GLENWOOD SPRINGS - Aubrey Oroso now knows what it takes to go outside her comfort zone. After a few tears, and a few moments to catch her breath, Oroso is on her way to overcoming a fear of heights.
"I hate heights," the Glenwood Springs Elementary School third-grader proclaims after her turn on the zip line, which is part of the school's Challenge Course program that's used in physical education class for a few weeks each school year.
With some positive encouragement from her classmates, and a slightly reluctant willingness to push her limits, Oroso is quick to admit she accomplished something pretty big on this particular day.
"This can be a pretty emotional program for these kids," said Crystal Garrison, the physical education teacher at GSES for the past five years.
"But it's an opportunity for them to succeed and push themselves in areas where they might not have had that opportunity before," Garrison said.
The challenge course has been a unique aspect of learning at GSES for nearly 20 years. It was in 1993 that former school counselor Darryl Stanley got together with PE teachers Wendy Caldwell and John Courier to have a small climbing wall and a series of belayed apparatuses using ropes, pulleys and harnesses erected in the school's gymnasium.
"We brought in engineers to make sure things were strong enough for the supports," Stanley said of the series of columns that line each side of the mid-20th century-era gym at the downtown Glenwood Springs school building.
"We used to take the kids up to the Aspen Deaf Camp, which had one of the only challenge courses in the valley at the time," Stanley recalled. "We thought it was really good for the kids, and decided to put in our own course."
They raised the money through a series of community fundraisers to buy the equipment and have it properly installed.
"It really worked for what we were doing in counseling at the time, with team-building and encouraging kids to work together and learn to get along," Stanley said. "We added some things along the way, and decided it would be good to use in the PE program as well."
A required annual inspection, at a cost of about $1,000, takes up most of Garrison's annual PE budget. But it's worth it, she said.
"I see this as a very important piece of the kids' education, and fortunately we've been able to keep it alive," Garrison said.
Caldwell witnessed many a student benefit from physical rigors, as well as the mental and emotional challenges and character-building that the challenge course offered during her years as a PE teacher at GSES up until 2004.
"Students get the intellectual knowledge they need in their other classes, but this is where they learn all those other skills they need in life, like teamwork and leadership," Caldwell said.
"It was always amazing to watch how the older kids would support the younger kids and each other," she said. "I saw it as a very beneficial program."
The program is much the same today under Garrison's teaching guidance.
As an avid climber herself since she was in high school, Garrison sees a variety of benefits for students as they engage in the different "low-challenge" and "high-challenge" course events and what she calls "initiative games."
For one month each fall, the Challenge Course section of the PE curriculum focuses on teaching sportsmanship, strength and "going outside your comfort zone."
The younger students start with simple challenges set up close to the floor, like climbing a small rope ladder as fellow classmates hold it steady and spot in case they slip and fall.
High-level challenge course activities move into belayed events, such as the high ropes course, climbing wall, climbing stick, cargo net and zip line.
"Every year they progress a little bit more into more challenging events, and as they move up we build on the emotional side," Garrison said.
As students takes turns in the various course activities, classmates are instructed to provide supporting words.
"You're in third grade now, I don't want to hear cheers, we need more encouraging out there!" Garrison says as the group starts to take the easy-out "let's go Zach, let's go! Let's go Zach, let's go!"
"Let's hear, 'To the end!' or 'To the top! All the way! You can do it!,'" Garrison suggests.
Each session is followed with a group discussion to help the students identify how they worked together as a team, and whether they met their personal and team goals.
"This promotes listening skills, cooperation, group decision-making and trust," Garrison explains in a hand-out given to parents before the challenge course section begins.
To run the challenge course for a month at a time each fall, Garrison relies on parents and other community volunteers to come in and help out.
Safety procedures are strictly followed, including making sure harnesses and helmets are put on properly. Volunteers also help spot and provide instructional support.
"This is so good for the kids," said parent volunteer Rick Sorensen, who also now works as a teaching aide at GSES. "It really pushes them to do things they might not try to do otherwise, and it really builds self-confidence and self-esteem in the kids."
Sorensen, who has a daughter in second grade now and twin boys in kindergarten, said he's seen students progress from year to year.
"You might have a second-grader who can barely climb the ladder, and the next year they're going all the way across the high ropes course," he said. "It's really cool to see."
Garrison said she definitely couldn't do it alone, and trained volunteer support is necessary for liability reasons.
"The parents all sign a waiver before their kids can participate," she said. "And I'm proud to say that in the five years I've been doing this, I've never seen even a bruise."
GSES fifth grade student Kate Shanahan started taking Garrison's summer climbing classes through the Beyond the Bell program after being exposed to the challenge course.
"I've been doing it for three summers now, and I love it," Shanahan said.
Though she has some relatives who ice climb, she said she probably wouldn't have tried it herself without the confidence-building provided through her school PE program.
"It really teaches you how to go above and beyond your comfort zone, and to keep pushing," she said.
Third-grader Zach Watson said he applied his challenge course skills during a long hike up Grizzly Creek over the summer with some friends.
"That's a big hike," he said. "We wanted to go all the way to the top. I went half way."
After another challenge course session under his belt, though, that hike might just be doable next summer.