Challenge Courses Provide Valuable Experiences for Youth

high ropes elements at sunset

The challenge course industry has changed a lot over time. The field has moved away from a focus on intense physical challenge to center more on team building and communication skills, as well as now seeking to meet a wide range of physical abilities and challenge levels. Today, challenge courses and high ropes initiatives are a staple of many summer camp programs and workplace retreats. Aspects of challenge courses are even becoming a popular option for casual recreation through adventure parks and zip line tours. But with so many changes and different types of programs, you might be left wondering - what are the actual benefits of challenge course experiences for youth?

young boy using a rope to complete an element

One important outcome of challenge course programs is improved communication. By working together to achieve difficult tasks, groups are often able to highlight pre-existing communication issues. For younger participants in particular, challenge course initiatives ask them to practice active listening and collective decision-making in a new context. To be successful, they need to speak up about their own ideas and respectfully listen to the ideas of others.

girl on aerial bridge

In addition to communication, challenge course experiences can boost a sense of group cohesion. When groups work through difficulty as a team, they experience success, failure, and uncertainty as a collective. These shared experiences can help bond a group together and give them a shared sense of identity. While each individual can make important contributions to a task, it is when a group comes together that they are truly able to learn, grow, and achieve more than they could alone.  

a group completes a low element

One aspect of youth development that is gaining attention is resilience. Some studies that examine the impacts of challenge courses show that youth resilience increases as a result of programs that introduce group challenge. These boosts in resilience from challenge course experiences may even continue to increase with time after a program is over. While resilience grows on challenge courses through tasks that are not always relevant to daily life like crossing arial bridges or participating in a blind trust walk on the ground, resilience offers many benefits to youth in their everyday experiences of going to school, playing sports, or managing conflict with family and friends.

little girl on a zip line

All of these components - communication, group cohesion, and resilience - ultimately lead youth to increased performance in settings outside of challenge course programs. These benefits are present both in terms of group effectiveness and at the individual level. Of course, the nature and duration of challenge course programs vary and affect specific outcomes for participants, but overall we know that young people walk away with better communication skills, a stronger sense of group identity, and an improved ability to withstand and work through difficulty.

an empty high ropes course

It is almost certain that the challenge course industry will continue to change and develop new areas of focus moving forward, as it has over the past several decades. Hopefully, one thing that will remain constant is an emphasis on providing youth with experiences and skills that prepare them to face challenge, advocate for themselves and others, and listen openly in whatever situation they find themselves in. Those tools are valuable for young people not only when ascending climbing towers, but also when striving to improve academic performance, build honest relationships, or pursue a new career.