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Ropes Courses

Theory & Research on Ropes Courses
(Rope Challenge Courses)

James Neill
Last updated:
30 Jul 2004

Quick Guide



Theory behind Ropes Challenge Courses

The underlying psychological and educational assumption behind Ropes Challenge Courses is that if a person is supported to move out of his/her comfort zone, and has a successful experience, then powerful conditions exist for positive change.  This is a "development-by-challenge", "stress-innoculation" or "resilience-building" philosophy. 

For more theories relevant to use of ropes challenge courses, go to Theories of Outdoor Education.

Research on Ropes Challenge Courses

Currently, the best research reference with regard to the efficacy of ropes courses for effecting psychosocial change is is the meta-analysis by Camille Bunting and John Donley, a poster presented at the Bradford Woods Research Symposium (2002).  Unfortunately, the study remains unpublished.

Here's a summary of their study:

Bunting and Donley (2002) compiled the findings of 15 empirical studies of the effects of ropes challenge course programs and found a moderate positive on self and team development (d = .55).  This is an impressive effect size (compared with the average effect size of .3 to .4 for other outdoor education research), however the sample of studies is limited.  Nevertheless, it represents a significant forward in developing a scientific understanding of the impacts and potential of Ropes Challenge Course programming for enhancing self-perceptions and team functioning.

Go to more summaries of recommended ropes course research studies.

Note: To date, the organization, dissemination and communication of research findings about the educational and psychological effects of ropes challenge courses has been limited.  This is partly due to the relatively recent development of ropes courses and the rapid changes in the industry with regard to engineering, construction, curriculum, instruction, training, professionalism, etc.  As these issues are gradually worked through, there is increasing attention being paid to the educational and psychological aspects of ropes challenge courses.


Bunting, C. J., & Donley, J. P. (2002).  Ten Years of Challenge Course Research: A Review of Affective Outcome Studies.  Poster presented at the 6th Coalition for the Education in the Outdoors Research Symposium, January 11-13, Bradford Woods, IN.