Adventure Activities: High Constructed Elements

High Constructed Elements are manufactured activities involving participation at height while connected to a harness and belay system. Activities generally involve climbing, traversing or balancing on wood, cable, and other surfaces to achieve a pre-determined objective. Often, an individual participates in the activity while being supported by peers, family members or the practitioner. These activities can also be structured to require more cooperative interactions. For example, some activities involve client pairs working together to achieve the goal. High constructed elements aim to intentionally stimulate emotional, behavioral, cognitive and physiological responses that can be used therapeutically to support client movement toward treatment goals. Dynamics often encountered include positive risk, trust, coping with challenges, emotional management and problem solving. High constructed elements are likely to involve increased perceived emotional and physical risk on the part of the participant. Facilitation of high constructed elements requires more advanced technical skills such as rope handling, safety techniques, use of harnesses, knots and rescue (Garvey & Gass, 1997; Priest & Gass, 1997). Some examples include High Ropes, Zip Line, Climbing Wall, Pamper Pole, Rappel Tower, and Dangle Duo (Rohnke, 1999; ACCT).

Reasons for Using High Constructed Elements
There are a variety of reasons a practitioner may decide to use these activities as a therapeutic intervention. The paragraphs below cannot encompass all possible outcomes, but instead provide a list of commonly sought outcomes.
Practitioners may not have as much flexibility with altering activities as with initiatives, but there is still a great deal of choice in the facilitation strategy used with an activity to reach treatment outcomes. For example, a practitioner, client, or family member may be able to operate a belay system with appropriate training to work on trust issues (Gass, 1991, 1993; Hovelynck, 1998; Priest & Gass, 1997; Schoel & Maizell, 2002). A climbing wall activity can be structured to ask clients to set and work toward a self-identified goal rather than framed with a goal to reach the top (Gass, 1999). This can help clients develop skills in setting realistic and achievable goals. It is important that adventure activities used in a treatment context are used with therapeutic intent and facilitated accordingly.

Relationship Building and Cohesion
The increased perceived physical and emotional risk involved in high constructed elements can encourage clients to express caring and provide support for one another in a tangible manner that assists in the development of group cohesion. Clients may develop empathy for one another as they have a similar and shared experience. Cooperative and supportive dynamics of the process assist in building relationships. These dynamics can also support the development of therapeutic alliance or assist in reinforcing appropriate relational roles. For example, an adolescent client who is mistrustful of adult authority figures has the opportunity to rely on an adult to maintain their safety with a positive outcome (Braverman, Brenner, Fretz & Desmond, 1993; Denti & Leiderbach-Vega, 1992; Hart & Silka, 1994; Schreiber, 2005; Stopha, 1994).

Coping Skills and Emotional Management
High constructed elements can trigger a diverse range of emotions in clients. Clients may experience excitement, fear, anxiety, pride, elation, euphoria, frustration or many other feelings during the course of activities. A commonly sought outcome of high constructed elements is to assist clients in developing and implementing various coping skills and emotional management strategies. The process involved in asking clients to set boundaries for themselves about what level of participation is appropriate for them and to stay emotionally connected to the activity regardless of the level of physical participation supports these outcomes. Also, facilitation can assist client in developing self-expression and communication skills that support emotional management and development of coping skills. (Gass, 1993; Hart & Silka, 1994; Levine, 1994; Schreiber, 2005; Stopha, 1994). This outcome can be enhanced by sequencing activities to allow clients to develop coping skills progressively (Bisson, 1999; Hart & Silka, 1994; Itin, 2003; Lung, Stauffer & Alvarez, 2008; Schoel & Maizell, 2002). For example, participating in a climbing wall prior to engaging in high ropes may allow clients to identify strategies and comfort with the equipment at lower heights before progressing to the higher elements. Further, client skills and engagement can allow for a safety assessment as to whether the high elements are even appropriate for them.

Goal Setting and Problem Solving
Often, high constructed elements involve a level of problem solving. On a climbing wall, one must decide on a route. On a high ropes course, one must figure out how to get across elements. Clients approach these activities with their own set of expectations and desired goals. Facilitation of these activities can support clients in developing a process for setting achievable goals and working through the steps to reach them. This may involve some tolerance for frustration, management of impulsivity, revision of goals, and self-evaluation. Clients are able to see their progress in a concrete manner. Paired with meaningful facilitation, clients can transfer this process to other life areas (Braverman, Brenner, Fretz & Desmond, 1993; Hart & Silka, 1994; Levine, 1994; Schreiber, 2005; Stopha, 1994).

As clients develop skills in setting and achieving goals, as described above, there is also an opportunity to develop more confidence in their abilities to be successful. For a client who lacks self-confidence, the progress made in participating in high constructed elements can be used to reinforce gains made in treatment and challenge their pre-conceived negative feelings about their abilities. These empowering outcomes can relate not only to their ability to participate in an activity, but also in their ability to support others and be responsible or trustworthy. Additionally, clients may develop an improved belief in their ability to be successful. This is referred to as self-efficacy (Braverman, Brenner, Fretz & Desmoond, 1993; Brown, 1999; Rohnke, 1999; Levine, 1994; Newes & Bandoroff, 2004; Schreiber, 2005; Stopha, 1994).

Trust and Responsibility
High constructed elements can impact the development of trust in many ways. One aspect is simply to reinforce a client's ability to trust others. High constructed elements rely on systems of safety to prevent injury in a very concrete manner. In order to participate, clients must exercise some level of trust that they will be cared for. Developing trust can be a critical component to relationship building. Activities may be structured to reinforce trust in adults and authority figures or to reinforce trust with peer groups, either through participants being responsible for safety directly, as in belaying, or indirectly, as in providing encouragement and support.

Another aspect of developing trust is an opportunity to develop skills in behaving in a trustworthy manner and developing trust from others. Clients may be asked to be responsible for the safety and support of others, which supports a client in having positive feelings about their ability to be responsible (Denti & Leiderbach-Vega, 1992; Newes & Bandoroff, 2004; Schreiber, 2005.)

Managing personal risk responsibly is another common reason for using high constructed elements. Practitioners can assist clients in developing an ability to identify when risk taking is appropriate or to differentiate a negative from a positive risk.

Practitioner Guidelines for Using High Constructed Elements
High constructed elements require elements of facilitation that deserve particular mention. These activities can trigger strong emotional responses from clients. Practitioners must remain cognizant of this and plan to use these activities in a manner that reflects careful assessment of clients and preparedness to respond to client reactions effectively. The following practitioner guidelines highlight special considerations for using high constructed elements:

  • Adhere to industry standards in constructing, maintaining, and using high constructed elements. Maintain appropriate industry levels of training and continuing education (ACCT). 
  • Be competent in all required technical and facilitation skills for high constructed elements being utilized. Be able to train clients appropriately in the technical skills required of them in order to participate (Priest & Gass,1997; Priest, 1999). 
  • Assess treatment environment, client functioning, safety, level of risk and therapeutic intent carefully to ensure appropriateness of using the high constructed elements (Lung, Stauffer & Alvarez, 2008; Schoel & Maizell, 2002). 
  • Sequence high constructed elements in a manner that allows clients to progress toward identified treatment goals. 
  • Do not expose clients to stress that is traumatizing, debilitating, or unmanageable. Attend to the perceived physical and emotional risks experienced by clients in high constructed elements. This includes maintaining a safe treatment environment and assessing the social implications of a client's participation. 
  • Allow for clients to choose from multiple ways of participating, such as providing verbal encouragement, assistance in problem solving, setting a personal boundary to not physically participate, or taking some other role in the session. 
  • Attend to the overall group functioning throughout the facilitation of high constructed elements with groups. Although these activities often highlight individual performance, issues of emotional and physical safety are often closely connected with the level of support, empathy, and focus being demonstrated by others who are present.