SHERIDAN — A student climbed a narrow, 16-foot wooden beam. Another worked her way across circle monkey bars hanging from the ceiling. One more stepped his way up a rock wall. Such is an average day during LEAP, a unique physical education class at Sheridan Junior High School.
LEAP stands for Leadership Enrichment through Adventure Programming. It is a physical education elective available for seventh- and eighth-graders that aims to build camaraderie among students through challenging, sometimes unusual activities.
Most classes are spent working on aspects of a challenge course in the SJHS Early Building gymnasium. The course has 11 elements with different walking and climbing tasks. Some are only a few feet off the ground, while others go up to the gym ceiling. The challenge course began in 2006 and is used daily by SJHS students. Some Sheridan High School athletic teams use it as well, including football, basketball and swimming.
SJHS physical education and wellness teacher Darin Gilbertson believes LEAP can form a better school community and stronger relationships among students. It can also push them out of their comfort zones and lead to mentally overcoming obstacles.
“The stuff that comes out of it, the experiences, you can’t get that stuff in other classes,” Gilbertson said.
SJHS physical education and wellness teacher Kale Rager has been at SJHS for nine years. LEAP began shortly after she started teaching at the school.
Rager said the course ideally exposes students to something that could turn into a lifelong hobby, like rock climbing or archery, and offers the chance to give and receive support.
“Emotionally, I think it’s different than other classes in that they can visually see when a student might be struggling,” Rager said. “In other classes, you might not know.”
The students usually build up to tougher elements like the rock wall. They begin with games and problem-solving activities before moving onto low elements like a rope swing.
Then they participate on elements like the rock wall and “LEAP of faith,” a 16-foot wooden beam with metal hooks on the side that students climb while attached to a harness. It is supported by four ropes that two or three kids hold while standing on the ground. There is a small platform on top that the climbing student steps on. They the student jumps to touch a ball that is attached to a ceiling rafter before gently descending to the ground.
Many ropes, harnesses and helmets need to be organized so students remain safe while doing the various activities. They spend part of the class in the beginning of the year going over safety measures.
“That sense of urgency with safety is huge,” Gilbertson said. “[Students] are taking care of each other.”
The teachers also assign tasks at the beginning of class for the students to prepare the different elements.
“It gets to the point where literally I could just sit down on the bleachers and we’ve got a couple things going and kids are setting them up,” Gilbertson said. “They’re doing their safety checks and their commands, and then kids are tearing down and they’ve got it under control.”
However, the students occasionally goof around when they should be supporting a classmate. Gilbertson makes those students sit out because of the danger it causes.
At least for one student, the course has paid off. SJHS seventh-grader Madalynn Dellit is in the seventh hour class from 2:35 to 3:30 p.m. and signed up for the course because she enjoys being active.
“I was like, ‘Oh wow, this might be more than just a gym class,’” Dellit said.
It has gone better than expected and she enjoys finishing her school day with physical exercise.
“It gets me pumped up for the end of the day and puts me in shape,” Dellit said. “I like challenging myself physically.”
Dellit said the rock wall and “LEAP of faith” are the most difficult to accomplish.
The “LEAP of faith” can be nerve wracking for teachers as well.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Darin, why do we do this?’” Rager said. “It makes me nervous every day and then every day it’s OK.”
Rager currently teachers one LEAP course, while Gilbertson teaches three. He believes physical and mental improvement go hand-in-hand.
“That physical activity stimulates the brain,” Gilbertson said. “There’s a lot of thought in what we do in terms of getting these kids to be physically literate and understanding the why. We’re not just coming in here and playing games.”
Indeed, Rager recalled a specific instance two years ago during LEAP. A student had a hard time getting to the top of the “LEAP of faith.” He was near tears, but the whole class encouraged him.
“Just seeing all those kids come together — nobody was annoyed that he was up there for so long — we were all just in that mode of support,” Rager said. “Then he did it, and the kids just went crazy. It was awesome, just to see him kind of work through that fear and then have his classmates rally around him.”
For students and instructors alike, the LEAP class serves as a challenging yet potentially meaningful physical education option.