Finding the Forest

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As providers of experiences that get people outside and away from screens, the aerial adventure industry has the opportunity to help the world recover from the effects of the pandemic. We can provide a much-needed respite from screens through interactive educational experiences and therapeutic adventures that reconnect us to our world, our community, and each other. By providing these experiences to more people, we can also begin to recover from a year of economic hardship. 

In the aerial adventure community, we know that the activities we offer are thrilling and challenging, which is what draws many people to participate in them. But we also know the activities are educational experiences unto themselves. As we face the challenge of rejuvenating our businesses and industry, we are now presented with an exciting opportunity: to use our parks, tours, and green spaces not only to revitalize the local economy, but also to help revitalize the health and well-being of our communities. 

“When someone is engaged in an experience on one of our courses, the self-discovery and sense of achievement is life-changing—especially when supported by peers and family,” says Outdoor Ventures CEO Bahman Azarm. “And for students who don’t thrive in a traditional educational setting, aerial adventure parks can provide a gateway to alternative educational experiences for those without access in their community.”

How can you connect your course experiences to the social, emotional, and educational needs of your community? How does broadening the scope of aerial adventures and other activities help to engage wider audiences? Let’s find out.

RECOGNIZING THE PROBLEM

First, it’s important to understand some of the issues the pandemic has created that the experiences we offer can help to solve.

Pandemic impacts. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the length of the pandemic and affiliated lockdowns is having a significant effect on mental health—4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. The pandemic’s effect on children is even more severe when coupled with the loss of classroom education. 

For example, screen-based distance learning models increase the equity gap, since those without reliable internet or home computers are unable to participate. Children who were able to participate saw a huge jump in screen time, exceeding already high levels of digital interaction.

The effects of this digital exposure aren’t all bad, of course. “Digital natives” or the “Zoomers,” as some are calling today’s youth, have shown that growing up engaged with technology can produce many traits that are valued in society and business. They excel in fast-paced environments and can switch gears easily between tasks and topics. They can adapt and innovate quickly. 

However, all of this comes at a cost: Large amounts of screen time for tweens and teens correlates to lower scores on cognitive assessments and heightened impulsivity. Social skills develop more slowly, and depression and anxiety are ever-present risks. These costs were present pre-pandemic, but the pandemic has introduced several accelerants, such as “Zoom fatigue” and the stresses of changing everyday routines and systems. 

THE ROLE OF OUTDOOR RECREATION

To combat these negatives, our society needs more access to solutions that can provide high-energy and engaging experiences away from screens. Such as, say, ropes courses, adventure parks, zip tours, trails, and other outdoor activities. 

“The ropes course is a teachable moment that gives us an opportunity to almost ‘trick’ the students into learning,” says Emily Bauder, director of Pali Institute, an outdoor education program in California. “It’s a fun-forward activity that gives you the option to draw out a variety of learnings afterwards. It’s an opportunity to not only lead participants out of their comfort zones, but to also connect that experience to uncomfortable feelings they’re experiencing every day in their digital world.” 

Health benefits. Of course, most aerial adventure activities take place outside. The CDC and other public health agencies say that going outside is one of the best things we can do as a society—not just because the risk of contracting Covid-19 is lower, but because physical activity is healthy. Immersive outdoor experiences can lower stress, fight feelings of fear, anger, sadness, or worry, and generally improve our mental and physical well-being. 

In a massive 2019 study of almost a million children, Danish researchers found that children without access to vegetation near their homes had a 30 percent higher risk of neurotic, stress-related, or psychosomatic disorders. Studies in Japan and the U.S. have found that simple nature walks reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increase the ability to concentrate, and improve short-term memory in adults and children alike.

MAKING THE CONNECTION

If the natural world isn’t already a thematic piece of your aerial park or zip tour, consider exploring ways to enhance your patrons’ experience by connecting it back to the physical environs of their community. 

“There are plenty of ways to add to your park experience, providing a fun introduction to the outdoors for kids and parents alike,” says Lori Pingle, owner of ZipZone Outdoor Adventures in Columbus, Ohio. 

Partnerships are key. At ZipZone, Pingle has increased accessible outdoor offerings by utilizing local experts and resources, helping to create an outdoor experience hidden within a city of nearly a million people. “One of the things we’ve done is partner with local park agencies and naturalists to focus on the ‘wow factors’—providing educational snippets and fun facts about the forest to our guests,” she says. 

In addition, Pingle offers underutilized space at ZipZone for agency naturalists to use for programs with seniors and kids. “Since increasing access for those populations is a goal of theirs, it’s been a mutually beneficial arrangement. We’ve been able to cross promote with them through social media as well, which has drawn in new guests for us both,” says Pingle.

A few of the ways ZipZone is partnering with experts and connecting patrons to the park around it include: 

 Flight Club: An event that combines the canopy tour or aerial park experience with a falconry lesson from Ohio School of Falconry experts. 

At ZipZone, Ohio, Flight Club combines the aerial park or canopy tour with a falconry lesson.

 Free nature hikes: Guided by local naturalists affiliated with the city park system, ZipZone’s trails are open to patrons of all ages, giving them a window into the natural world hidden within the city. 

 Interpretive programming: While many tours provide some interpretation of the surrounding environment, ZipZone again leverages its partnerships with local naturalists to train guides in providing a quality interpretive experience.

French Broad Adventures in North Carolina also leverages relationships with experts to help add to the guest experience. “We do monthly continuing education trainings with our zip tour staff,” says owner/operator Korey Hampton. “Western North Carolina is incredibly bio-diverse, so we bring in a local arborist periodically to help educate staff on the trees and plants found on the tour, giving them the tools to educate the guests on the ecosystem of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” 

That arborist was the one who consulted when the tour was originally being laid out and designed, so these trainings help keep and further that connection with him.

Local history is another topic that can help connect guests with their surroundings. “Local history is great to share with the guests—small tidbits that they can share with someone else over a meal can be easier to connect to than, say, the evolution of a tree or forest,” says Michael Smith, owner of ArborTrek Canopy Adventures in Vermont. 

“There’s a lot of misconceptions of and interest in our local history here in Smugglers’ Notch [Vt.],” says Smith. So, he connected ArborTrek with the local historical societies and has them come on site to share their knowledge. Staff with a keen interest have created handbooks for guides to reference. “We’ve also tapped into the local universities,” says Smith. “Many interns need an ecological or historical project to complete a degree.”

WE ARE ALL EDUCATORS

Since the opening of the first Outward Bound challenge course, aerial adventure structures have been used in education, serving as unique tools that can drive a variety of outcomes, such as teaching empathy and self-discovery. The original “canopy tour” concept stems from Dr. Donald Perry’s tree-top ropeways in the rain forest, used for nature observation and research. At the first Project Adventure program in Massachusetts, curriculum was aimed at developing problem solving and collaboration skills. 

Whether it’s climbing a rock face or a challenge course, there are few outdoor education programs that don’t include some aerial adventure activities.

“At the YMCA, we use these structures in multiple capacities. From the moment they see the high elements, it’s the thing every student looks forward to the most,” says Richard Krudner of the YMCA of San Diego County. “Putting students on high elements is one more ‘first’ that parallels the other ‘first experiences’ we provide at outdoor education programs. Especially for youth from traditionally underserved communities, it’s a peak experience without comparison.” 

More than experiential. As Pingle, Hampton, and Smith demonstrate, using aerial adventure activities for learning is not exclusive to the educational sector of the industry, despite often being viewed that way. Commercial guides and operators are constantly educating their patrons—whether it’s coaching them into harnesses, teaching them how to use their lanyards, or sharing something about the landscape they’re flying over. 

NEXT STEPS

Sometimes, changing an approach or perception can do wonders by itself. Approach your aerial adventure elements as tools that can be used for more than just a good time, and more opportunities will present themselves. A few things to reflect on and act upon: 

 Guides as educators. Teach your guides to think of themselves as educators—because they are. They’re already teaching people how to fit and use equipment, navigate elements, and fly through the trees. Expand their scope and expand your offerings.  

 What do guests want? Connect with your guests and learn what would bring them back. Ask them what they’d like to see, do, and learn. What do their families want from an educational experience?

 Partner with experts. You’ve been working with them already in the creation of your course. Ask your arborist about the forest. Ask your staff about their interests. Ask your neighboring businesses about what they’re doing. Opportunities are all around you.  

Outdoor education isn’t just about the forest. Though the natural world is a key part of our experiences, there are many other ways to educate and serve our communities using your aerial adventure course. 

“Connecting our staff and guests to history, lore, and stories unique to the course and community has been a huge success in driving interest, additional sales, and repeat business,” says Smith. “It’s expanded the interest of our guests outside of just the elements, and it’s helped connect us to the community around us.” 

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