Applause erupts as sixth-grader Karen Reger steps off the ladder.
But her leg shakes, and her hands quiver, and she gasps for air.
She didn’t make it to the top of the 35-foot-high climbing wall of the adventure course outside Payson High School because of her fear, but it did not matter.
Instead of putting her down, all the Rim Country Middle School (RCMS) students in her physical education class gathered around to pat her on the back and congratulate her.
“It’s what we’re trained to do,” said Adrianna Flynn-Stoner, a fellow classmate.
Adrianna also has a fear of heights, so she knows how Karen feels.
Adrianna learned of her fear of heights during her fifth grade trip to the Grand Canyon last year.
As she and her class walked down the Bright Angel Trail, Adrianna hugged the wall. She could not stand looking over the edge down the steep slope of the canyon, it terrified her.
She felt the same way about being up on the wall at the adventure course.
“I wasn’t even going to go, but I made myself go,” said Adrianna, “Coach Wallace said to try and make it to the top.”
Adrianna did not make it to the top, but her classmates cheered her on as they had Karen. She felt proud of her effort to face her fear.
That attitude took weeks to cultivate, said Jackie Wallace, the RCMS physical education instructor for the girls.
Before students put a hand or foot on the adventure course, they go through rigorous training, Wallace said. She and fellow physical education teacher Randy Wilcox worked with lessons provided by a program the physical education department purchased through their grant.
Activities such as balloon trolleys, taught off the adventure course equipment prepared the students to work together on the course.
The objective of the balloon trolley lesson was to teach students to walk together as a group. Learning this task prepared them for supporting each other on the movable platform at the adventure course and working together as a group while students climb to heights of 35 feet or cross rope bridges in the air.
Using a balloon or beach ball, students place the ball between their shoulder blades. Another student holds the ball/balloon in place by putting their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them pressing the ball/balloon so it will not fall on the ground.
The line of students then moves as a group around a cone or other landmark ending the activity where they started. Along the way, they grab objects the coaches place on the ground.
This activity taught teamwork, an essential part of the lesson.
“If the class has not shown the necessary growth in these areas (problem solving and working together), they will not go high — same as if individuals aren’t ready they don’t climb,” said Wallace.
Some things cannot be taught with a pencil and paper, including trust, community, and faith in physical ability. Many physical education programs struggle to get children engaged in activities that will get them moving and thinking about their health.
Teaching through adventure courses has broken through the stalemate that traditional P.E. classes found themselves stuck in.
Project Adventure is one such course of study. Created in Tuba City, Ariz to address the life-threatening health issues of the Navajo tribe, the program has spread across the U.S. It teaches nutrition, fitness, stress /energy management, and community.
The adventure course is a huge part of the reason for success.
“It’s not a toy, it’s a tool,” said Wilcox.
Wallace agrees, saying the challenge course is not a glorified playground, but an opportunity to teach the value norms of:
• Be here, physically and mentally
• Be safe, physically and emotionally
• Let go and move on
• Be honest and
• Set goals
The girls at the adventure course exhibited all these qualities to Adrianna, clapping for her and cheering her on as she climbed as far as she could.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re not going to make it, everyone is still proud of you,” she said of her experience.