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Challenge course progressions in your facility

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Program Administration by Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education Geoff Harrison, and Mat Erpelding


If you’re an administrator and would like to learn how to improve your skills and enhance your program, read more from Outdoor Program Administration.

Challenge Course Facilities

The general outcomes and theoretical framework associated with challenge programs are constant, but the types of facilities installed and used vary based on many variables. Challenge courses activities range in size from portable activities to large structures stretching several stories into the air and occupying large footprints of land.

As stated previously, challenge course programming involves generally one of three types of activities: portable activities, low-challenge course elements, and high-challenge course elements. The activities are listed in a common order of progression. It is important to understand that a likely progression of activities is developed with the group outcomes in mind. There is a great deal of variety in how activities are facilitated. Many times, a low-challenge course experience includes portable activities, and a high-challenge course experience includes low-challenge course activities as well as portable activities. Each course has its own benefit and value based on the situation, location, program goals, and available facility.

Portable Challenge Programs

Portable challenge programs (also called team initiatives) include activities that use props such as
bandanas, ropes, beach balls, or portable platforms. Portable challenge programs allow organizations to facilitate at virtually any site, and may be used prior to the group’s visit to a permanent high or low course. The benefit of portable activities is that they can be used almost anywhere and offer an alternative to meet client expectations and goals. Portable activities can be very inexpensive and will expand the scope and value of a program. Commonly, portable activities are used in conjunction with more complex challenge programs that use permanent high or low elements. Because of their versatility and variability, an effective facilitator is able to use portable activities to enhance the outcomes of a program. Thus many facilitators use portable activities regularly to illustrate key points or learning outcomes.

Educators often use portable initiatives to engage students through active learning versus traditional note-taking sessions. Many outdoor programs use portable activities as a way to create a sense of community for students prior to and during trips by adding games or initiatives to help them learn about and become more comfortable with each other. Additional reasons for using a portable course include the following:

  • Fixed course is too expensive.
  • Time allowed does not provide for use of low or high elements.
  • The group has asked the organization to facilitate at their site.
  • Only a few activities are needed to illustrate points and help a group move forward on tasks.

Portable activities can also serve as assessment tools when groups are progressing through an educational sequence. When a group arrives, information is often limited to registration forms and portable challenges to help build a more comprehensive picture of how individuals will interact within the group. An assessment allows facilitators to amend and calibrate the program’s sequence prior to moving participants to permanent elements on a low or high course.

Low-Element Challenge Courses

Low-element challenge courses are usually permanent structures, either as a stand-alone facility or proximal to a high-element challenge course. Low-course construction may include existing trees, utility poles installed in the ground, aircraft cables, or other building materials permanently placed to create an element. Names of common elements include wild woozy, whale watch, wall, nitro crossing, portal, balance log, and the classic spider web.

Low elements often require more resources to build and maintain, such as accessibility, land or space, and teaching tools or props. Low courses installed on trees, poles, or freestanding structures need active maintenance and inspection. There are aesthetic benefits to using existing trees for construction, but treated poles offer significant benefit for durability and longevity. Depending on course design and space available, elements may be spread out over many acres or placed close together. Generally, although regulations vary, installing low ropes courses does not require building permits because they are considered to be recreational equipment (similar to playgrounds).

Low elements may take place off the ground, not high enough to require belay systems, but they often require safety precautions. Effective spotting skills are essential to many low elements to manage risk and to engage the group in the task. As a result of the increased risk associated with low-element challenge courses, additional training for facilitators might be warranted. A 20-hour facilitator training course taught by a qualified trainer can provide a good base for effective programming (Association for Challenge Course Technology, 2008).

Low course elements may be used to assess participants and to determine if they are ready to move to a high-element challenge course. Adequate funds and time must be allocated, both when new facilitators are hired and on a continuing basis to reduce risks on the course and to deliver effective programs. A well-managed low-element challenge course will support a high-element challenge course.

High-Element Challenge Courses

High-element challenge courses often reflect low elements but are constructed higher off the ground and use a belay system to help limit risk. Depending on how the facilitator chooses to use them, portable programs, low elements, and high elements can all be employed to address any and all of the desired program outcomes. High elements tend to focus on the individual rather than the group because only a couple of participants can be off the ground at the same time. While one or two people climb, remaining group members may provide verbal support, ongoing communication, or safety by belaying. Using perceived risks, high elements provide an opportunity for the participant to accept a personal challenge.

High-challenge courses require extensive resources for construction, including appropriate site selection (indoors or out), poles, trees, and other structures. To minimize risk to participants and employees, installers must be vigilant when reviewing the design specs and constructing the course. A variety of high elements exist, including the power pole, high balance beam, flying squirrel, Burma bridge, and beam crossing. Although different elements represent possible activities available on a course, high-element challenge courses are characterized by the type of system used as a belay. A variety of belay systems are available on challenge courses, including dynamic belays, static belays, continuous belays, M belays, and auto-belay systems.


Read more from Outdoor Program Administration by Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education Geoff Harrison, and Mat Erpelding



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