LARNet; The Cyber Journal of Applied Leisure and Recreation Research 
The Effect of Manipulating Aspects of Challenge Course Facilitation
on Participant Perceived Benefits
(June 2004)
Dr. Donna K. Lindenmeier
Dr. Terry D. Long
Dr. Terry P. Robertson

Dr. Donna K. Lindenmeier – Assistant Professor, Park and Recreation Management
and Mozingo Outdoor Education and Recreation Area Coordinator
Dr. Terry P. Robertson – Associate Professor, and Chair

Dr. Terry D. Long – Assistant Professor, Therapeutic Recreation Coordinator
Northwest Missouri State University
Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance Department
800 University Drive
Maryville, MO 64468

Benefits driven programming has become a core philosophical and practical element in the provision of recreation and leisure services.  Likewise, proponents of challenge and adventure-based programs have historically justified the use of challenge courses with the claim that a variety of intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits are created through participation.  The existence of these benefits has been supported through research; however, there is an absence of studies that consider how the challenge course experience actually elicits such benefits.  Aspects of facilitation that may impact whether or not such benefits occur include the surrounding environment, activity adaptation, front-loading, interpersonal interactions, and debriefing.  The purpose of this study was to  determine how the existence of certain benefits would be influenced by variation in the surrounding environment.   A total of 75 college students were asked to indicate what benefits their group had received following participation in either a low elements or a high elements challenge course program.  Results indicated that certain benefits persisted in both the high and low element environments (e.g., communication, trust), whereas others were absent from both environments (e.g., honesty, compassion).  Furthermore, certain benefits were significantly more common in either the low elements environment (e.g., leadership, patience) or the high elements environment (e.g., confidence, excitement).  These findings support the need for challenge course facilitators to systematically examine the benefits produced by their programs.  Challenge courses do not guarantee that a benefit will occur, but appropriate manipulation of various aspects of facilitation may enhance the likelihood of experiencing any particular benefit.

Professional recreation providers spend a great amount of time and energy developing and hosting experiences for participants.  Much of this effort is directed toward a purposeful provision of targeted benefits.  One particular recreation service area commonly associated with benefit production is a challenge course program.  Traditionally, the challenge course setting has been promoted and implemented as a tool for creating unique opportunities for personal growth and learning (Webb, 1999).

One hazard of working with challenge course programs is the tendency to rely solely on the “course” as the learning tool, while ignoring the importance of other elements of activity programming.  The current researchers recently experienced this possibility during the early operations of a new challenge course facility (see Long, Lindenmeier, & Robertson, 2003).  It was observed that facilitators showed exceptional abilities in the technical aspects of facilitation, but were inconsistent in how they interacted with participants before, during, and after the experience.  Furthermore, this inconsistency in facilitation appeared to create inconsistent outcomes among participants.  In response, the research team set out to understand how they might enhance the production of targeted benefits.

The first step to solving this dilemma was to determine what benefits might be inherent in a basic, but standardized, challenge course program.  To make that determination, the research team thought it critical to compare benefits generally assumed by professionals to manifest from challenge courses to those actually reported as present by participants (Long, Lindenmeier et al., 2003). Through this process, a core set of benefits associated with a particular challenge course experience was identified.

Once these benefits had been identified, the current authors began to explore possible ways of purposefully influencing their presence.  Focus was placed on five factors that can be manipulated by the facilitator as a means of inducing certain benefits.   These factors included environmental characteristics, front-loading, interpersonal interactions, processing, and activity manipulation (Long, Lindenmeier et al., 2003).

The next step, and the focus of this study, was to examine how manipulation of these variables might influence perceived benefits.   In particular, this study considered how variation in the activity environment would impact participants. The perceived benefits of participating in a low elements challenge course were compared to the perceived benefits of participating in a high elements challenge course.

Literature Review
The Benefits of Parks and Recreation Resource Guide identifies the importance of the recreation profession as being the value that programs add to the participants’ lives (O’Sullivan, 1996).  This value is created through the development of programs that have consequent benefits for the participant.  In support of this philosophy, The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) has promoted the idea of benefits-based programming and program promotion for the past several years.  Beginning with the “Benefits are Endless” campaign and later moving into “Discover the Benefits”, NRPA has focused substantial attention on what benefits occur in programs and how practitioners can maximize perceived benefits.  The focus on benefits and benefit-based programs is evident from the 2003 NRPA Congress session offerings.  Of the 34 benefits related sessions, 28 were education sessions, 4 were part of the Leisure Research Symposium, and 2 were on site institutes (NRPA, 2003; Stewart & Borrie, 2003).  Such prevalence would suggest that program benefits are an important aspect of the leisure services industry.  The ability to measure benefits of programs, design and alter programs to created certain benefits, and promote benefits to participants all have become required vocational skills for recreation professionals.

Adventure Programming and the Element of Challenge
To understand the true nature and purpose of a challenge course, it is important to consider the broader area of adventure programming.  Priest (1999c) has done an exceptional job of clarifying semantic issues pertaining to adventure programming.  He describes challenge as an aspect of adventure education.   Adventure education can focus on both intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, with change potentially occurring in groups or individuals who participate in adventurous activities.  To be truly adventurous, the activity should be freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and involve an uncertain outcome (Priest).  Through these elements, challenge courses provide an opportunity for adventure education.   If facilitators are able to provide such opportunity, the potential for enhancing self-concept (intrapersonal) and improving social interaction (interpersonal) will manifest.

Webb (1999) has proposed that such benefits manifest in developmental stages.  The first of these stages, referred to as recreation development, is geared toward benefits that would be expected to occur during any satisfying recreation experience.  Examples would include enjoyment, excitement, satisfaction, and sensation seeking.  The second stage is referred to as skill development  (e.g., problem-solving, communication, leadership, decision-making); and the third is character development (e.g., self-confidence, trust, and respect).  These two stages are congruent with Priest’s (1999c) intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of adventure education, which provides a logical connection between specific benefits of participation and the conceptual foundation of adventure programs.  Attention can now be turned to exploring what benefits might be expected to come from challenge course participation.
The benefits associated with challenge course participation are considerably varied; however, a review of the associated literature made it possible to create a limited set of core benefits that may be experienced by challenge course participants.  Table 1 presents an overview of this core set of benefits, as well as corresponding references.

Aspects of Challenge Course Facilitation
It is important to reiterate that challenge courses are a tool and not the crafter of benefits.  Priest (1999c) was deliberate in pointing out that there is potential for change rather than a guarantee of change when stating, “This is not to say that adventure education causes change, just that it highlights a need to change and supports any personal decisions to make change” (p. 112).  Thus, the numerous benefits listed in Table 1 should be viewed as dependent upon how the facilitator utilizes the challenge course.

One possible solution to sorting out of the laundry list of potential benefits is to consider how specific aspects of a challenge course program can direct participants toward specific benefits.   These aspects might include common elements of challenge course facilitation such as the surrounding environment, activity adaptation, front-loading, interpersonal interactions, and debriefing (Long, Lindenmeier et al., 2003).  Long, Ellis, Trunnell, Tatsugawa, and Freeman (2001) have found support for the ability of these factors to influence outcomes.  These authors considered the impact of different leadership models on the self-efficacy of college students participating in a story telling activity.  The COMPLEX model of leadership, which involves manipulating variables such as novelty, verbal feedback, and the nature of debriefing, significantly impacted the self-efficacy of storytellers.  The previously mentioned five aspects of challenge course facilitation (Long, Lindenmeier et al., 2003) are either directly or indirectly related to elements of the COMPLEX model; however, Long, Ellis et al. (2001) did not consider the influence of these aspects in isolation.  They did recommend that future studies attempt to break down how specific elements of the COMPLEX model contribute to the participant experience.

Tatsugawa (2002) followed this line of research when considering the effect of gender, environment (group vs. individual) and leadership approach (highly directive vs. COMPLEX model) on the self-affirmations of Upward Bound students participating in various challenge-based initiatives.  Findings indicated a significant three-way interaction between these variables.  Tatsugawa concluded that self-affirmation scores improved more when implementing group activities and the COMPLEX model of leadership.  The extent of these improvements varied across gender.

Despite these efforts to systematically understand the dynamics of leadership and facilitation, very little research has considered each of these aspects in isolation or within the realm of challenge courses.  The nature of ongoing challenge course programs makes this difficult, and as a result, most studies in this area evaluate existing programs as a whole rather than the manipulation of specific aspects of the programs.  For example, Glass (1999) has considered the effects of low-elements challenge course participation on group cohesion.  Findings indicated that participation in a one-day program did increase perceptions of group cohesion, but specific aspects of this experience were not isolated.

A Closer Look at Environment
Because environment is the primary focus of this research project, a closer look at how variations in environment is warranted.  It should be noted that environment refers to the basic nature of the client’s surroundings.  Environment, in this case, can be defined as an interaction between the presented challenge (e.g., balance beam) and the setting in which the challenge occurs (e.g., indoors vs. outdoors, high vs. low).

Environment has been considered in previous challenge course and adventure-based studies. For example, athletes who participated in regular workouts were compared to those who participated in a challenge course program as one of their workouts (Meyer, 2000).  Using the Group Environment Questionnaire and the Sport Orientation Questionnaire, Meyer determined that there was a significantly greater improvement in psychosocial factors important to sports success among those who participated in the challenge course program.  In another study, which was more geared toward the educational aspect of adventure environments, Eaton (1999) compared the use of an outdoor education program to a traditional classroom to determine differences in cognitive gains among students.  Results indicate that cognitive learning can be improved by changing the environment from the traditional.

High vs. low elements challenge courses.
One element of the challenge course experience that relates directly to environment is the differentiation between high and low elements.  In fact, previous authors have differentiated between the benefits associated with high elements and low elements challenge course programs (Darst & Armstrong, 1980; Glass & Meyers, 2001).  Benefits such as adventure, belonging, and risk-taking are associated with high elements challenge course programs, whereas communication, cooperation, decision-making, enjoyment, leadership, perseverance, problem solving, success, self-confidence and trust are commonly associated with low elements programs.

In conducting this review of literature, no studies were found that isolated how individual aspects of challenge course facilitation impact perceived benefits.  Also, no studies were found that directly compared the benefits of participating in a high elements environment to the benefits of participating in a low elements environment.  Based on the review of potential benefits of challenge course participation and the factors identified as influencing these benefits, this study will address the following research questions:
1.  What benefits are most commonly reported among high-elements challenge course participants?
2.  What benefits are most commonly reported among low-elements challenge course participants?
3.  Are there significant differences in the frequency of reported benefits across high element participants and low element participants?

This study involved the use of preexisting student groups who had made arrangements to participate in an ongoing challenge course program; therefore, random selection and assignment was impossible.  As a result, the sample was one of convenience.  In all, 75 college students participated in the study, with 30  (9 men, 21 women) taking part in a high elements challenge activity and 45 others (19 men, 21 women) completing a low elements challenge activity.  The average age of participants was 20.60 for the high elements group and 19.28 for the low elements group.  All participants were enrolled at a nearby university in the mid-western region of the United States.  Because the university funds and manages the challenge course facility, the 6,000 undergraduate students who attend the school make up a substantial portion of the overall population served by the challenge course.  Thus, the sample was consistent with a specific subsection of targeted clientele.

The instrument used in this study was designed by the researchers in an effort to determine if the challenge course sessions had been perceived as providing certain benefits to participants.  Immediately following the completion of a challenge course session, participants were presented with a list of 32 potential benefits that commonly are expected to develop during such experiences (see Table 1).  These benefits had been identified through an extensive review of literature pertaining to challenge course outcomes.

Four different versions of this list were used and distributed equally within each group.  Each version of the instrument listed all 32 of the benefits in a different randomly produced order.  This procedure was designed to limit any trends in response patterns created by word order.

Participants were asked to circle between five and ten of the listed words that reflected the benefits their group received from participating in the activity.  By encouraging multiple responses, the instrument was more likely to detect all experienced benefits, rather than only the most pervasive benefits.  Due to this forced-response approach, it was also possible that certain words may have been circled even though the perceived benefit was quite minimal.  To determine if this in fact was occurring, the strength of each circled benefit was then rated by participants on a rating scale ranging from 1 (slightly beneficial) to 5 (extremely beneficial).

Table 1 
Literature and Corresponding Outcomes
Darst & Armstrong (1980), Priest (1999c)
Conrad & Hedin (1982), Darst & Armstrong (1980)
Darst & Armstrong (1980)
Webb (1993)
Attarian (1990), Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg, Klenosky,O’Leary, & Templin (2000), Priest (1999b)
Webb (1999)
Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg et al., (2000), Webb (1999)
Attarian (1990), Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg et al., (2000)
Attarian (1990), Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg et al., (2000), Priest (1999b)
Conrad & Hedin (1982), Webb (1993)
Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg et al., (2000)
Darst & Armstrong (1980)
Webb (1999)
Darst & Armstrong (1980), Priest (1999a)
Priest (1999a)
Attarian (1990), Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg et al., (2000)
Darst & Armstrong (1980)
Long, Ellis, Trunnell, Tatsugawa, & Freeman (2001)
Priest (1999b)
Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg et al., (2000), Priest (1999b)
Conrad & Hedin (1982)
Conrad & Hedin (1982), Goldenberg et al., (2000)
Darst & Armstrong (1980)
Conrad & Hedin (1982), Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg et al.,(2000), Priest (1999b)
Webb (1993)
Attarian (1990), Darst & Armstrong (1980), Priest (1992), Priest & Carpenter (1993)
Darst & Armstrong (1980)
Attarian (1990), Finkenberg, Shows, & DiNucci (1994), Iso-Ahola,LaVerde, & Graefe (1988), McDonald & Howe (1989), Steffan, Cross, Stiehl, & Smith (1994), Webb (1996)
Darst & Armstrong (1980)
Attarian (1990), Darst & Armstrong (1980)
Attarian (1990), Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg et al., (2000), Priest (1996a), Priest (1996b), Priest (1998), Webb (1993)
Darst & Armstrong (1980), Goldenberg et al., (2000)

Two different types of challenge course environments were compared in this study.  The first was a low elements “team building” challenge course constructed of wooden poles.  The objective presented to participants was to move through the course without stepping off of the poles.  In addition, each team was required to carry one of its members through the course in a rescue basket.  The course consisted of seven sections, with processing stations between each of the sections.  The team member inside of the basket was changed at the completion of each station.  Briefing in this activity was limited to establishing activity goals and reviewing safety procedures.  Facilitators refrained from frontloading the activity with expectations for potential benefits, as well as processing beyond activity goals to discussion of potential benefits.  Immediately after completion of the course, the data collection instrument was administered to participants.  After collecting data, a final debriefing session was conducted for the purpose of connecting the challenge course experience to other situations or environments that might be experienced by participants.  The purpose of refraining from such in-depth processing until after data collection was to avoid leading participants toward certain responses on the instrument.

The second type of challenge course environment considered was a high elements climbing activity.  An Alpine Tower (Alpine Tower, 1997) was used for the climbing activity.  The 50 ft. hourglass-shaped tower is made up of interlocking wooden poles and allows climbers to choose from multiple climbing routes and various difficulty levels.  As with the low elements groups, briefing focused on safety rules and establishing activity goals.  Climbers were then taken through a sequence of climbing tasks, each being sequentially more difficult than the previous (i.e., practice lower, then climb to first platform, then climb main routes, then climb on hanging elements).  This sequence mirrored the increasing challenges presented during the ground-based activity (i.e., practice moving around on the logs, progress through the seven sequentially harder sections of the course).  As with the ground-based activity, facilitators refrained from discussing the benefits listed in the data collection instrument until after data collection was complete.

Data Analysis

The percentage of participants circling each of the listed benefits was calculated as a means of determining which benefits manifested from each of the two activity settings.  In addition, the average weight given to the strength of each benefit was also calculated.  This weight was considered an indication of the strength of each experienced benefit.  Finally, cross-tabulations were conducted between activity type (low elements vs. high elements) and if the benefit had been experienced by the group (yes vs. no).  Chi-square was calculated for each identified benefit (.05 alpha) to determine if the pattern of responses deviated from what would be expected to occur by chance.


The first part of the results section will focus on the proportion of participants who reported experiencing each of the presented benefits.  The overall percentage of participants reporting each benefit is presented, as well as the percentage of participants reporting each benefit within the two activity environments (high elements vs. low elements).  This portion of results is intended to illustrate the number of participants who experienced each benefit.

The second part of the presented results involves a cross-tabulation of activity environment (low vs. high) and response type (yes vs. no) for each benefit.  This aspect of the results examines the significance of variations in reported benefits across the two different types of challenge course environments.

Percentage of Participants Reporting Each Benefit
Among all 75 participants in this study, the most commonly reported benefits were trust (69%), communication (57%), problem solving (51%), fun (51%), and decision making (48%).  These numbers provide insight into benefits that were commonly experienced by the challenge course participants; however, considering the specific nature of the challenge environment provides a more informative picture.  For example, when considering data derived solely from the low elements environment, trust (80%) was the most frequently reported benefit, followed by communication (69%), cooperation (62%), problem solving (60%), and leadership (56%).  In contrast, taking risks (67%) was the most commonly reported benefit among those who participated in the high elements environment, with fun (63%), trust (53%), adventure (53%), and excitement (47%) following behind.  Table 2 lists the percentage of participants reporting each presented benefit within each activity type, as well as how each benefit ranked within the activity type.

Because the intensity of the reported benefits was expected to fluctuate, average ratings of intensity were calculated for each reported benefit.  As mentioned earlier, there was concern that the forced response approach to data collection may elicit responses with relatively low intensity levels.   Results indicated that the range of average intensity ratings for benefits with at least five positive responses was between 3.91 and 4.59.  This finding suggests that the intensity of reported benefits was strong, as well as similar across various benefits.

Comparing Low Elements Frequencies to High Elements Frequencies
Several cross-tabulations indicated that a particular benefit was more likely to manifest during the low elements activity than during the high elements activity.  Identified benefits that followed this pattern included trust (?2 = 8.02, p = .014), communication (?2 = 6.14, p = .013), cooperation (?2 = 17.58, p < .001), problem solving (?2 =3.92, p = .048), patience (?2 = 10.66, p = .001), and leadership (?2 = 13.53, p < .001).
 Other benefits also produced significant Chi-square results, but in the opposite direction.  These benefits included confidence (?2 = 7.10, p = .008), adventure (?2 = 12.08, p = .001), excitement (?2 = 16.43, p < .001), exploration (?2 = 7.96, p = .006), motivation (?2 = 7.00, p = .008), and risk taking (?2 = 17.46, p < .001).  Chi-square results for exploration produced one cell with an expected cell frequency of less than five and should be interpreted with caution.
 Benefits producing nonsignificant Chi-square results included success, socialization, self-efficacy, satisfaction, judgment, fun, enjoyment, encouragement, and decision making (p > .05 for all).  Nonsignificant results suggest that any tendency to produce these benefits, whether large or small, was similar across low elements and high elements activities.
Table 2
Percent of Participants Reporting Each Presented Benefit and Rank Order of Each Benefit for 
Ground-based Activity, Tower-based Activity, and Overall Sample
                                                                                   Ground-Based                                       Tower-Based                                                     Overall
Benefit Percent Rank Percent Rank Percent Rank
adventure * 15.55 14 53.33 3 30.66 11
belonging << 2.22 29 --- 30 1.33 31
cohesion<< 11.11 18 3.33 24 8.00 24
commitment<< 6.66 23 3.33 24 5.33 26
communication* 68.88 2 40.00 8 57.33 2
compassion<< 2.22 29 --- 30 1.33 31
confidence* 15.55 14 43.33 6 26.66 12
cooperation* 62.22 3 13.33 18 42.66 7
decision making 53.33 6 40.00 8 48.00 5
empathy<< 2.22 29 10.00 22 5.33 26
encouragement 22.22 13 13.33 18 18.66 17
enjoyment 28.88 11 43.33 6 34.66 9
excitement* 6.66 23 46.66 5 22.66 14
experimentation< 12.50 18 20.00 14 14.66 19
exploration*< 4.44 27 26.66 13 13.33 20
fun 42.22 7 63.33 2 50.66 3
honesty<< 8.88 21 --- 32 5.33 26
innovation<< 2.22 29 3.33 24 2.66 30
judgment 15.55 14 20.00 14 17.33 18
leadership* 55.55 5 13.33 18 38.66 8
motivation* 11.11 18 36.66 11 21.33 16
patience* 36.00 8 3.33 24 22.66 14
perseverance<< 6.66 23 10.00 22 8.00 24
problem solving* 60.00 4 36.66 11 50.66 3
respect<< 13.33 17 3.33 24 9.33 23
risk taking* 24.44 12 66.66 1 44.00 6
satisfaction< 6.66 23 20.00 14 12.00 21
self-esteem< 8.88 21 16.66 17 12.00 21
socialization 33.33 9 13.33 18 25.33 13
success 31.11 10 40.00 8 34.66 9
trust* 80.00 1 53.33 3 69.33 1
understanding<< 4.44 27 3.33 24 4.00 29

Note.   Pearson Chi-square may become unstable when expected cell counts are less than five.
<   indicates that one cell in the analysis had an expected cell count of less than five.
<< indicates that two cells in the analysis had an expected cell count of less than five.
 * p < .05 for Pearson Chi-square.

Finally, several of the presented benefits produced cross-tabulations with expected cell counts of less than 5 in both cells representing positive responses from participants.  This occurred due to a limited number of participants indicating that they had experienced these benefits.  In such cases, Chi-square was not considered a valid indicator of any potential differences across activity type.  These benefits included empathy, honesty, compassion, belonging, commitment, understanding, perseverance, and innovation.  For these factors, the overall absence of each benefit is the more relevant finding.

 The initial goal of the research team was to identify benefits that naturally manifest from participation in the described challenge course program.  This information was viewed as a critical element in future efforts to design and manipulate programs that produce targeted outcomes.  Rather than assume that stereotypical expectations such as improved communication and enhanced cooperative skills would occur, the team sought to systematically develop an approach to engineering specific benefits among participants.  Within the context of the existing challenge course program, the logical first step was to establish a base line of perceived benefits that occur during the high and low elements programs.  Once this information was gathered, future research efforts would be allowed to systematically manipulate the challenge environment in a manner that allows perceived benefits, as well as actual behavior change, to be linked to certain elements of the challenge course experience.  The following section discusses findings from the team’s efforts to establish this baseline, as well as the limitations and implications associated with these findings. 
Research questions for this study were oriented around identifying benefits associated with high and low elements challenge courses, as well as any difference between these two environments.  In the process of gathering this information, it was also possible to consider the overall frequency of each benefit regardless of environment.

As might be expected, trust, communication, and problem solving topped the list of benefits experienced in either environment.  This finding is consistent with common expectations of challenge course participation; however, the usefulness of this information is limited with respect to answering the proposed research questions.  More important was the consideration of the unique benefits of high and low elements challenge courses.   In fact, a tendency for certain benefits to appear in a particular setting did occur when considering these environments separately.

For the low elements environment, cooperation and problem solving remained high, whereas fun and adventure were among the most commonly perceived benefits for high elements participants.  Trust dominated both groups, ranking first in the low elements group and second in the high elements group.  These findings suggest that the challenge course environment was an important factor in determining what benefits would occur.

When comparing these initial findings to Webb’s (1999) developmental model of adventure programming benefits, an interesting pattern seemed to develop.  Recall that these benefits were organized into three developmental levels referred to as recreation development, skill development, and character development.  Benefits associated with recreation development (e.g., enjoyment, excitement, satisfaction) appear to correspond with the high elements experience, whereas benefits associated with skill development (problem-solving, communication, leadership, decision-making) are in line with the low elements activity (see Table 2).  The character development stage was more complicated.  Trust was heavily present in both environments, but other benefits associated with character development were limited or absent (compassion, honesty, respect, self-confidence).   This finding suggests that a limited number of benefits may be especially conducive to the challenge environment, but others require extensive facilitator intervention.   The procedures for this study involved eliminating any such intervening factors beyond the actual environment, which would explain the limited existence of certain character development benefits.

Findings also appear to be somewhat congruent with Darst and Armstrong’s (1980) categorization of benefits for high and low elements challenge courses.  Chi-square results indicated that adventure and risk taking were more likely to occur in the high elements environment than in the low elements environment.   In contrast, communication, cooperation, problem solving, trust, and leadership all produced significant Chi-square results favoring the low elements environment.

Although not specifically mentioned in Darst and Armstrong’s (1980) categorization, patience was more likely to be a perceived benefit of low elements than high elements.  Other benefits more likely to be perceived during high elements included confidence, excitement, motivation and exploration.   These additional significant findings lend well not only to Darst and Armstrong’s categories, but also to Webb’s (1999) distinction between recreation development and skill development

Limited or absent benefits.  Just as important as identifying commonly occurring benefits is the task of considering benefits that elicited limited or no response from participants.  Belonging, cohesion, commitment, compassion, empathy, honesty, innovation, perseverance, respect, and understanding all received less than a 10% response rate from participants.  This finding is critical when considering the limitations of the current challenge course program.  It also points out that certain benefits may be less of a natural occurrence in certain environments; therefore, purposeful manipulation of various aspects of the experience will be necessary to ensure that such benefits occur.  The challenge is to discover what alterations are most effective at producing commonly targeted benefits such as empathy and honesty.

Findings from this study do offer helpful insight into the nature of how challenge courses produce certain benefits for participants; however, certain precautions should be taken when interpreting this information.  First and foremost, readers should note that the implemented research design is limited in its generalizability.  The initial intention of this study was to develop a “base-line” of benefits associated with a particular challenge course setting.  As a result, the participants in this study were volunteers from an existing user-base, which involved no random selection.   Results do, however, provide support for some previous conceptual descriptions of challenge course benefits (Darst & Armstrong, 1980; Webb, 1999), as well as insight into the importance of considering how the challenge course environment should be congruent with targeted benefits.

In addition, it should be noted that benefits, other than those listed on the data collection instrument, might occur during challenge course experiences.  The provided list was intended to summarize the common expectations of challenge course professionals, and served as a means of verifying these expectations.
Finally, readers should be aware that the current study focused on perceived benefits, and did not attempt to verify the existence of any of the reported benefits.  This is a significant limitation due to the role that generalization is assumed to play in adventure therapy or experiential learning.  Samdahl and Wolfe (2003) have pointed out the caution that should be taken when assuming that behavioral change manifests from challenge course participation.  This concern is especially relevant for short-duration programs such as those used n this study.  Samdahl and Wolfe also point out that it is possible that negative experiences or behaviors could develop from challenge course participation, which was also an outcome not considered in this study.   Are people actually better problem solvers or more trusting of one another after spending a day on the challenge course?  Can bolstered self-esteem due to a challenge course experience manifest as self-centered behavior? Do benefits generalize to the work or social environment?  These are questions beyond the limits of this study, but relevant to the issues being addressed.

Implications for practice.  Even with the design limitations of this study, several implications for practice are important to note.  First off, environmental factors (the interaction between task and surroundings) are a critical determinant of the benefits that participants experience.  Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the facilitator to acknowledge these variables and use them in an advantageous way.  To do this, desirable benefits must be considered well in advance of program implementation.

In addition, challenge course activities similar to those described in this study may be conducive to the production of the specific benefits, or types of benefits, experienced by the current sample.  Due to the unique aspects of each challenge course program, professionals must conduct evaluations to ensure that targeted benefits are being provided.

Implications for research.  This research project originated with a very applied purpose.  The agenda was designed to improve a specific challenge course program.  As the project progressed, it was apparent that a broader effort to answer questions pertaining to environmental influences was need.  Furthermore, other aspects of implementing a challenge course program also need to be considered (e.g., frontloading, activity adaptation, interpersonal interactions, and processing approaches).  The following suggestions are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of possible research avenues.

The primary implication for future research would be the need to further isolate factors that contribute to the production of the reported benefits.  There are three important elements to this task.  The first is to focus in on specific benefits and develop more sensitive indicators of each.  This should address perceived benefits, as well as measures of actual behavior change.  The second task is to begin a systematic manipulation of variables believed to be critical parts of the challenge course experience.  This manipulation might occur within the context of any of the five aspects of facilitation mentioned earlier (Long, Lindenmeier et al., 2003).  The third is to organize these specific elements into theoretically driven models that can be used to facilitate experiences in a benefits-driven manner.  In addition, existing approaches, such as the COMPLEX model (Ellis, Morris, & Trunnell, 1995), could be further examined and adapted to fit the challenge course environment.

Based on the results of this study, it appears that certain environments inherently foster certain benefits, whereas other environments may require significant amounts of facilitation.  The level and nature of this facilitation is dependent upon the desired benefit.  Based on this finding, it is recommended that challenge course managers and facilitators consider, in detail, how their daily routines and approaches can be enhanced to best serve clients.  Consistency in programs is desirable, but it should not be confused with complacency.  Look for areas that could be improved, experiment with different approaches, and make the necessary change in protocol.  This approach, in combination with integrating current research into the process, will allow programs to remain innovative and effective in the realm of providing lasting benefits to participants.
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