Category: Youth Development

residential camp tie dye shirts

A few days ago, while interviewing two of our “perpetual” residential campers for a camp video, I heard something that caught me by surprise. When asked what their favorite part about residential camp was, both girls answered simultaneously, “Talking to the other girls at the end of the night.” In a camp where a typical day consists of crawling around a cave 50 feet underground or tip-toeing up a rock climbing route 50 feet above the ground, their favorite part was building relationships with their fellow campers.


Almost every week of residential camp begins the same way. Campers are dropped off, signed in and then thrust into a new-ish world with at least 20 smiling-yet-apprehensive faces they have never seen before. From the time that their parents leave all the way until their parents arrive at the end of the week, campers have each other and their instructors. We do not have a hidden cave of televisions and video games in the middle of the woods or WiFi accessible to our campers.

We do not have a hidden cave of televisions and video games in the middle of the woods


All of our campers sign up for Adventure Links camp for the same reason, the activities. There is no doubt that spending your day kayaking or rock climbing is more fun than a day doing math problems. What campers don’t realize until they leave is that the one piece of Adventure Links that will stay with them forever is the community. By attending residential camp, campers have the opportunity to do all of those cool activities listed in our brochure, but they also have the opportunity to share these experiences with each other. Campers sing together next to the campfire, dine together in the lodge, paddle together at the river, sleep together in the bunks, challenge themselves together and, by the end of the week, transform themselves together.ao1

What campers don’t realize until they leave is that the one piece of Adventure Links that will stay with them forever is the community.


By the end of each week of residential camp, those smiling-yet-apprehensive faces are all familiar and just smiling, without apprehension. Some campers are usually sad to say goodbye to their new friends and bunkhouses, but the majority have already come up with ways to stay in touch and made plans for residential camp next year.


The community that has begun to form around our residential camps is caused by the campfire songs, the post-lights-out conversations, the daily challenges, and most importantly, the shared experiences. The relationships that are developed at camp are one-of a-kind. Each year it is our goal to provide an environment that creates those relationships organically.



eric newmanEric Newman | Program Coordinator

Day Camps


In a time where recesses are being cut short, technology is ever-present in our children’s eyes, and coding is the newest language being taught in school; we are advocating for more time outside! The best way to give your children that time outside is Summer Camp!


For the past 19 years, Adventure Links has been providing the summer camp experience for youth in Northern Virginia. We offer a variety of camps for rising 2nd through 12th graders. Our ultimate goal is to provide an experience that is meaningful for our campers each year they come back. 


Let’s talk Day Camps. Currently, we offer four different day camps for participants from 2nd through 8th grades: Hemlock (rising 2nd-3rd grades), Classic (rising 3rd-5th grades), Ultimate (rising 6th-7th grades) and Summit (rising 7th-8th grades). Each of Our Camps has their own variety, but are all focused around adventure sports and getting a little dirty. Our range of activities include: rock climbing, zip lining, caving, sailing, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, and the list goes on.


Quick Facts: Day Camps

  • We offer convenient pick-up/drop-off locations throughout the summer in Arlington, Vienna, Ashburn, Centreville, Manassas, Gainesville, Chantilly, Springfield, and Herndon.
  • We pick up campers at 8AM from the location and drop off at the same location at 5PM.
  • We maintain a maximum ratio of 13:2 (or 6.5:1) with all of Our Camps.
  • Each instructor must keep a minimum of Basic First Aid/CPR, but most go a step further and have a minimum of Wilderness First Aid.


Why Adventure Links Day Camps?


My first answer is fun! There are factors that come to mind when thinking of fun at Adventure Links. The first factor is our Instructors. While each Instructor usually has their own favorite adventure sport (some have many), we all share a passion for youth development. The second factor is programming. We offer exciting experiences for all different ages and abilities. Each day our Instructors tailor the activity to the experience level and comfortability of each group to ensure a positive experience.


The second reason is community. Summer camp in general provides an unparalleled opportunity for kids to interact with people they have never before met. The first day of Our Camps is geared towards familiarizing campers with each other, their Instructors, the expectations, and challenges of the week. Throughout the week, campers form new bonds, collaborate with new people, and participate in challenging activities alongside their new friends.


The final reason Our Camps provide a meaningful experience for our campers is personal growth. From the perspective of the individual, the challenges that our campers are faced with allow them to step out of their comfort zones. Everything from meeting new campers to climbing a 40’ cliff can be a learning experience. At the end of each activity, Instructors encourage reflection that helps each camper take something unique away from the activity.


Whether the reason for looking at summer camp is to keep your child engaged throughout the summer, to introduce them to new adventure sports and people, or to catalyze personal growth, we are confident that a week spent at Adventure Links will have an impact on their life. Day camp is the beginning of a meaningful journey that we, at Adventure Links, enjoy creating and following along with.





ryan daleRyan Dale | Summer Camp Director

I’ve recently joined the ranks of being a mom to not one but TWO teenage daughters. There’s no greater reward and ego-leveler than parenting! There are probably as many parenting models, tips, and sets of advice as there are diet fads. Just when we think one might work, our child or society switches on us and we lose our title of “Parent of the Year…”

Recently I came across an executive coach (Caroline Miller) as well as an article by a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania that assembled a term I’ve been trying to put to words for years. GRIT.

Something about the “everybody wins” psychology and self-esteem movement seemed to allow self-imposed helplessness in some children. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, Ph.D. introduced me to the term “grit”. She’s studied the role that character plays in success since 2005 and has identified that grit (the ability to push through or bounce back from failure) is a stronger indicator of success than intelligence or academic achievement. I realized that it was self-respect and GRIT that I most wanted to develop in my teenage girls! I can point directly to times when I tried to ease the bumpy road in front of them or make excuses for them to their detriment. I also realized that through both experiences they’ve had at home or with our very own summer camp we’ve created opportunities for the opposite! They’ve both ‘busted through barriers’ of their own, faced the potential of failing and came out ahead, or simply stayed dedicated to learn something difficult. The good news is that we have some ways to foster grit and I’ve listed those below. To explore in more depth- the Ted talk by Caroline Miller and the article by Angela Duckworth are below.

1) Put new challenges in front of your child

2) Promote perseverance- “Don’t Quite on a Bad Day”

3) Be a nudge

4) Be ok with boredom and frustration

5) Let failure unfold and model resilience

Good luck!

Anna Birch-Anna Birch | CEO

DSC02161My education philosophy perpetually changes the more I learn and experience. One of my core foundations that has remained throughout my entire professional career is that every child should have the opportunity to engage in meaningful play outside. In general, this can only be achieved if you are not afraid to get a little dirty.

I once had an art teacher that prior to making her first brush stroke would rub paint all over her hands and shirt. She claimed that in the past she was cautious about getting paint on herself while working which proved to be a creative distraction. She reasoned that if she was covered in paint before she started she could devote 100% of herself to her work.  This idea has resonated with me since and I apply the same rationale to working outside.

Throughout the years I have noticed more and more youth I work with are a bit timid and apprehensive when first exposed to an outdoor classroom. I believe some of this apprehension is due to that fact that getting dirty outside is sadly becoming less acceptable in the urbanized world.

To nip it in the bud, I like to ask the groups I work with to pick up a bunch of dirt and rub in into 20140807_123922their hands. This request is usually followed by nervous giggling and darting eyes; checking to see if mom or dad is around the corner.  I always tell my students, and my adult chaperones, that today it is okay to get dirty and if they overcome the anxiety of getting a grass stain on their knee they will be able to take full advantage of the day, learn a valuable lesson or two, and maybe just maybe have a little fun while doing it.

I find that once they are comfortable with the fact that it is acceptable to get dirty, at least for the day, they truly start to relax, are more open to learning, and engage in meaningful play with one another and their surroundings. I believe kids need to be kids and we should be encouraging them to get outside and play. Parents and guardians be warned, if you send your child to Adventure Links they may just come home a little dirty, a bit tired, and a little bit more excited to interact with the natural world.

Read more about how getting dirty outdoors benefits kids

kyle halstead

-Kyle Halstead | Program Coordinator

Just the other day, we had the sad occasion of one of our leadership team members unexpectedly losing a childhood friend. The Facebook post/tribute he wrote to this friend was vivid, beautifully written and it read as if the memories were as fresh as yesterday. However, he hadn’t seen this friend since their childhood.

I realized in that moment that there were some of my own childhood memories more crisp, vivid and alive than things that occurred just yesterday. There’s just something about the mind of a child that holds images, feelings, words, wonderful friendships, and even scents!

In the midst of this nostalgia, I was out for my daily run on our property. Upon reaching our mailbox a mile away, I opened it to find my very own treasured piece of childhood. There it was, the smallest trigger flooded my eyes with tears and took over my face with a smile, I KNEW that handwriting! You see, back then (the 70’s and 80’s), we girls wrote notes to each other and LOTS of them! The boys? Not so much. Their notes went something like this:


Dee Dee's letter
Dee Dee’s letter

“Do you like me? Circle yes   or no. Don’t show anyone.”

But I had shoeboxes full of notes from my dearest, most cherished friend Dee Dee and I would recognize a note from her anywhere, anytime. We hadn’t corresponded in nearly 10 years and there it was… my very own note from her in my mailbox. The memories flooded back and I smiled and actually teared up even before opening her letter. I credit that ‘little girl’ and those wonderful notes for getting me through a tough childhood. I navigated the confusing ups, downs, and sideways of a dad battling bipolar.

Little did I know that years later a talented keynote, psychologist, and writer would explain what all of this meant to me. Michael Thompson wrote ‘Best Friends, Worst Enemies’ where he explores the crucial and hidden role that friendships play in the lives of children. I was sitting in a keynote session he delivered at the National Cathedral in 1996. Michael described the research that demonstrated that a key indicator to a child’s resilience was the existence of one, at least one, BEST friend. He began to list all sorts of qualifiers that determined BEST friend but frankly, it was all I could do to not leap out of my chair and scream “THAT’S IT! I GET IT NOW!! I had a best friend! We believed we could get each other through anything!”

I stayed in my seat that night but quite soon after that keynote session, I left my many years as a teacher and decided it was my time to create and pursue something, something bigger than me. I knew I could build a place for best friendships and personal journeys and a place where children could uncover their own courage. And now the exciting part is that it is now something much bigger than me and I WILL let my best friend Dee Dee know that she played an integral role in creating the magic behind this company.

That something is Adventure Links.

Childhood camp t-shirt of one of our leadership team members.


Anna Birch-Anna Birch | CEO


I always smile when one of our participants mistakenly calls it “Experimental Education”, because in a way Experiential Education is about experimenting and trying new things. However, the principles of Experiential Education have evolved since at least the late 19th century, and are well past the stage of being considered a far out “experimental” form of education.

Team building

Experiential Education is rooted in the actual experience of an individual or a group. The more remarkable the experience is, the more opportunities exist for profound learning and growth. Educational philosopher John Dewey (the same John Dewey that invented the Dewey Decimal System) observed in the early 1900’s that if students learned the skill of critical thinking, they would teach themselves far more over the course of their lifetime than they could ever learn by memorizing historical dates or mathematical formulas.

Mr. Dewey also believed in the concept of “serious play”, that people can strengthen their critical thinking skills by reflecting on experiences that challenge them to look at the world in a new way. Experiential Education allows participants to form opinions and plans, test out their hypothesis, see the results, and think about what just happened and what to try next; much like the scientific method of experimentation.

So whenever I hear someone say Experimental Education, I usually don’t correct them. After all, some healthy experimenting is a big part of the learning experience!

To learn more about John Dewey’s educational philosophy, check out one of his most well-known books, Experience in Education.


mark-headshot-Mark Diedering | Summer Camp Director

Our family took a magical, adventurous, and once in a lifetime journey together to Arizona in December. One of the trip highlights was a descent into Glen Canyon. The hike was not for the timid and we took extra precautions throughout to “take risks” in a safe and controlled environment. Both subtle and obvious lessons emerged on that journey- equally powerful.

The first lesson for our teen girls was: Commitment creates stability. It took several practice attempts for them to realize that in order to gain stability from footing on sandstone, you had to resist the urge to use your hands for stability. Instead- by digging deep into your courage and committing your weight fully into your feet- you establish connection with the sandstone. The result? There is an amazing feeling of strength and that you have solid ground beneath you.

climbing sandstone

The second lesson came when we approached some of the set “anchors” along the descent.

This second lesson: Be your OWN anchor first.Sandstone rock anchor

It was very clear at this crossroads that we were to resist the urge to blindly accept this as our anchor. Instead- we were sure that we could count on our own footing and only make moves that we could maintain our own safety.
The most breathtaking section of the trip was when we approached this cable and after some investigation by mom and dad- we decided to live our family mantra and lesson #3: If you’re not living life on the edge, you may be taking up too much room!cable over the edge

Lesson #4: The best gifts may be those you cannot wrap. The hike out was our best family gift of 2014 and was filled with moments to open over and over again. We took the “path less traveled” and this proved to create an adventure, a family memory, and a set of mantras and lessons to draw from as we go through life’s challenges and rewards together.

Lesson #5: The best connections are from nature, not WIFI. We spent 5.5 hours on this journey as a family and when we did “find the car”, we treasured the fact that we did not see a single person the entire time- only us- the crazy, loving Birch family…



It seems the older I get, the farther back in life I go to look at times I had it “all figured out.” Today I reflect upon one of my most treasured childhood memories and my first marriage proposal. I was 6 years old…

As a child, well before WiFi was even an idea, we spent our summers on an island in the Adirondacks only accessible by boat with a rustic cabin deliberately absent of electricity or running water. The adventure of it all was profound. Even better, I knew I would see my best friend, Billy. Although Billy and I disappeared into the woods the moment we stepped ashore, there was something this island brought out in the rest of my family I treasured as well. Each in a different way, we accessed a peace and connection otherwise tough to find in the day to day shuffle and scuffle of family life. We had to eat, so the grown-ups knew we’d all be together at mealtimes.

The memory I treasure was spending hours constructing a shelter/fort on the edge of Bear Pond where the rowboat was docked. We couldn’t google “fort building” at that time so we were left to our imaginations, our spirit for “survival,” and the untouchable joy of convincing ourselves we had everything we needed to live forever in that spot. In fact, he proposed that we get married and stay there. 37 years later, the memory is as rich and vivid as if it was present day. What we knew then was that we had the key ingredients for our survival: 1) a place to call our own, 2) a rowboat to travel “wherever” we wanted, 3) some handmade tools and “weapons” to get food, and 4) a connection, adoration, and friendship that gave us freedom and content.

I am stunned at how far we allow ourselves to wander from the simplicities and essentials that bring connection and contentment. Amidst the pressure, the constant input of external stimuli, and speed at which life occurs, I relish the treasures lodged in the mind of that 6-year-old that re-introduce myself to me. I may spend some more time here…

Sometimes you just have no idea how powerful a role your child plays in another child’s life. It seemed like just another one of many play dates for my 5th grade daughter recently but this one ended quite differently!
The light conversation with her friend’s mother quickly gained depth and speed when we began sharing about our own childhoods (the good and the “bad”). We shared its impact on us as mothers and how we strive to support our daughters’ lives and whims.  She described how her daughter spent most of her early years with an inability to express emotion and did not speak a word until she was four years old. Upon reaching school age, she scored off the charts in testing but struggled to express herself verbally both academically and socially. She saw the look of surprise on my face as she described what sounded like a stranger to the little girl I had come to know as my daughter’s friend. She said “I don’t know who sent your daughter to us, but I am so thankful! She has changed our girl’s life and is her first friend ever.” She went on to describe how it has given her daughter confidence and a sense of belonging. I thought back to the lessons I was taught in my years as an elementary school teacher by the brilliant works of Michael Thompson. I realized that his philosophy on the impact a quality best friend has upon the ability to cope with adversity as a child was coming true right before my eyes.
I dug a little deeper to see what he meant by quality and it was EXACTLY what my daughter was giving to this girl:
Adolescents Definition of Quality:
“…an open ear to listen to me, don’t judge me, different perspective on me, gives me no slack, gives me the power to talk about anything, something to smile at, gives me hope, strength, courage, trust, self-confidence.” taken from: Best Friends, Worst Enemies by Michael Thompson
My resolution:
In the turn of this new year, I will reach out to those best friends from years past and those standing with me today and thank them for giving me hope, strength, courage, and trust. I will also continue to honor and provide opportunities for youth to experience quality friendships with Adventure Links as thousands pass through our life here.
Thank you and Happy 2013.


It hit me while listening to a keynote session by John O’Leary last month. Opportunity and purpose collided in that moment.

John was describing the gap that we, as adults, battle daily between “What we KNOW/BELIEVE” and “What we DO.” How does this gap increase or decrease in our lives when it comes to healthy lifestyles, leadership, parenting, relationships, tough decisions, mistakes, challenges, success… ?

Where’s the opportunity? Our opportunity at Adventure Links is rich and ripe. It lies in capturing attention, providing the platform, injecting role models into their conversations, and by WOWing children with the power to shape how they perceive themselves in this world. The magical recipe: Captivate… and follow with: PLAY with a PURPOSE in the exact moment that children are defining What they BELIEVE and What they DO.