Learning the ropes: Outdoor setup at Catawba offers therapeutic activities for groups young and old

Published 12:10 am Saturday, May 25, 2024

SALISBURY — Being outdoors makes everything better. That was the idea behind the low ropes course at Catawba College’s Healthy Aging Center (HAC), which acts as a way to improve physical and mental health in a fun and engaging way. 

“A Facilitator’s Guide to Adventure Challenge Programming,” by Mike Smith and David Brassfield, describes low-ropes courses as consisting of real and imaginary obstacles designed to challenge groups and individuals to work together to accomplish a task.

At Catawba College, the course applies that concept to advance the mission of the HAC, which strives to provide innovative research, strategic resources and best-practice programs about healthy aging to the college, local and regional communities.

Kaitlin Mueller is the HAC director and an assistant professor and program director of recreational therapy. She and Dr. Brianna Randall, a colleague in clinical mental health counseling applied for a grant and used the funding to build the only low ropes challenge course in Rowan County.

“That’s something that I’m pretty proud of,” Mueller said.

The course combines being outdoors with engagement exercises. 

“The main goal is that something like a low ropes course challenge brings, first of all, it’s outside,” Mueller said. “So it’s in a nature-exposed area, and it is working on the interpersonal communication skills, problem-solving skills, team-building, all those types of skills that you can really work on, while kind of having that quote-unquote, restorative nature feel of being outside being under trees.” 

The course opened last year, and Mueller said that so far, they’ve had more than 120 people, including faculty, staff, students and Salisbury community members. She’s hoping to get that number up. 

“We want community members to be making sessions to get on it,” Mueller said. “We are very interested in continuing to have all different people, whether it’s school groups, older aging populations or people with every different type of disability. We have created this low ropes course in that outdoor environment to promote not only recreation but also some of those more team-building skills, too.”

Mueller and her team worked with a national company to set up the course. 

“We got all the permits,” Mueller said. “They came and brought their supplies … it is a state-of-the-art certified, you know, obviously, standardized, safe course.”

So, what does a low ropes course look like?

“One of the elements is pretty much a long log that’s on like two posts, and participants stand on this log, and we give them different challenges,” Mueller said. “So one of them could be, without talking, put yourself in order of your birthday, January through December.

“They all look at each other, and they have to figure out how are we going to do this, and of course, if they fall off, they have to start again.”

That’s just one example.

“Another one we have is like a stretchy core because it makes a big spider web between two poles,” Mueller said. “We do many different things with that web, whether it’s sending objects through it, or people have to go through it without touching the actual cord.”

Mueller said that she is most proud of the one that is like a large plank of wood that probably up to 15 people could stand on. The plank is on a fulcrum. 

“It’s like a balanced board,” Mueller said. “On the back of that board, we have a two-level railing so that if someone uses a wheelchair or a walker, or they’re just not as steady and they’re just not comfortable, they can hold on to that.”

With various age groups and ability levels, having those measures to accommodate everyone is very important to Mueller. 

“We are getting different member groups of the Healthy Aging Center,” Mueller said. “Like Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, their Outdoor Adventure Club members came and did a low-ropes course session with my recreational therapy students and the older adult participants last fall, which was really awesome to see them all out there.”

Mueller indicated that just because the activity appears relatively sedentary does not detract from it as a workout. 

“I am very interested in getting some more research data on this, but some of our preliminary data and research articles have said that there definitely are physical benefits, especially when it comes to core stability, flexibility and overall endurance,” Mueller said. “Even just standing on that log for like 30 minutes, I mean, your whole lower body and core is engaged during that time.”

Being outside provides another benefit, as Mueller pointed out, which was one of their goals with the low ropes course. 

“We specialize in disability and aging populations,” Mueller said. “So we are very, very big about a lot of different things, including health outcomes for outdoor-based interventions. That includes adventure therapy. So that’s actually what has me very interested in some of the different ways that we can implement, again, therapeutic interventions for all individuals.” 

By maintaining physical strength and stamina, individuals broaden the possibilities of their recreational activity.

“Whether you’re on our balance board, doing the low ropes course challenge, you’re working on stability, balance, things like that, is huge,” Mueller said. “Then the other big thing is the idea of doing outdoor recreation in particularResearch shows that the more that we have access to those green spaces, the better it is for our overall physical health.

Mueller said that she has seen firsthand just how far patients can come through the therapeutic processes. One story stood out to her, and she was willing to share it. 

“One of the participants from the Rufty Holmes Outdoor Adventure Club that came to the low ropes course, she had had a stroke, a pretty profound one, probably a year earlier,” Mueller said. 

The individual had just recently moved to Rowan County and, after the stroke, was in rehab.

“She just started doing some of the more physical-activity-based groups at Rufty-Holmes,” Mueller said. “Once she finally was able to start walking, she used very supportive hiking sticks for balance … she felt like she was making better and more substantial physical gains by doing the outdoor recreation stuff than just attending a typical physical activity class.”

By the time she came to the low ropes course, she was able to ambulate without an assistive cane.

“She was able to balance on that balance board, and she was not holding our railing at all; she was just balancing,” Mueller said. “The look on her face, that sense of accomplishment, you know, seeing like, wow, you know, one year ago, she could not see it, and now she’s balancing on a balance board with 20 other people.”

The overall experience has affirmed Mueller’s pride in the resources that Salisbury has to offer

“It actually reminds me that I live in a pretty cool place,” Mueller said.

The low ropes course is located near the Catawba College Center for the Environment. Contact Mueller at kmueller22@catawba.edu to find out how to schedule a group session.