NORTH BROOKFIELD – Students in phys ed classes here are reaching new heights – literally.
The high elements challenge course built this summer between the soccer and baseball fields adds a new dimension to gym classes for grades 5 through 12.
Evident last week, the course and accompanying curriculum is a hands-on lesson in teamwork, trust and confidence building.
On Wednesday morning dark gray clouds scudded overhead as Nate Norrie stood nearly motionless atop the 40-foot pole he’d just climbed.
A stiff breeze buffeted the Pamper Pole buried seven feet in the ground, drawing comment from the 8th grader.
“It’s shaking,” he said, without a trace of apprehension.
For Nate, it was all about confidence in himself and Kevin McNeill, phys ed instructor, holding the belay line attached to his full-body harness.
“Give us a count of three, then leap off and see if you can swat the red bag on your way down. We’ve got you on this end,” the teacher said.
Among a class of 27, Nate was the first of several that morning to make the climb and fly from the lofty perch, while three or four students worked the belay line behind their teacher.
Earlier in the day, phys ed teacher Dan Reardon gave fifth graders, embraced by a similar harness, a chance to walk the Cat Walk, a horizontal pole some 30 feet off the ground.
Both Mr. McNeill and Mr. Reardon said the new addition to the school district’s physical education program would not only be a physical fitness asset but also a benefit in the classroom and beyond.
The instructors said the $95,000 outdoor course, as well as an indoor course set up in the gym for winter use, greatly enhances the school’s physical education program.
“Students from grades 5 through 12 are encouraged to participate, but no one is ever forced beyond their comfort level. It’s all about communication, building confidence and self-esteem, problem-solving, physical awareness and getting beyond perceived limitations,” Mr. McNeill said.
The Springfield College graduate said construction of the challenge course began in August and school staff members were trained on the use of all course elements before the start of school.
After her climb and jump from atop the Pamper Pole, a grinning Alicia Ayala said of her experience, “It was terrifying.”
Classmate Natt Dutter commented on the pole shake in the wind, which didn’t help with the transition from the hand and footholds to standing atop the pole.
Jay Mooney, project director and grant writer for the school district, said some in the community may well have questioned how one of the smallest school districts in the state could afford such an expense.
“This and other additions to our physical education curriculum were the result of a $521,000 PEP grant over a three-year period with a $167,000 local match,” he said.
He said four staff members and an instructor from Valley View School in North Brookfield were trained on use of the course.
Mr. Mooney said the program embraces the “challenge by choice” philosophy.
“Kids are only challenging themselves to what they feel comfortable doing. For some kids it might mean just climbing halfway up the ladder and climbing back down,” he said.
He added, “Others climb the pole and walk the Cat Walk pole forward and backward without hesitation.
“It’s individualized. Some kids are understandably nervous to begin with, but after a week or two their smiles are a testament to their accomplishments.”
Mr. Mooney said beyond the physical exertion of the challenge course, trust and team-building are byproducts.
“When you’re up on any of the high elements, 40 or 50 feet off the ground, you have to have trust in your belay team.”
He added, “Walking the Cat Walk or standing atop the Pamper Pole, you’re not thinking, ‘Boy, I’m really, really safe,’ but ‘Boy, I really hope I don’t fall.’ ”
With a nod to the elementary school playground, he said the challenge course is safer based on insurance industry statistics.
Superintendent Marilyn Tencza said the challenge course is a significant addition to the school district.
For students and staff alike, the course teaches each group to work together and to challenge their own ideas of what they think they can accomplish.
“I have seen students who have reached the top of the course with help and encouragement from their friends. I have heard students supporting their classmates in their efforts to conquer a certain challenge,” she said.
Mr. Mooney said eventually he hopes the challenge course could be rented out to other schools as well as private businesses or corporations.
“We’re not looking to make any money, but over time we’d like to be able to cover our costs of maintaining the course,” he said.
Charlie Williams, director of WingSpeed Adventures, said the 15-year-old company has built challenge courses and climbing walls throughout the Northeast.
Mr. Williams said WingSpeed is accredited through the Association of Challenge Course Technology and the company not only builds the structure but provides a full curriculum and training of the teachers that will be using the course.
“It will be an ongoing process developing their program for K-12 as well as for use by outside groups,” he said.
To avoid any other than authorized use, Mr. McNeill said the challenge course is buttoned up and the harnesses and ladders are stowed at the end of each school day.
“Everything else is out of reach. No one in their right mind would attempt using this equipment without a harness,” he said.
The course is posted as well with a No Trespassing sign.