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Age Appropriateness on the Challenge Course

I was recently asked by a client about the age limit on our challenge course. As soon as that question had been asked, I realized I no longer knew the answer. How would I respond to this? To give you a little context, the question was specifically about a static high course where the staff-to-participant ration for our high course was 1 to 6 and they were asking in regards to their 11-year-old son’s birthday party. My first thought was to ask my boss and mentor, Scott Andrews. It seems that as usually, he knew exactly what to do. He turned it right back on me and asked what age I thought would be appropriate for a safe and effective program on a challenge course.

When I had just been a facilitator for Northwest Teambuilding, I had always been under the impression that the age limit was 12. I can’t tell you where I got that impression, but I know it was there. However, at some point between my black and white certainty as a facilitator and my not knowing as the Program Director for the course, I realized a grayness had slipped in regarding age appropriateness on the challenge course.

Black and White to Shades of Gray

Last year, we began an open enrollment program on our course called Discovery Challenge. In that program, we took participants as young as 9. To understand why kids that young were on the course, you have to consider the context. In an open enrollment program, 9-year-olds are coming with their parents. Then dynamic and support when a parent is going through the challenge course with their 9-year-old is completely different than a group of 9-year-old boys and girls. Parents are paying close attention both to the safety instructions and to their kids. As a facilitator, I am able to monitor this interaction, and often never have to step in, because the parent’s motives for making sure their child is safe is as high if not higher than my own.

Another aspect of the open enrollment program is that those who sign up are choosing this experience as individuals or families rather than being brought along as part of a larger peer group. This offers a very different dynamic. Although family pressure can replace peer pressure when it comes to choice on the course, a desire to instill strong values and for their children’s safety overrides that. Often, the only thing it takes to change a parent’s attitude from pushing their child to simple allowing is reminding them of what values are instilled by pushing a child to go further rather than honoring their decision to do what is right for them. Peer groups don’t have that same investment.

And to add to my own confusion, I have seen younger participants on Discovery Challenge who’s maturity and physical awareness were better than some of the teens I’ve worked with. What did that say about age appropriateness on the challenge course?

Defining the Boundary

But none of that answered my question. What was the age limit, and how should I respond to this client’s question? Being a high school teacher, I saw the world in grades rather than ages, so I began there. Immediately, the elementary/middle school cutoff seemed appropriate. With elementary schoolers, I would worry about the maturity of participants to stay focused on and consciousness of safety. Not not mention the physical challenges of operating the hardware. (An auto-locking steel carabiner is difficult enough to operate in an adult’s hand, many elementary schoolers can’t open one with one hand.)

Elementary school students would also have a difficult time processing their emotions and experiences on the high course. Being able to process is an essential part of the learning process involved in the challenge course. Without the skills to process, participant experiences could range from mildly successful to complete bailout.

So where did that leave my client’s 11-year-old son? Right on the border of 5th and 6th grade. And this is where I was stuck. When I thought about the kind of group that an 11-year-old birthday party, I realized the experience could be highly unsuccessful if everyone on the course were 11- and 12-year-old boys. Then again, if the right mix of parents, boys and girls, were all there, the group could have a phenomenal experience.

Talking to the Client

So, it was time to bring my musing back to my mentor for a little advice. Scott reminded me that the challenge course was an educational tool. So instead of hard-and-fast rules, he chose to reframe the experience for parents asking about the age limit. Instead, he explained how the challenge course was educational: teaching participants about themselves and their fellow participants. From there, it is a question of whether the group that is coming out will have the maturity to process those learnings.

Our brains are going through a lot of change from birth to 12-years-old. Sean Brotherson’s article, “Understanding Brain Development in Young Children” identifies the prime time for auditory, visual, physical, motor, emotional, and social development as birth to 12 years of age. These aspects of our maturity are essential both for our safety as well as our ability to process our experiences from the high course.

There is no clear cut answer to the question of age appropriateness on the challenge course. Making a decision about whether the course is a learning experience that will fit the client requires a conversation that examines more closely who the group is and what their goals are. Just like any client  that comes to your course, you must assess their group, identify their needs, and offer a program that will fit their goals.

What are your thoughts on age appropriateness on the challenge course? How do you help a group determine if the challenge course is the right experience for them?

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