Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Fantasy camp uses warriors and wizards to teach new skills

As DU students disperse across the country and the globe on summer break, campus becomes home to a new group: warriors, dragons, wizards, elves and mystical creatures. It’s all part of a small local chapter of a nationally-run educational game camp program called The Hero’s eXperience.

The idea, says regional leader Robert Marshall, is to immerse small groups of young people into an imaginary world. The game part is all fun, with children creating elaborate fantasy characters and whacking each other with safe, soft “swords” and “spears.” But while they race around DU’s lush, green landscape in capes and beards, they are also learning problem-solving skills and how to work as a group.

Throughout their quest, participants have to use each others’ special character abilities to overcome obstacles and they must work together to solve cryptic riddles crafted by Marshall and other quest leaders — adults who oversee the program and keep things moving in a safe, organized way.

“The way we start, these kids might not know each other, but their characters all start out as friends so they start out on friend-footing,” Marshall says. “By the end of the week, they have become real friends.”

The company’s Web site says it hopes to spread nationwide and globally. The posted philosophy of the company, which was founded in Boulder five years ago, spells out the expected benefits for children participating: “The puzzles and mysteries, moral dilemmas, and other challenges of the Quest are regarded with creative imagination, as playful opportunities for experiential learning, cooperation and problem-solving.”

Most of the year, Hero’s eXperience hosts afterschool and holiday programs. But for the summer, campers come for all-day sessions, a week at a time, some for just one week, others for more. Each weeklong session contains its own mystic quest led by a team of adults, but with plenty of room for children to lead the story in its own direction as they work together to solve puzzles and battle mythical creatures.

The action is both intellectual, and as anyone walking across campus can see, physical. There’s lots of running, trekking and swinging of “swashers,” the hand-made, foam-rubber swords and spears meant to resemble ancient weapons of war.

Leading the group on DU’s campus, Marshall has been learning about swordplay since childhood. His co-leader, Troy Flor, has training in three forms of martial arts. So the lessons campers take away have their roots in ancient techniques and provide a full athletic workout. Meanwhile, with his training in childcare and storytelling, Marshall helps weave a tale that stresses creative thinking and cooperation.

In one recent camp session, the imaginations were running wild. Campers, ranging in age from 6 to 13, identified themselves as monsters, dragons and a duckbill platypus with poison spikes in his feet. They all had special powers and limitations, so each challenge required campers to use their strengths to help the group. Each week-long session is part of an overarching story that spans the summer, with campers challenged to find a way to feed thousands of intergalactic refugees. Throughout the camp, there were challenges such as locating missing rations, transporting them across difficult terrain and fighting off evil thieves.

And while the action takes place on a sunny lawn on the DU campus, the campers find themselves transported by the quest leaders’ stories to far off lands and wild inhabitants.

“We come dressed each day in character,” says Marshall, sporting a black kilt during a recent session. “As you can see, today, I’m a Scotsman. And Troy, he’s a pirate … or a ninja. It gets confusing sometimes.”

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