SEATTLE – A platform balances two feet above the ground on a central pivot point. How do you get a dozen people onto that platform without tilting it so far that it touches the ground?
“The first person is the toughest, but really every movement has a chance to knock that platform off balance,” said Scott VanderWey, statewide extension specialist of adventure education for Washington State University Extension. “These kids really have to work together to figure how to get everyone on there.”
Getting on the platform isn’t the real point of the exercise; it is working together to accomplish the goal – teamwork, in other words.
“When kids participate in these courses, we see major improvements in communications skills, resiliency and better overall team skills,” VanderWey said.
To build these skills, he oversees low and high ropes courses at Camp Long in Seattle. The course is a collaboration between WSU and the City of Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation.
Combining physical and mental tests
Challenge courses and adventure programs require hands-on interaction and typically involve a series of outdoor activities, cooperative games, trust initiatives and team building exercises, VanderWey said. A challenge course is a combination of mental and physical challenges requiring a group to work as a team to accomplish goals. It includes physical elements such as logs, platforms, posts, ropes and wires attached to trees or other structures that present obstacles and situations used for team building and personal development.
By removing people from their usual environment and placing them in a new, unique setting, a challenge course experience fosters shared learning, openness and cooperation.
VanderWey and his colleague, WSU human development faculty member Robby Cooper, surveyed hundreds of high school-age kids at Camp Long over the past two years – both before and after they did the various ropes course activities. VanderWey and Cooper found that skills like decision-making, communication and teamwork were improved after the teens completed the course.
But more significant, VanderWey said, is that the positive impact was much higher for non-white participants and for females, specifically in teamwork skills.
Girls, he said, often have significantly increased confidence after experiencing the challenge course program.
A safe space
The foundation of Camp Long is to create a space where everyone is physically and emotionally safe and valued, VanderWey said.
“Everyone is on an even playing field here,” he said. “Kids of color or from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend not to have as much support or as many opportunities to be on teams. So they often rate themselves much lower in those areas in the pre-survey.”
Cooper agreed and is happy to see concrete evidence of the positive impact this program is having.
“It is very interesting that those who may often feel excluded – female and minority participants – are showing a significant improvement in teamwork, something that is largely based on inclusion and acceptance,” he said.
After completing obstacles like the balance platform, also called the whale watch, or working together to cross a trapeze, for example, participants realize they can work with others and find success in the program.
The survey breakdown was 50 percent white participants/50 percent non-white and 50 percent male/50 percent female, so it made for simple comparisons between groups.
VanderWey and Cooper presented their findings at the WSU Academic Showcase in April, as well as at national conferences around the country.
They will continue to collect data to refine their programs and document their benefits.