Sheridan alternative PE classes teach trust, leadership

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SHERIDAN, Wyo. (AP) — Standing atop a tiny platform perched on a 16-foot wooden beam held erect by children applying equal pressure to ropes tied to all four sides, students in alternative physical education classes at Sheridan Junior High School and Fort Mackenzie High School took the "leap of faith."

Reaching the top was no easy feat — grasping metal loops wide enough for two fingers, or a few toes as they scale the beam. And plunging off the top was scary — with nothing more than a partner at the end of a belay catching you. But, this exercise is all about trusting your classmates and working together to take calculated risks.

There are a variety of alternative PE classes that utilize the high ropes course in the Early Building at the junior high including LEAP, Adventure Activities and XPLODE.

The Adventure Activities course lays the groundwork, with students learning to trust each other and tackling the lower elements on the course. The Leadership Enrichment and Adventure Program (LEAP) is the advanced course, putting kids on the leap of faith — the hardest element — as early as the fourth week. And eXtreme Physical, Leadership and Outdoor Discovery Education (XPLODE) is an elective for FMHS students.

Junior high school PE teacher Kale Rager said the state of the ropes course facility they have at SJHS is safer for the kids than crossing the street, though it doesn't look it or always feel it. As the kids learn to calculate risk, tackle these seemingly dangerous tasks, trust each other and push themselves outside their comfort zones, they gain confidence in themselves and discover they can accomplish things they never thought possible, Rager added.

Darin Gilbertson teaches the FMHS class and has been a part of the ropes course since its installation in 2006. This year, as a couple hundred students enrolled in the adventure class, he is also teaching a couple adventure courses at the junior high.

Whether scaling beams, rock or rope climbing, practicing archery, snorkeling, mountain biking or even learning orienteering, he said these students are gaining much more than physical fitness.

"It encompasses so many real world skills like communication and trust and risk taking," Gilbertson said. "We don't just go in and climb stuff and have a good time, we take things away. .They're recognizing the role that they play in helping to create that safe environment, not just physically but mentally and emotionally so a kid will feel comfortable enough to try something even if they might be super afraid."

Eighth-grade LEAP student Jaydee Twitchell said that is exactly why she signed up for the class.

"I wanted to take a class that I knew would take me out of my comfort zone, that pushed me to try something new," Twitchell said. "My favorite part of the class is being comfortable with everybody and not being afraid to do something or being afraid of what they might think. You're always going to feel like you can't do something, but you know that the person there is going to be there for you and you can trust them."

In addition to leaving the comfort zone, Gilbertson said the kids are challenged individually and need to develop self-motivation.

"You don't have to worry about going out and catching a ball or playing a team sport and the benefits that they get out of that are amazing," he said. "You challenge yourself. And sometimes through the other things we're doing they kind of forget about the exercise part of it so you kind of sneak that in with all the other excellent aspects."

Eighth-grader Ammon Duncan started in alternative PE classes in seventh-grade by taking Adventure Activities twice and has now moved on to LEAP, which is in its first year being offered. After learning to trust his classmates and his abilities last year, he was excited to move up and take even more risks this year.

"I learned to take risks instead of just waiting for everyone else to do something," Duncan said. "The best part is after you come down, and you've achieved whatever it is you were trying to do, you feel pretty good about yourself. It's just the initial step of trying to get onto the elements that's hard, but once you go up on the elements everyone else wants to validate the trust that you have placed in them so they do everything that they can to help."


Information from: The Sheridan (Wyo.) Press,

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