Project Adventure: Education’s “Wave of the Future”
A dispatch in the Winter 1984-85 issue of the College Board Review from a program that builds enthusiasm, self-confidence, and physical fitness
There's a scene in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) where Captain Kirk is on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, talking to a commanding office on the view screen while wearing a t-shirt that reads "Go climb a rock." It's a ridiculous moment in a ridiculous movie, but the gag—that people in the future, so dominated by whiz-bang technology, have lost touch with doing something as primal as climbing a rock—feels timely. We're being optimized to be perfectly productive by tech that lets us work all day anywhere at maximum multi-tasking efficiency and monitors our health for the slightest aberration and makes frictionless all manner of commerce. And if Apple's Vision Pro AR/VR goggles succeed where Google Glass and Oculus Rift/Quest and the metaverse couldn't, our very engagement with the world around us will be absorbed into the optimization project. And that's just for the grown-ups of the world. Students and young people, bombarded with all manner of additional digital peer pressure and ad campaigns, are in an even stickier vise.
What chance does the great outdoors have against all that? Is climbing rocks—and mountains and hiking trails and camping in forests—destined to becoming a gag t-shirt? Not if organizations like Project Adventure have anything to say about it.
At its most basic, Project Adventure gets students outdoors for adventure-based learning and team building. It was founded in 1971, in Massachusetts, and has grown much over the last half century. But the core focus, which David Paling captured in a feature on the organization published in the Winter 1984-85 issue of the College Board Review, remains the same.
One of the goals that Project Adventure teachers "strive to meet is an increased joy in one's physical self and in being with others," Paling wrote. "The idea that using one's body can be both satisfying and enjoyable is cultivated. A willingness to move the body and its parts and to give a maximum, physical effort is needed to participate in the course. Students roll in the grass, swing from ropes, slide in the mud and snow, and balance on thin wires high up in the air. They are urged to relax their inhibitions and open themselves up to the world around them."
Paling, then an assistant professor of physical education at Bradford College in Haverhill, Massachusetts, spends time with Project Adventure students, teachers, and parents to see just what the program entails and how it impacts its participants. What he sees are young people climbing trees, gliding on ziplines, climbing 10-foot-tall walls, navigating wooden swings suspended above the ground, and working together to solve problems and play trust games like Blindfold Soccer. Adults are there to supervise and spot, but otherwise the kids are given the agency to do things on their own.
That sounds anathema to the helicopter parenting ethos many adhere to today, but parents back then saw the confidence and joy their children came away with and embraced the Project Adventure program: "'My son loses interest if not challenged,' notes a concerned parent. "'Project Adventure helped his attitude and interest toward school and life in general.'"
If it seems like this is just gym class outside, you might be right. But only in part. Paling reported that teachers in all sorts of disciplines had found ways of incorporating Project Adventure into their classrooms: "Biology classes have built nature trails and gone on oceanographic outings. English and literature classes have read adventure-related books and magazine articles."
There's even a what-we'd-now-call a CTE element to things. After acquiring a 12-foot dory, Nauset Regional High School got its woodworking students to restore it and use it in Project Adventure activities. (Remember when schools had woodworking classes?)
After years spent in remote school and Zoom rooms, this kind of outdoor classroom experience sounds glorious. It sounded important to educators in the early '80s, too. "Evelyn Brown, a physical education professor at the University of New Hampshire, calls Project Adventure and related outdoor educational activities, 'the wave of the future,'" Paling wrote.
Considering where we are in 2023, maybe it's time to go back to the future. Or, at least, to go climb a rock.
DEVELOPING SELF-CONFIDENCE: a young student participating in the outdoor education program Project Adventure.
Fifteen-year-old Steve Smith, a student at Nauset Regional High School in Eastham, Massachusetts, has just climbed a tree during his scheduled physical education class. His instructor, however, does not get angry or upset in view of this strange scene. Oddly enough, he stands on a branch below with several other students and urges Steve on.
Steve's legs are a little shaky as he steps in the first of several suspended wooden swings, but he manages to get himself into the proper position with just a bit of difficulty. He maneuvers slowly, stepping from swing to swing until he finally reaches another tree. He holds his breath, steps from the last swing, and finds a safe perch in the crotch of the tree.
His teacher wants him to continue so that the other students may follow. Steve reaches up and finds the rope over his head. This rope, stretched taut and angled to the ground, will lead to safety. Steve wraps his arms and legs securely around the rope, closes his eyes, and begins the descent. A few tense moments later, he is down and he is safe. Steve, like thousands of other students in schools across the United States, is a participant in the exciting outdoor education program called Project Adventure.
Daring dreams are turned into reality as volunteers in the Project Adventure course are carefully guided across a rope bridge suspended 40 feet in the air, scale a high sheer wall, or rappel from a tree at a height of more than 100 feet. Although the students are not forced into any of these situations, they are urged to accept the challenges and discover their own abilities and limitations.
"The faculty and students here have responded tremendously," says Jack Donohue, the director of physical education and athletics at Nauset Regional High School. "At first we were all a bit skeptical, but now we have waiting lists to enroll in the course. We even have students from other schools making visits here to take part in the program."
Project Adventure first began in 1971 at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School in Massachusetts. A Title III Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) federal grant helped to initiate the course there. This pilot program was based upon the aims and objectives of the related outdoor education experience Outward Bound and was the brainchild of Jerome Pieh, a principal at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School, and Gary Baker, curriculum coordinator at the same school. Project Adventure has since spread to more than 30 other schools in Massachusetts and many other states including New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Missouri, Oregon, and Montana. Roughly 100 schools to date have adopted the program, and it appears that Project Adventure may find its way into the curriculums of many others as well.
Project Adventure can best be described as an outdoor obstacle course that is built from logs, ropes, trees, swings, tires, and as much of the natural environment as possible. A wide variety of obstacles helps to promote maximum participation, the satisfaction of completion, and physical fitness. The fundamental idea behind the program is not to compete against other classmates, but to push yourself toward increased physical and mental limits. "Project Adventure teaches us a lot about ourselves," says a student at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School. "We learn that we can overcome fears and difficulties if we really try. You don't feel pressured because there is no rigid class schedule. You simply do your best and are judged not on your performance, but your attitude. By the end of the first unit I see a lot of classmates' attitudes changing for the better."
At the heart of the course are five educational goals that are met in part or whole as a student participates in a Project Adventure experience. The first of these goals is to increase the participant's sense of personal confidence.
Project Adventure presents a series of activities that involve physical and emotional risk. Students attempt to succeed by completing a particular station and consequently develop a more accurate self-esteem. "I've learned a lot about my fears and how to control them," says Greg Champoux, a tenth grader at Triton Regional High School, in Byfield, Massachusetts. "You sure learn a lot about yourself in this course." Jack Donohue echoes these feelings. He says, "The course develops the confidence to try new things and a better self-image. Students find out more about themselves than they thought they knew."
The second goal of a Project Adventure curriculum is to increase mutual support within a group. The course is based on the assumption that success and failure are far less important than making an actual, honest effort. In many cases, the effort of all the members of a group is necessary to attempt a portion of the course. The Wall, for example, rises 10 feet in the air. Students are grouped together and asked to get everyone over to the opposite side of this barrier. A solution is first devised and then an attempt is made. From an educational standpoint, there is no better way to learn something than to actually do it. Project Adventure presents these kinds of opportunities.
Another fundamental goal of this innovative physical education program is to increase the students' level of agility and physical coordination. While these two components of fitness may be increased in other more traditional forms of exercise, the manner in which they are developed through Project Adventure is far more challenging and fun. "It's great," says Kim DeBouisbriand, a sophomore at Triton Regional High School in Byfield, Massachusetts. "I like it because it's not the same old thing in gym class every day." Sue Bishop, a ninth grader from the same school says, "It's so much fun it's not even like being in school."
The fourth goal that teachers of Project Adventure strive to meet is an increased joy in one's physical self and in being with others. The idea that using one's body can be both satisfying and enjoyable is cultivated. A willingness to move the body and its parts and to give a maximum, physical effort is needed to participate in the course. Students roll in the grass, swing from ropes, slide in the mud and snow, and balance on thin wires high up in the air. They are urged to relax their inhibitions and open themselves up to the world around them.
The final goal of Project Adventure is to develop an increased familiarity and identification with the natural world. An awareness of the surrounding environment is fostered through the very nature of the course. The materials used in construction and the wooded areas where the courses are built do much to develop a keener sense of the outdoors. Many students are covered with sap, dirt, and grass stains at the end of their class periods, clearly an indication of their deep involvement in the activity. "We go out in all kinds of weather," says Jack Donohue. "We've been out when it's hot, in the rain, in the cold and the snow."
A Project Adventure course normally includes three distinct phases. Safety is continually stressed, and in no instance will a student be allowed to advance before he or she is ready.
The first phase involves lead-up activities where a student will begin to get a sense of what the course is all about and take steps toward improving his or her own physical condition. A wide variety of stretching positions are assumed, including the Cobra, the Angel, and the Dog Shake. After this initial stretching, zany games such as Aerobic Tag, Frisalevio, and Tubecide will be played.
Also during this initial phase of the course, students begin to develop trust for one another. Trust games like Blindfold Soccer are presented, then played. Participants are blindfolded and compete in a modified version of soccer, moving only on the command of their partners who watch the ball and issue verbal directions to the blindfolded students. "It's a weird feeling having to run without being able to see," says a student at Triton Regional High School. "You really have to have faith in your partner so you won't bump into anyone." An enthusiastic participant in the course at Nauset Regional High School says, "Some of these lead-up games and drills are as much fun as the rest."
The next phase of the course places emphasis on working together as a group and becoming acquainted with taking risks. Students are grouped together and asked to solve a number of different problems. The Tension Traverse, Wild Woosey, and Criss-Crotch are a few of the many problems a student may encounter here. The All Aboard, a 2x2-foot wooden platform built just a few inches off the ground, involves getting as many members of the group as possible on the top of the platform. The students quickly find out there is more than one way to solve the problem and they are enthusiastic about reaching a maximum number.
When a class has satisfactorily completed the first two phases of the course, they may then advance to the most challenging and rewarding portion of the program: the ropes course. "Students are never forced to take part in the ropes course," says Roger Hill, the director of physical education at Triton Regional High School. "We use subtle peer pressure, encouraging and urging them to participate. But almost all of them will do what you ask."
Steve Smith holds the first horizontal log with both arms and swings his leg up over it. He struggles a bit, but soon finds that he is capable of making the climb. This Dangle-Do is difficult for Steve, as he climbs to the next log over his head, then the next, but he confidently reaches the top of the 50-foot ladder. After a brief pause, he carefully finds his way back down and happily plants his feet back on the ground. He has just experienced one of the many challenging and rewarding obstacles that make up the rope portion of a Project Adventure course.
SCALING THE WALL: part of the Project Adventure obstacle course instills learning by doing through group effort.
The Giant Swing, Two Line Bridge, Inclined Log, Burma Bridge, Wallenda Walk, Pamper Pole, and Tarzan Swing are merely a few of the stations that can be constructed in the ropes portion of the program. Students are carefully and expertly guided up trees, along lines of ropes and wires, and on tires that swing through the air. On the zip wire, participants find themselves gliding along a steel cable through as much as 500 feet of the wooded areas where the courses are built. They are given all the thrills and chills of an amusement park but at the same time are learning valuable lessons about themselves, their classmates, and the world around them. "My son loses interest if not challenged," notes a concerned parent. "Project Adventure helped his attitude and interest toward school and life in general."
Many parents and community members who see Project Adventure for the first time are very concerned about safety, but they soon learn that Project Adventure instructors have been adequately trained to supervise the demanding activities. The training center for these teachers, located in Hamilton-Wenham, Massachusetts, has handled hundreds of present instructors through weeklong workshops. Many of them are physical education instructors and have a good, solid educational background upon which to build.
"As far as injuries go, we've had one twisted knee in five years," says Roger Hill. "I would say that, in comparison to average physical education classes, accidents are minimal. Generally, the higher you go the safer you are because the students are always on belay." In the ropes portion of a Project Adventure class, any time a student gets more than a few feet off the ground he will be strapped in with goldline, carabiners, and a system of complicated knots that only a mountain climber or a trained Project Adventure instructor would know how to use. Goldline has a breaking strength in excess of 5,000 pounds and the metal carabiners can hold well over 3,000 pounds. In the rare instances where they are not strapped in, there are several spotters around to help prevent any injuries from occurring.
Project Adventure is catching the eye of not only public school administrators but colleges and universities, as well. The course can be constructed to meet the needs of a wide range of age levels. "Generally it is best suited for anyone in grades seven through twelve," says Mary Smith, former associate director of Project Adventure at the Hamilton-Wenham Regional school district. "The course, however, can be adapted so that colleges or elementary schools are able to use it." Although it would be simply too much to ask for a third grader to attempt Bosun's Chairs, a series of suspended wooden swings where the performer must walk from swing to swing, it would not be overly demanding for this third grader to tackle the Fidget Ladder, a rope ladder hung three feet from the ground in an angled position. The performer must walk the length of the Fidget Ladder without tipping to either side. This particular obstacle simply requires a bit of balance and a concentrated effort. Evelyn Brown, a physical education professor at the University of New Hampshire, calls Project Adventure and related outdoor educational activities, "the wave of the future."
Generally, an extensive Project Adventure course may cost in excess of $2,000 or $3,000 to build, but at least one school has been able to construct a course for a total cost of about $400. This was made possible by a variety of fundraising events. In many cases the organizers of the program have accepted either cash or materials donations. Outsiders, including businesses, clubs, and individuals, have made contributions to a Project Adventure program. In other instances the faculties and students have taken it upon themselves to hold a number of different fundraising events—a teaming together that has resulted in a lot of unexpected school spirit and unity between teachers and their pupils. And the pilot program at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School was federally funded; another possibility, in these economically strapped times, for future organizers of Project Adventure courses.
The introduction of adventure-type curriculums into traditional academic settings has served to increase the scope of the total program. Classroom teachers have included Project Adventure-related topics in their daily lesson plans in an effort to further enhance what they consider to be an excellent learning situation. Biology classes have built nature trails and gone on oceanographic outings. English and literature classes have read adventure-related books and magazine articles. Various outing clubs have been formed that have combed seashores, cleaned mountain trails, visited exhibits, and observed swamp and marsh life.
Canoeing, backpacking, and skiing trips all serve a similar purpose. "We've recently acquired a dory, a twelve-footer," says Jack Donohue. "Some of the kids in the woodworking classes have restored it and we plan to use it in the spring. We're going to offer weekend activities that will include the use of this boat and overnight camping trips. You know, we have such an enthusiastic staff here at Nauset that I really don't know where this will all end. Everyone is having loads of fun."
Indeed, fun is but one of the many positive aspects of Project Adventure. Students are finding that gym class is no longer the same old thing but a new, refreshing, and dynamic approach to education. "Project Adventure has given my son a sense of involvement and accomplishment," a parent observed.
Steve Smith stands high in a tree and prepares himself for the thrilling ride to the ground. He reaches above his head and clips the screw gate crab stemming from his waist-bowline-tie-in to the pulley on the zip wire.
Steve double-checks his equipment, tugs on his lines, and signals to his instructor that all is ready. He receives the go-ahead, momentarily hesitates, then steps from the wooden platform. He holds the cables around him for all he's worth.
His heart is pounding as the air rushes past his ears. The initial falling gives him a magnified feeling of riding in an elevator, but as he rapidly approaches the ground, the glide becomes thrilling and he does not want it to stop. He levels off, hanging freely now, his eyes wide with delight and a full smile on his face. The pulley buzzes as he starts to climb again. He slows down and can hear his classmates cheer as they come into view. He feels that he has had an experience unlike any before.
Many times the exhilarating effect of completing a course will remain with the student long after the obstacles have been conquered. Positive attitudes, refreshing enthusiasm, and growing confidence have been the long-lasting results of Project Adventure. The current trend indicates that the experience may soon be had by more.