Originally published May 5, 2021 by the Brattleboro Reformer.
By Chris Mays
In addition to being fun, a new ropes course at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School checks off a lot of boxes when it comes to education goals.
“I couldn’t be happier for the students of the West River Valley to have the opportunity to learn leadership, build community and strengthen their social/emotional skills with this new tool,” said Principal Bob Thibault.
Tammy Claussen, physical education teacher at the school, said the course is unique because it’s built with utility poles instead of trees.
“You’re dealing with something that has been processed and preserved,” she said, adding that the poles will last longer and be more predictable than trees from the woods.
The new course also is easier to access. An old low ropes course at the school required “a pretty good hike” to get to and caused concerns about getting students back to class on time, Claussen said.
She believes the course will make the school stand out and could attract students with school choice.
“The design at L&G like any course we design starts with questions about the site’s program. What are the goals, outcomes you are looking for by adding a challenge course program to your organization?”
Ian Doak, director of design and installation at High 5 Adventure Learning Center, said the design started like any other conducted by his group. They ask about goals, age range of participants and group size.
“Each design is different based on the answers we get,” Doak said. “Most of our customers are using the course for building connections, leadership development, SEL (social and emotional learning) and the physical aspect. The budget and site location also drive the design.”
Doak described how the progression of the L&G course includes “low elements, and a staggered height and difficultly level of high elements.”
“This gives the timid first-time climbers an option to get off the ground and work their way towards the harder challenges,” he said. “With multiple grade levels using this course there is also a variety of elements to keep the challenges exciting over the years.”
Doak said his group works all over the Northeast region in many schools, camps, universities, therapeutic centers and recreation centers. The group produces a podcast called “Vertical Playpen” and a recent episode about its new building process can be found at high5adventure.org/podcast/challenge-course-new-builds-process.
For about 20 years, Claussen has advocated for a high ropes course at the school. She said the school had a low ropes course for about 25 years but it has been out of use for about three years now due to safety concerns.
Claussen envisioned building one high element every year and after 10 years, there would be something “awesome.” But with tight budgets, she said, it would always be the “first thing thrown to the curb.” So when the school had some unused funds this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she saw a silver lining.
Claussen said students need emotional support and now seems a “great time” to offer the high ropes course. She sees it as a way to help meet physical education standards related to teamwork, cooperation and team building.
“The whole goal would be to not only allow kids to be up on the course as participants but to train kids how to be leaders on the ground and help them with a group of kids,” she said. “I’m really excited to get back into adventure education.”
She described enjoying watching students become more confident as they step out of their comfort zone, then smile after finding success.
“It’s a great thing to be a part of it,” she said. “During such trying times for these poor students, this is a good time to provide this kind of opportunities. It kind of makes me excited about teaching again, when you can provide students with new challenges.”
Due to the pandemic, co-curricular activities were either canceled or significantly reduced for the fall and winter sports seasons, which resulted in an approximately $43,000 surplus used for the ropes course. Much of the surplus involved coaching stipends and transportation to sporting matches.
Johanna Liskowsky-Doak, dean of students at L&G, had been one of several staff members trying to revamp the old ropes course. She said L&G staff plus physical education teachers and school counselors from other schools in the West River Education District will be trained on facilitating the use of the new course. (She is married to Doak.)
“We’ll also probably use it for team building with staff, you know, community building really with any group you want to build community with or have a group create strong bonds or a strong connection with,” she said. “This is a resource to help create those.”
Training is scheduled for the week of June 22 then the course will be used by middle school summer programs and students next school year.
Liskowsky-Doak called experiential education a teaching philosophy that allows students to work on developing their leadership skills, empathy for others and self awareness.
“So we’re hoping that these tools will help our students to gain self confidence, to feel a sense of ownership over their learning and just improve relationships with each other and with adults as well,” she said. “We’re happy to have started a connection with a local business, a local organization and to help support our community.”
The course is not open to the public and can only be used when a trained facilitator is around.