Who knew that standing on a tiny, wobbly platform 40 feet in the air could teach teamwork?
Well it can, along with patience, trust, tolerance, confidence and other things sorely missing in today’s schools, said organizers of a new ropes course being hoisted up in front of Payson High School.
The challenge course is still a few weeks from completion and it will be another year before students are allowed on it as teachers need training in its use. Designed to be more than a fancy jungle gym, the course is an educational tool, said Donna Moore, physical education teacher at Julia Randall Elementary School.
Moore has seen the impact ropes courses can have on student’s confidence, as well as the respect for each other.
The sheer act of overcoming fear as a group, builds a sense of community among students no other activity can.
Adventure course activities make students work together, she said. Whether it is the trust fall, where a student stands on a platform and falls back into another student’s arms blindly or when a group must get across a log using only each other for support.
The program is one answer to a growing concern in the school district — bullying, which the school board recently adopted new, stricter policies against.
“It really has meaning as far as the message that we want to infiltrate our schools at every single level,” she said.
“We want them to get to a level where they see themselves in a community where they take care of each other and where there is mutual respect, tolerance. You don’t have to be someone’s best friend, but if you show them respect that is so important.”
And getting the support of fellow classmates has a lasting impact on a child’s life.
It boosts their confidence and “really shows students that things in life they think they can’t achieve they truly can if they just conquer that fear, whatever that fear is,” she said, “whether it is that they don’t think they can succeed in math or later apply for a job.”
For Moore, adventure activities have changed her view of her abilities. A lifetime fear of heights had crippled her from ever attempting any of the high ropes course activities while she worked at a ropes course in Safford.
“When I started adventure work, I thought I could just stand on the ground and I would be good. So I was the cheerleader, cheering people on from the ground, telling them ‘you can do it, you can do it,’” she said.
“Finally, during my adventure training, I told myself, ‘this is ridiculous: you are telling the kids they can do it, but you are not doing it. You are going to conquer these fears.’
“So, I went up, scared to death, but it was the most exciting feeling I ever experienced, just to say I achieved something.”
The ropes course features dozens of elements, ranging from the ground level to the treetops. Elements range from a helix tower with two climbing walls and a third side for rappelling, a zip line, a telephone pole students will have to climb up and then jump off of, to a wire line students will have to pass each other on.
PE teachers can change each element with the addition or removal of ropes or cables to produce up to eight new activities.
A $1.4 million federal PEP grant funds the $200,000 course. Payson Unified School District was awarded the grant last year mainly due to Moore’s efforts.
The district can only use the grant for physical education and equipment.
Earlier this year, Moore spent some of the money for pedometers, which students used to track their steps. Data shows students started walking more as a result, Moore said.
Moore will present results from that activity at a later school board meeting.
For the challenge course, workers with Project Adventure from Beverly, Mass. flew in to put it together.
Course construction should wrap up by Sept. 30 and one of the first groups to test it out will be the school board.
However, Moore and other physical education teachers still have to get trained, which will take a full year.
“Once we get the course built, the one thing we want the community to be aware of is that you just don’t instantly get kids up on the course,” she said. “We need to, as a staff, go through a variety of certifications and trainings that will prepare us to teach.”
While students will not get off the ground any time soon, PE teachers will integrate adventure curriculum into class activities soon. By the time students are allowed up, they will know what is expected of them and how to stay safe.
“While on the course, every student will have a job, from the belay team, rope tenders and the ladder group, so they are not standing around goofing off,” Moore said.
If a student does not want to participate in a ropes activity, they don’t have to. But Moore hopes the ropes course encourages more students to sign up for PE. With the district adding new activities like Dance Dance Revolution and inline skating, PE will be fun for everyone, not just the jocks.
And in two years, other groups can rent it out. All of the money earned will go into an account to cover course maintenance, like new ropes and inspections.