Feature Article - April 2007
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Altitude with Attitude

Building Your Climbing Business by Catering to Kids

By Stacy St. Clair

Challenging Youth on a Budget

Think you can't afford a challenge course?

Think again.

Years ago, the courses were expensive undertakings reserved for deep-pocketed corporate outings or Outward Bound excursions. Today, however, the benefits associated with challenge courses are within reach of even the most cash-strapped school districts and parks departments.

"Many groups can't afford to build challenge courses," said Bill Bates, a program development consultant with Project Adventure. "It's an unrealistic option given their budget constraints, but there's still a lot they can do."

Before nixing adventure-based programming as too expensive or too superfluous, it's important to understand its purpose. In addition to providing physical activity, it also emphasizes education and personal growth.

The courses do more than just provide summer-camp-type diversions. They also offer experiential education opportunities, meaning that people get to learn by doing something other than watching, reading or talking about it. Challenge courses encourage teamwork, build self-esteem and promote creativity, among other benefits.

In short, they provide the life skills that many schools, community groups and parents are failing to instill in today's children. With so many budget constraints and pressures to meet standardized testing goals, society is failing to address students' emotional development, said Bates, who spent more than three decades working as a teacher and administrator in the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Schools.

"There's not enough attention in schools being given to a child's social and emotional development," Bates said. "The whole idea of challenge courses is to get the kids to engage and keep them engaged."

Early in his career, Bates used grant funding to develop an urban adventure program for more than 5,000 students. The programs later expanded to include teambuilding for teachers, administrators, parents and community members. By the time Bates became the system's director of health, physical education and athletics, adventure education was already an appreciated and entrenched part of the curriculum.

Though he is now retired, the adventure programs continue to thrive in Cambridge. The system has full indoor challenge course sites in all 12 consolidated schools, supervisors in charge of each location and a general fund to maintain the courses.

Though Cambridge represents the crčme de la crčme of challenge-course programs, schools can still embrace—and promote—the ideals of challenge courses, without necessarily building a course. In fact, Bates spends much of his time at Project Adventure helping groups design programs that won't leave them penniless.

"A lot can be done without challenge-course elements and just props," he said.

These props are the tools and toys used in various programs. They can be either purchased or made by members of the staff, though the latter option might not be worth the time and resources required.

The most popular props include a set of half-pipes and a ping-pong ball. Students then must work together using the half-pipes to move the ball to a specific spot without letting it hit the floor or touching it with their hands.

Another option is a "reflecting pool" kit in which students can forecast their feelings using an interactive weather map and catch fish that embody their adventure experience.

Complete prop kits can cost anywhere from $1,400 for a basic elementary kit to $3,200 for a high school package with all the bells and whistles. Simply put, it's a budget-friendly option for schools and park districts that cannot afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on courses.

For example, Bates has been working with a Florida school district that has 37 schools and does not have the money to operate an outdoor course at each campus. Knowing they could not shortchange some schools by erecting courses at only a few sites, administrators purchased a prop kit for each building. Teachers were enrolled in a three-day training session to learn how to run the programs and help students with emotional development. During these workshops, educators also learn how these activities promote a self-awareness not often derived from traditional gym class.

"It's more of an individual program," Bates said. "The kids push themselves beyond what they think they can do with the help of the group."

Prop kits, however, don't mean that schools or park districts must surrender their desire for an outdoor adventure course. To the contrary, they can help students understand the importance of teamwork and healthy self-esteem while the bean counters look for ways to afford a full course. Some groups bring in climbing walls or other elements as a reward for students who successfully achieve the goals associated with prop-based programs.

The bottom line, Bates said, is that every organization can start small—and dream big.

"Start now and start with some training, certification and props," he said. "You can work and build your program from there. You can grow as big as you want once you lay the foundation."