Experiences with the Ropes Course for youth groups

Copyright National Lilac Publishing, LLC

The ropes course, developed by George Hébert in the early 20th Century, is a series of challenging activities attempted above the ground using ropes for walking on and harnesses for safety, meant to build trust in allowing others to assist us.

Though some courses are designed more for recreation, the ones designed to build self-esteem and group cooperation are facilitated by highly trained mentors.

They are set up in tens of thousands of locations across the world, and temporary or permanent new courses can be set up in new locations for specific age groups and different needs.

Some of the editors of Great Group Activities have helped the trained mentors supervise ropes courses for youth and have seen some impressive results, but we also have some cautions and possible solutions for difficult situations.

Here’s the foundation for how the ropes course works

Most humans have an inborn and healthy fear of heights. By climbing up onto the courses built from rope, and performing the various activities (such as getting from one end of a highly strung rope walkway to the other end), fears are conquered.

All the while, a trained facilitator is manning the rope that holds onto the harness that keeps the participant safe and puts him back on course when he inevitably loses balance. Others waiting their turn cheer the current participant on. This builds camaraderie and trust in others when one feels her life is in danger.

We’ve seen youth glow after this activity. And positive results are more than just a honeymoon afterglow -- they can last a lifetime. With the higher than normal desire for risk and thrills in our teens and early 20s, this is an especially well-suited outlet that usually has a positive outcome.


The fear of heights varies greatly from human to human. For youth with a phobia, the results are not automatically positive, and one time, tears continued far after the activity took place. It's hard for even trained facilitators to always know the difference between stuborn resistance to going out of one's comfort zone and true phobia. Inner thoughts for the phobic did not appear to be, “Wow, I conquered that fear, now I can conquer anything,” but instead, “It was only luck that got me through, how many more experiences like that will life throw at me?”

A possible solution

Use ropes courses for an entire youth group’s activity if you know for certain there are no height or social phobias (people often keep these phobias to themselves).

If you don’t know for sure, combine high ropes courses with an alternative but different youth challenge for the phobic ones, such as challenging them to assist and encourage those even younger with overcoming simpler obstacle courses on the ground which are challenging to the younger age group, but are now easy for the older youth.

This alone has sometimes produced the same or better results as phobic hypnotherapy. Youth see from the younger kids the real life fears they actually have overcome since being younger. Helping younger children through them gives them new inner confidence and lessens their fear of life’s future difficulties.

It's usually better to have a completely different challenge than simply an easier and lower version of what the others are doing. That way there is no competitive comparison. Just different challenges.

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