Experiential Education is not new. It’s best proponent in the early 1900’s was John Dewey, while a professor at the University of Chicago and later at Columbia. “According to Dewey good education should have both a societal purpose and purpose for the individual student. For Dewey, the long-term matters, but so does the short-term quality of an educational experience. Educators are responsible, therefore, for providing students with experiences that are immediately valuable and which better enable the students to contribute to society.” (James Niel, 2005) The “Challenge” experiential education model relies heavily on this foundation.
First developed in 1962 in the mode of military-style obstacle courses, “Challenge” courses were almost the exclusive domain of programs such as Outward Bound. In1971, a business called “Project Adventure” began to integrate challenge courses into public school physical education classes. This movement was the beginning of a trend that has led to the current practice of using the challenge course as an instrument to enhance both personal and professional growth. (Attarian, 2001)
In 1986, Washington State 4-H opened their first challenge course at Bonney Lake. After learning about the program and its success with advanced students and with those who did not respond well in traditional classrooms, Ray Faini, WSU 4-H Faculty, sought to duplicate the success of the Bonney Lake program east of the Cascades in Chelan county. In 1989, our first course was built with grants from Alcoa Foundation, Chelan-Douglas Together! For Drug Free Youth, the Washington State 4-H Foundation, local sponsors and many volunteer hours from area church groups. Cascade High School wood shop donated the construction of the equipment shed located at the course. The course is located outside of Leavenworth on land donated by the Snohomish County Hospital District which was then operating Circle S Recoveray Ranch. Chelan/ Douglas 4-H Challenge continues to have a strong working relationship with the land’s current property owner, Tierra Learning Center Inc. who also shares a strong commitment to youth development.
After seeing the success of the Leavenworth course, in 1993, the Lake Chelan and Manson communities requested a second course be built in the northern end of the county to better serve the needs of their local schools and youth groups. Ray Fuller, a local organic fruit grower and member of the Lake Chelan School Board, graciously donated the use of his land, funding again cam from Chelan-Douglas Together! For Drug Free Youth, the Washington State 4-H Foundation and local businesses. Officer Ken Marcuson of the Chelan Police Department secured the cooperation of local officials and the material and labor to build an equipment shed from the National Guard. The low course was completed by the fall of 1996 and the high course was finished in 2000. In 1999 alone, the two courses served 1,500 youth.
Seeing the success of our Challenge course program in reaching students with all types of need, in 2005 we expanded and diversified the activities we offer. 4-H Challenge Rocking Climbing, Snowshoeing, backpacking and more are now available to local schools and youth groups. Although the activities take on new venues, they are still grounded on the Experiential Adventured-Based Education Model that is the hallmark of our work. As Dewey would say, ” once we have a theory of experience, then as educators can set about progressively organizing our subject matter in a way that it takes accounts of students’ past experiences, and then provides them with experiences which will help to open up, rather than shut down, a person’s access to future growth experiences, thereby expanding the person’s likely contribution to society.” (James Niel, 2005)
Like all of the programs offered by 4-H, experiential learning offers youth the excitement and fun that grabs their attention while developing the critical life skills that enable them to succeed in whatever path they choose for the future.