Feature Article - February 2005
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Embark on Adventure

The latest in climbing walls and challenge courses

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Does your rec programming seem a little flat? Are you wondering what your patrons are really getting out of it? Perhaps they—and your staff—could use a little adventure in their lives—adventure-based programming, that is, through challenge courses and climbing walls.

If the word "adventure" conjures high-risk, outdoor endeavors—say, a whitewater course running through your park—think again: Adventure means a state of mind and a way of doing things.

"Adventure is about taking risks and meeting challenges, and those risks are more emotional or perceived," says Beth Fritz, director of sales for Project Adventure, which, as a nonprofit founded in 1971 to promote adventure-based learning, is a granddaddy of adventure programming and education groups.

Adventure-based programming leans heavily toward education and personal growth. In fact, many practitioners and proponents make sure to differentiate between adventure programs as amusement and the true-blue, learning-focused facilities. They promote "experiential education," which simply means that people learn better by doing something than by watching or reading. Challenge courses and, in some respects, climbing walls, are a means to an end: learning about working in groups, building self-esteem, problem-solving and instilling creativity, among them. Adventure-based learning employs a set cycle of events to make these things happen: a trained facilitator—kind of like a coach—leads the group through the process.

Adventure learning proponents point out that these experiences can occur anywhere, even classrooms or meeting rooms, but the classic experience takes place on challenge courses—a series of obstacles or props. Ground-level challenges, or elements, are called low ropes. These generally focus on team-building and cooperation. The aerial elements—tall poles, platforms, zip lines, or trapeze-like contraptions and their accompanying harnesses, belay ropes and other safety gear—are known as high ropes and use the group setting to encourage common goals along with personal achievement. While traditionally outdoors, the courses are starting to crop up inside as well, for year-round experiences.

Course elements are intended to create certain outcomes, such as improving a group's cooperation skills, but they also work to stretch a person's limits—emotional, physically and mentally—that provide that heightened sense of adventure.

"People don't learn when they're frightened, and they don't learn when they're completely comfortable," Fritz explains. "We want to find their stretch zone."

Most adventure learning programs and good challenge-course training promote "challenge by choice," where participants must choose freely to participate in the course elements instead of being forced into it but must also accept they can do a little more than they think.

Participants work through each challenge with a specific goal in mind or a task that's determined by a facilitator. After each challenge, the group reflects on what they've learned before moving on to the next element. Afterward, in a "debriefing" session again led by the facilitator, the group decides how they are going to apply what they've learned in their daily lives. The formal cycle runs thus: Experience, Reflection, Conceptualizing, Action and further Experience.

All this lingo sounds like you've just sucked the fun out of everything, right? Wrong. Beneath the lofty-sounding goals and methods, challenge courses are a blast for even the most jaded adventurers—for example, modern kids and world-weary adults. Teams who spend the day scampering through low-ropes obstacles, with plenty of laughter-inducing setups, or swinging from poles or trees, generally come out with rave reviews.

That's one reason challenge courses are growing, says Rita Yerkes, dean of Aurora University's School of Experiential Leadership at its George Williams campus in Williams Bay, Wis. The 214-acre campus includes an extensive challenge-course network open to groups of all stripes.

"We've seen younger adults who have had this sort of experience in school, and now they're looking for those same sorts of programs as adults," she says. These same young adults may often have grown up with competitive, goal-oriented sports and are seeking a new outlet without a team.

"As they get out of school, it's not that easy to pick up a bunch of people to do things," Yerkes says. "These programs give people an opportunity to work on their own personal challenges."

That desire for challenge—albeit controlled challenge—and growth in people's lives has brought on the rise of challenge courses in unlikely places. For example, the ultra-luxury Elk Mountain Resort outside Telluride, Colo., where cabin rentals start in the thousands, offers a full-scale, fully staffed challenge course.

The myriad "challenges" seen on reality TV programs also have piqued interest in these facilities. Yerkes cautions that park districts and other facilities can't expect the glitz and competition of television fare: Participants won't get voted off the island, for example, no bugs get eaten (intentionally, anyway), and the challenges focus is on learning, growing and cooperating, not winning.

Rec facilities, and increasingly, fitness centers, also are turning to challenge courses as a way to better serve their after-school markets, especially for kids who don't fit the team sports mode, says Project Adventure's Fritz. The Boston Sports Club, for one, worked with Project Adventure when it began a summer program and parents wanted more than traditional sports.