Physical Education isn’t just kickball, basketball and badminton anymore. These days, students at Middlebrook also have a climbing unit called Project Adventure. Working with ropes, climbing apparatus and high platforms, they challenge themselves, overcome fears, work together and become more self-confident. For the unit, Wilton’s middle schoolers climb inside the gym as well as on outdoor courses among the trees.

Middlebrook has been teaching Project Adventure since 1994, and was one of the first schools in Connecticut to implement it. The program has been an amazing success, one the kids love to take part in and as something the teachers say has a huge impact.

People say that, ‘I’m really afraid of heights.’ Everybody’s afraid of heights when they first start. But if they can overcome that fear, and they do this, you see the kids grow right in front of you. They’re like, ‘I did that!’ And the next time they get a tough challenge, they’re more likely to step up and say, ‘You know what, I did that in the past,’” says Dr. Jim Longcoy, the phys. ed. instructional leader.

Longcoy, who got his doctorate at Columbia and wrote his dissertation on the program, said there are two things about the Middlebrook program that sets it apart from any other adventure education program.

“We really listened about what the students had to say about the elements and the activities, and that actually shaped the way we designed our course. We incorporated a lot of different high elements and activities, based upon their experiences. We allowed the students to help shape this curriculum,” he said.

In the more than 20 years that Wilton has had the program, the teachers have seen a change in how familiar their students are with the experience. The sport of climbing and the number of ropes courses has increased in popularity.

“I remember when this started, it was so novel. The kids’ eyes were so big, they’d never seen something like this. But now, I would say greater than 50% of the 6th graders coming in have had climbing already–either at the Wilton Y, or via their summer camp, or when their parents went shopping at the furniture store,” Longcoy says, referring to a well-known ropes course inside a New Haven store. “It’s everywhere.”

Still, the kids get even more opportunity to climb at school, and they certainly get a lot out of it.

“If you include the team building stuff, it’s about eight or nine weeks. We do low elements, we do trust building exercises, we do team building stuff, group cooperative initiatives and things like that. The rope climbing part of it is six weeks, but it’s probably eight weeks total,” Longcoy explains.

And for students, at a critical point in their lives, it’s a big self-esteem builder, he says.

“You’re taking a positive risk, and pushing yourself outside of your little bubble. You get athletes that they’re just good and they know it. They’re like, “Give me the ball, I’ll get it done. Give it to me, give it to me.” But here, you have to depend on somebody else, and now they’re way outside their comfort zone, and they’re like, ‘Whoa this is new to me.’

The until runs six weeks, and they have multiple opportunities to experience several different climbing apparatus–and a lot of them have fun sounding names. In addition to a rope ladder and a simple hanging rope, there are things called “the Centipede,” the “Giant Slab,” the “Flying Squirrel,” and “the Panther Jump.” For that last one, students climb a ladder, scale a rock climbing wall, step over to a small one-person wooden platform about 30 ft. up, and jump out to try and catch a trapeze bar. [If you want to get an idea of just how intense it is, watch our video, below.] 

Those are just the inside elements; outside, there is the rock wall climbing tower, another outside Panther Jump, a “Burma Bridge” (single wire to walk on with two wires to hold on to), a “Criss-Cross,” and a “Multi-Vine.”

“The Multi-Vine is difficult too,” Longcoy describes. “You climb up the tree, and then there’s these vertical hanging ropes that you go from one to the other, kind of like a Tarzan thing. What is really difficult is, you can’t reach the first one. And the other kids will be down there, and they’ll be watching their classmates and everything, but they don’t get it. Once again, that’s this experiential thing. They don’t get it until they get up there, and then they all say the same thing–’I can’t reach the first rope.’ I can’t either, it’s beyond my reach.”

So how do they do it?

“Well if you tighten up their belay, they can actually hang on their belay. If you want them to take the challenge, if you ask them, ‘Do you want the challenge?’ you loosen up their belay, then they have to tightrope walk and try to lunge and get it. But if you tighten it up, then they just walk across, and they get it. Either way,” Longcoy says.

There is one element on which the kids belay one another, called a “prusik” rope, named for the prusik knot that’s used as the students climb. But for every other element an adult has to belay. And with so many kids in each class, and just 2-3 teachers each time, the unit depends on having parent volunteers–and right now, there’s a need for more parents to pitch in and help.

Parents first have to go through training to learn how to belay; that’s usually done in a couple of hours one day at an indoor climbing facility in Fairfield. Then, after an orientation with the parent coordinators and P.E. teachers, they learn the course at Middlebrook. Parents will belay other parents to see how challenging the different courses, and then they can sign up for times based on their schedule.

“You’re encouraging kids to go farther than they went last time,” says Joanna Lepore, a parent who volunteers to belay. “It’s great to watch and see their confidence build.”

If you have a child at Middlebrook (or will next year) and would like to participate in this program please email Renee Rafferty or Margo Silvian.