Partners in Play

I always get funny looks as I gather my teaching supplies. Journeys School students shuffling up the snowy path to class shoot me sideways glances. Why would a grown man need so many pool noodles?

The truth is, on a cold morning in early December, I’m preparing to lead a professional development session on the Doug Walker Challenge Course. Since 2013, the Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) Education and Interpretation team has assembled on the Jackson Campus of Teton Science Schools to reflect on a year gone by, cast their gaze on what’s next, and develop skills to be successful along the way.

These rangers have difficult jobs. As leaders in GTNP, they manage large teams responsible for millions of visitors in a wild and unforgiving place. Their success hinges on an ability to think systemically and understand a complex and dynamic world. That’s where the pool noodles come in.

To support team learning, facilitators at Teton Science Schools create initiatives that allow participants to process their ideas in the abstract and then make meaningful connections to the real world. By forming a square from a giant loop of rope without the use of their eyes, for example, a team can explore the characteristics of self-organizing systems. Getting all team members over a 12-foot wall safely is actually a challenge of creating and implementing a shared vision. Some initiatives are even designed to create chaos, providing an opportunity for the rangers to reflect on how their team learns under duress.

Each year, the GTNP team goes back to work with a shared language of idioms. In this language, “fold the tarp” is shorthand for working efficiently or trying something new, an invention from 2013 when teams competed at catapulting stuffed animals across a field with a plastic tarp. A reminder that “it’s all in the wrist” prompts team members to look at the big picture for something they may have missed. Thanks to their work on the Challenge Course, they have no shortage of shared sayings to communicate important ideas and are thus able to bring the lessons they learn at TSS – with the pool noodles, walls, tarps, and other tools – to the work they do in Moose and throughout GTNP.

The power of play to produce learning is remarkable, but for some reason we leave it behind when we enter the professional world. For me, it’s heartening to see rangers trade their iconic flat hats for blindfolds. Ironically, it shows me just how seriously they take their jobs, and our parks.

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