Putting adventure in gym class


This isn't your parents' gym class: Alexis Skelos, 35 feet above the ground, slowly edges across a cable suspended between two telephone poles.

The 15-year-old's knees buckle, and the cable shakes as she clutches one of a series of ropes hanging six feet apart from a wire suspended above her.

"Lean left, lean left," yells teacher Mike Davey.

Alexis' classmates watch nervously as she creeps across the 25-foot-long wire. Back on the ground, she smiles, then exhales.

"It's scary, but I finished," she said. "It feels great."

For the students at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., and a growing number of schools elsewhere, this is just another day of physical education class. It's no longer 45 minutes of dodge ball and basketball. No longer counting off by twos, no longer the fat kid getting picked last.

Emphasis on risk-taking

"I predict that in the next two years if you don't have some piece of this program in the high school, you are missing the boat," said Peggy Tuttle, a physical education teacher at Sachem High School on Long Island, N.Y. , which has one of the largest and longest-running adventure programs in the area.

This is the new physical education, with an emphasis on teamwork and risk-taking taught in coed classes of about 15 students.

"We have people who are nerds or troublemakers, people who are into sports," said Erin Duggan, 15, a South Side student. "All different sorts of kids come together."

Adventure classes, as they are known, begin with games designed to get the students to know each other better. They then move on to strategy activities, like one in which each student gets a block of wood to place on the ground and everyone in the class, working together, must cross the gym, stepping only on the blocks.

The shift can be a struggle for some teachers who were accustomed to a more regimented class.

"You have to sit back and allow the kids to determine how to accomplish a task," said Mike Tully, athletic director for the Brentwood, N.Y., schools, which began adventure classes four years ago.

Building trust

The students move on to specially designed equipment in the gym, like a tightrope a few feet off the ground or a cargo net hanging from the ceiling, and use each other as spotters to give advice and support.

The "high elements," as they are called, usually come at the end of the curriculum and are dozens of feet off the ground between telephone poles. The students are connected to safety ropes in case they fall, but they say it is scary nonetheless.

"We don't just go into the high elements; we build up to them," Tully said. "They need to trust each other, to trust themselves."

Adventure classes, which often begin with teamwork games at the elementary-school level, will never replace traditional physical education, even their staunchest supporters say. The new activities don't provide the cardiovascular exercise that students need to be fit. Sometimes adventure classes are offered as electives, and sometimes the activities are integrated into traditional physical education classes.

The other drawback is that adventure classes are expensive.

Tully said Brentwood had spent about $12,000 over the past two years adding a high-wire adventure course. Another district recently spent $25,000 on adventure activities.

But each year districts are buying equipment and providing teacher training, as word of mouth in the educational community spreads reports of positive results. They range from increased attendance to turning around kids with drug problems.

The curriculum and equipment that most schools use were developed by Project Adventure, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that has been leading the evolution of gym class since 1971. Originally, an official there said, the intention was to replicate the Outward Bound movement, which took urban youths into natural settings to deal with their challenges. Project Adventure's idea was to bring some of the elements of nature into schools.


Nancy Terry, director of research and development for Project Adventure, estimates that the organization gets a few hundred programs started each year. That doesn't include the numerous companies that mimic Project Adventure's curriculum and install similar equipment.

Tuttle said that, like many teachers, she was "invigorated" by teaching adventure education when it began at Sachem High eight years ago. "If the girls came in and gave me a face because they were doing aerobics one more time, I would have screamed," she said. "Now this is really ... their favorite class" for many of them.

Tuttle said she likes the teamwork activities best and relishes the moment when she gives students a problem to solve and stands back to watch their minds work.

Posing challenge

One recent afternoon, Tuttle took what she described as her "toughest" class out to a 12-foot-high wall built between two trees on the school's campus. The wall was flat on one side; on the other, it had a 3-foot-wide platform about five feet from the top.

She explained their challenge: Get everyone in the class over the wall. Only two students can be on the platform at a time, and once someone is over the wall, that person can't help.

"You're crazy," said one girl with a sharp attitude.

"What about the last person?" said another student.

"What about me?" said another. "I'm a midget."

Tuttle shrugged. "You figure it out," she said.

And they did. First they planned; then they started boosting the first student up the wall. He helped the next one up. The self-described midget made it too and smiled widely from the platform. The final student ran, jumped, and the two on the platform grabbed her hands and pulled her up and over.

They all applauded.

Members of the class recalled how at the beginning of the year none of them knew each other and they all argued when presented with challenges. They marveled at how efficiently they got over the wall. Tuttle beamed.

"That was unbelievable," said Melissa Cantanese, a senior who said she used to be bored with traditional physical education classes. "It'll help me when I leave here and I have to work with other people at a job."

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