This summer, University Communication & Marketing is getting outside, and hitting the road with its newest series: "Adventure Abound at UNM." We will explore the Outdoor Adventure Center, a unique UNM amenity with biking, getaways, classes, and challenges. Join UCAM as we team up in a four-part series with the not-always-well-known UNM center. It’s all part of UNM’s 2040 sustainability goals– to embrace wellness, the environment, and all the fun you can have with both.
The magic and frustration of a childhood field day, is one that lingers beyond elementary school. While you may recall intense, competitive rounds of baton racing, water balloon tossing, sack hopping, or good old-fashioned tug of war, there may also be a memory of endearment, as classrooms united as a team to take first prize.
Tucked in between the Johnson Center and Johnson Field, the course at first glance, looks like a combination of a summer camp and a random collection of items found in the woods. Once you add a team, however, and a dedicated instructor like OAC Operations Specialist Charles Gwinn, that nostalgic atmosphere of field day is incredibly palpable.
“It is as if field day required you to do the activities with everyone at the same time. We have some of that. We do have the Indiana Jones side of it, too,” Gwinn said.
Teams who sign up work tirelessly alongside each other, to gain the true meaning of personal leadership, accountability, and commitment. From one to three hours, they will participate in activities based on coordination, trust and fun to achieve a happier work or play environment.
“It makes you think about other things that you may take for granted on a daily basis at work. A lot of times we can set the scene for a really great day,” Gwinn said. “I want those folks to take the education experience to real life. I want them to have some new tools in their toolbox to solve problems on their own or as a group.”
In the end, past strategy, sweat and finding solutions, the OAC anticipates you’ll head out with your head held high, along with old goals met and new goals set.
“Another name for a challenge course is often a confidence course, so it builds confidence in addition to the team building aspect of it. It is the art of a guided reflection that leads to a transfer of learning. We guide you through the process and help you connect the dots as an entire group.” – OAC Specialist Charles Gwinn
Gwinn welcomes tons of different groups to this piece of on-campus adventure. The Challenge Course itself is catered to groups of all ages–from your 8-year-old soccer team, to a group of UNM New Student Orientation Leaders, or even a corporate crew not used to trading suits for shorts.
“It changes from generation to generation. Different age groups process things differently. They may have real problems and need help, and I appreciate that. That's something we get into– people problem solving together and helping them connect the dots where they can grow not only as individuals but as a team,” Gwinn said.
Certain groups find themselves back on the course time and time again. Gwinn says UNM’s volleyball team tries to outdo their previous performance each session.
“They're so far past the normal group stages of development. They're at that high functioning level, and they're still figuring out new ways to communicate with each other. They're learning a little bit more about each other while being highly effective communicators. They don't often get to be challenged in ways that we do out here,” he said.
Before he dives into the different components you see, like a hanging tire, a rope to swing on and a long, wooden log, Gwinn aims to understand each troupe before they roll in.
“I find out what kind of issues they're having, and then I build a program based on their needs. I hope that I can give them the tangible goals that they expect, and the tangible outcomes that they'd expect,” he said.
From there, it’s a delightful mixing and matching from a creative list of activities. For a group of strangers getting to know each other, you may expect memory games, tossing items combined with that and physical tests meant to promote communication and teamwork.
“I do start with a base formula and mix it up from there. I have different activities that I prefer based on whether they're trying to pull trust out of the group or if they're focusing on nonverbal communication or not a problem at all, but something that they want to build. It just depends on each individual group,” Gwinn said.
Things rev up in intensity from there with the major low ropes elements. That’s where you’ll hear the names of events like the ‘whale watch’, ‘wild woozey’ and ‘nitro crossing.’
“They keep their core tight and have the support of all their colleagues or fellow students around them,” he said. “As they move out these cables, they get farther and farther apart. The ‘wild woozey’ is one of my favorite activities to end on because it has the entire group come together to support each small team individually. It's a really nice way to kind of bring all the skills we’ve built on throughout the day together into one.”
Squads looking for even more of a challenge will take up surprises with the team wall and rope swing. While Gwinn does not want to give too much away, make sure you’re ready to lift each other up, figuratively and literally.
“You debrief on all kinds of different methods of communication. We have to deal with breaking down the barriers between people and humanize each other. You can have great conversations on building community,” Gwinn said.
The takeaways in between each activity also differ. Gwinn leads the dedicated participants in evaluating what they learned, as well as what could have been improved, or what worked well.
“At the end we connect the dots with them and make sure that they're understanding, the process that we do here and then how they can translate what they've learned here into everyday life,” he said.
If it’s a swing and a miss, that’s alright too. What’s special about this OAC offering is not just the successes groups can learn from, but the failures too.
“You get to learn from failures and on-site that you wouldn't get to in a job situation or in a classroom situation,” Gwinn said. “Learning opportunities shouldn't even be called failures because we have a conversation about failure and how that's a positive reflection and evaluation is something that we all need to have in everyday processes that we mostly don't do.”
Gwinn often takes the course itself on the go. When interested crews can’t make it to UNM’s campus, the OAC brings the activities they can to them.
“We not only do it here, but I will travel for groups. Those are typically educational programs or corporations looking for team building.,” he said.
It’s an exciting experience, even just as an audience member. The enthusiasm each Challenge Course participant gives off when completing a task as a team is contagious. It’s no wonder Gwinn sees a lot of interest, both from potential clients and just curious onlookers.
“A lot of people haven't done anything like this. We've had a lot more courses than we used, especially when folks started going back into the office. We had a lot of great programming ideas that came out of that time.” he said.
Even after decades of leading these unique elements, Gwinn never gets over the feeling of accomplishment he witnesses, after the emotional, physical and mental risks a group takes, pay off.
“I love a good group that challenges me because I've been doing this for 20 years. There are times that I get to experience something brand new. That's why I do what I do,” he said.