is more at stake and when our audience is listening a bit harder and paying closer attention than before. In these moments, we also recognize that our message can be more impactful, because the listener is more in tune.
Retreats come in all shapes and sizes. I have hiked up mountains, paddled down rivers, climbed ropes courses and scaled rock walls. But I have also had incredible experiences inside heated buildings, in the safety of a well-lit multipurpose room, on the second floor of a student center. And, in this imaginary desolate and dangerous far-away place, I have stepped to the top of a four-legged chair, standing stoically upon the plush fabric seat, pretending to have no fear. From this elevated position in a colorfully carpeted room, I have crossed my arms in front of me, clasped my hands together, closed my eyes, and fallen backwards into the arms of trusted friends. In that moment, my mind was not in the room. I was not on campus. Sometimes, a chair can be as challenging and scary as a mountain.
The most important thing we can do when planning a retreat is make it happen, regardless of whether or not we have the budget to physically take ourselves anywhere. We need to “go away,” even if we stay on campus. It is the change of scene that is important. It is the feeling of “going away” and creating a new environment that needs to happen. Simply having a meeting in a new space offers the team a new perspective and the brain is forced to fire on more cylinders. It just takes a little creativity and the willingness to try something new.
Consider all the buildings and spaces on your campus. You can transform a meeting room, multipurpose room, or gymnasium into a completely new space that suits your needs – as long as there is a feeling something is “different” about the space you are using. You can do this by readjusting the furniture, decorating with a theme, and, more importantly, making sure the space is yours and yours alone, not to be intruded upon by the hustle and bustle of normal campus life. The retreat must be a retreat. It must be “away.” Remember, even if you do not have the budget to take your group on an overnight trip to an exotic location, there are still great ways to create the “retreat” feel in your own back yard.
So, please go to the woods. Even if “the woods” are a few rooms in a building you’ve never visited, or a professor’s back porch, or a piece of lawn near the science building. I encourage you to go away. For yourself and for your students, please, go away!!