I remember when I first stood on a lofty wooden rung of a rope ladder built into the redwood skyscrapers. I was looking down on a bunch of colorful, helmeted heads—but I had to stop looking down, or I wouldn’t make it the rest of the way up. We were already pushing altitude up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and then—despite my fear of heights—I steeled myself to get to the top of the ropes course upward challenge. I looked at the three remaining ladder steps above me. One at a time. At this moment, the enormity of the next moment was all I could see.

The real trick to a successful retreat is engagement. When participants are engaged, real immersion and connection can take place. Engagement in what’s here and now draws people away from their concerns in another place and time—hence, why we call it a retreat. In fact, a great retreat venue doesn’t have to be all that far from home as long as the retreat program offers participants ready opportunities to sink into the experience. Santa Cruz Mountain retreat centers are special in that they aren’t too far from the surrounding Bay Area, but they do feel private and tucked away into the redwoods and fresh mountain air. Plus, they’re the perfect setting for unique retreat activities for both youth and adults—activities that you don’t encounter in the flow of daily life.

Retreat Goals and Related Activities for Youth and for Adults

The best retreat activities are those that captivate people and help them become more present. At the same time, those ideal activities are also helping retreaters to work toward certain goals. You know your group best, and you know best what goals you’re wanting to set for this retreat experience.

My own ropes course experience was fittingly accompanied by group discussion about goals both before and after the activity. Truthfully, for most of us, our goals had to hug the realm of gentle, vertical accomplishment pretty closely; there isn’t too much space to think about figurative connections and parallel goals when you’re trying to get from one moving board, floating tens of feet in the air, to the next. But that’s okay because, almost as soon as we got back to the ground, we were ready to burst our awareness open and discuss broader goals and potentials as individuals and as a team—far beyond what our perception would allow prior to the courageous climb.

The ropes course is an extreme activity example, but it works really well to engage both adults and youth alike—and there are readily accessible opportunities for these kinds of retreat activities in the Bay Area and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Not only do these activities successfully engage retreat participants in the process, but they also make for really powerful memories that people bring back with them into the workplace, school, and daily life—their perspective is altered after having succeeded or exceeded their own expectations.

The Activities You’ll Find on a Retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains

One of our retreaters’ favorites is the traditional campfire with s’mores. It’s a universally accessible activity for bonding—especially since so many of us have rich memories of summer camp from our childhoods. Sometimes, it’s just easier to share stories and connect on a personal level under the gentle cloak of darkness and the flickering of childhood wonder.

On the other end of the light spectrum are favorite daytime activities in the sun: the pool, putting games on the green, sand volleyball, ping-pong tournaments, and even archery. When there is such a wide range of activities already available at your Santa Cruz Mountain venue, you don’t need to plan your retreat around a limited number of possibilities. You can strategize your perfect retreat exactly how you want it with high-reaching goals for individuals and the group.

As you may already know, there are virtually no limits when you have some wide-open space and willing and imaginative participants. Invite that willingness and imagination to come forward with artfully engaging games and activities. We’ve collected some of our favorite creative activities that can be used as icebreakers, bonding, or team-building opportunities.

  • The Great Appreciation Exchange

This stationary activity is very simple but can have a powerful reach for group bonding and the understanding of each other’s gifts. Have your whole group sit in a circle. Choose someone to go first: they will be the receiver of attention during this first round. Popcorn style, let people speak up to share when they feel moved. The object is to share, for the whole group to hear, ways in which you appreciate this person who has been selected. This kind of generous exchange is relevant whether it is a corporate team on retreat, a youth group, a family reunion, or any other gathering of connected individuals.

You can choose whether you want to set a timer for each receiver’s turn—to keep moving the sharing along. Or you can let it flow along organically. Go around the circle from one receiver to the next, making sure no one gets left out of the experience. When you do this toward the start of your retreat, people who don’t know others as well can get to know them better through other people’s eyes. Plus, you’re inviting people to get a bit vulnerable from the start. When you plan for this activity toward the end of the retreat, participants have more shared memories to share that are very recent and vibrant in their minds and hearts. It can be a remarkable way to wind down and close out an immersive retreat session.

  • SpeechLess Is More

This activity will challenge your group’s ability to problem solve and to be actively aware of their teammates’ diverse and creative messages. For this game, once the instructions have been delivered, no talking or lip-reading is allowed. Direct the group to line up according to some varied statistic among them. Lining up from shortest to tallest is a good challenge to start with because the data are obvious even without too much communication. But, then, increase the difficulty by instructing everyone to line up in order of age or birthdate or shoe size.

When numbers are involved, they aren’t allowed to hold up fingers either. Encourage them to find alternative ways of communicating that information. It may not be immediately apparent, but these kinds of out-of-the-box challenges can really expand your group’s ability to work together and think creatively even in ordinary life situations.

  • Selling Bread to the Baker

As you’re preparing for this retreat, keep an eye out for simple, everyday objects that you can easily collect a lot of. Some of these may be plastic utensils, cloth napkins, pieces of paper, boxes, individual socks, or long, crusty loaves of bread—like baguettes. You can break people up into smaller groups for this activity or keep everyone together, depending on the amount of time you’d like to spend.

People will take turns standing in front of the group and giving a mock sales presentation of an object. The catch is that they can’t leverage the original, obvious use of the object; they have to think of another compelling use for which people might value it. You could limit people’s presentations to one use for the object and ask them to go in depth into that use, or you could invite them to present many different ways it could be used. You could give people some time to prepare their proposals or hand the mystery item to them only after they’ve stood up to present, leading them to really think on their feet. In this way, retreat-goers can learn a lot from others’ spontaneous creativity, and they will get a chance to exercise their own creativity—in a situation where their creativity is valued for its own sake.

Finding the Best Retreat Center in Santa Cruz and Beyond

When you’re in the planning process, your goal may still be to find the best retreat center to fulfill your goals. Take each upward step of the ladder one at a time. Visit your potential retreat venues, so you can get a real sense of their potential and the activities you’ll be able to plan for. The Santa Cruz Mountains are a choice destination because of their expanse of opportunities and nature-based rejuvenation—not that far from the Bay Area. But, wherever you go, follow the retreat activities that will pull participants into the moment and into a space of connection.

Still unsure how activities bear on your retreat plans or how to bring it all together? Give us a call for ideas and guidance. Kennolyn sets the stage for successful retreats of all kinds, and we love brainstorming brand new, personalized retreat concepts.

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