True Confessions: I’m an experiential educator, and I don’t wanna go to the ropes course

I’ll get excited over price cuts on pool noodles, insist on debriefing experiences on personal trips, tell you about the roses, buds, and thorns of my day. I own several visors; my sunglasses perpetually dangle from my neck by a sweat-stained pair of Croakies. I put on my loudly patterned Patagonia-brand baggy shorts one leg at a time, just like everybody else. But goddammit, don’t make me go to the high ropes course.

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I’m an experiential educator, and I hate ropes courses.

There. I said it.

I’ll get excited over price cuts on pool noodles, insist on debriefing experiences on personal trips, tell you about the roses, buds, and thorns of my day. I own several visors; my sunglasses perpetually dangle from my neck by a sweat-stained pair of Croakies. I put on my loudly patterned Patagonia-brand baggy shorts one leg at a time, just like everybody else.

But goddammit, don’t make me go to the high ropes course.

The pasty white stripe left on my wrist by my waterproof sports watch lasts well into the fall—longer, even, than the z-shaped Chaco tan on my feet. I refer to the obstacles on my favorite mountain bike trail as “elements,” and I can’t wait to ask you about your office’s annual team-building day. What icebreakers did you guys do? Oh, man, I love that one. How did it work with adults?

Bring me to the ropes course, though, and I might just fall apart.

Sometimes, I just want to snuggle up on the couch and talk about whether this lesson plan fits Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, and I swear if you don’t knock that off I will literally make us do actual trust falls.

I’ll play noodle games with a group of thirty strangers and ask leading questions until the group realizes the effect this has had on individual self-efficacy, but I’m telling you, I will not do this.

I will not put on this stupid helmet and this sketchy harness made of webbing. I will not climb up that ladder, I will not clip the carabiner to the front of my body and line my hands up with yours and look you in the eyes as we edge farther and farther apart and finally—

WHOOSH we’re in freefall until the belayer catches me and oh man I was so scared but I totally trust you after all that prolonged eye contact and anyway that’s just high ropes, man, let’s go eat lunch.

I won’t do it, you guys. I won’t climb thirty feet up and stand next to you and then we both jump at the same time and try to grab that trapeze bar. There’s just no way we could grab it, even if I could physically throw myself off the top of this glorified telephone pole, which, to be clear, my brain will not allow my body to do.

There’s a net, huh? Oh, really, you’ve got me on belay? Gee, those telephone poles are sunk into concrete eight feet underground? Why am I sweating and gagging so much, you ask?

You know what, don’t worry about it. I’m tapping out. I know my experiential rights: this shit is challenge by choice, and I’ll be right here, safely on the ground, while you guys are using teamwork and trust and whatnot to climb that Jacob’s Ladder. You’re not fooling me; I know the trick to that, I just don’t wanna. It’s not because I’m scared.

Okay, it’s because I’m scared.

I’ll tie myself into a rope with you and climb mountains and ski at breakneck speed—watch me in case I get caught in an avalanche and you only have fifteen minutes to dig me out before I asphyxiate so you better know where I am—and pilot a rubber boat down a series of whitewater rapids into which I might very well fall, in which case you’ll have to throw that bag of rope at me and haul my ass to shore, but there’s a point to all those activities. See? I don’t have trust issues. With all that, I’m going somewhere. There’s a view.

Not at the ropes course, my friends. The only view I want there is one of all those ropes and poles and newly self-confident smiles in my rearview mirror, not the pitying looks of my co-instructors—or, god forbid, my students—as I melt into a puddle of terror-tears at the prospect of a modified zipline.

It feels good to say this: I am an experiential educator—a good one, even—and I’d rather spend the day in a windowless classroom than at a challenge course. We all draw the line somewhere.

Come find me when you guys are ready to debrief.

Best team-building: Do you guys still like each other after dragging around an ammo can of each other’s literal actual shit for five days?

2 thoughts on “True Confessions: I’m an experiential educator, and I don’t wanna go to the ropes course

  1. I don’t know where to put this, but just wanted to say: Awesome article in Outdoor Research. Loved your take on the benefits of packing heavy (and a time and a place for packing light). I’m also a fan of both, with packs ranging from UL 2lb packs to my much loved Tatonka Lastenkraxe for carrying 70+ lbs of gear for more creature comforts on the trail.

    Great writeup.

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