Stretch Zone Strengthens Community – Here’s How

Alzar School | 26.08.22

Certain outdoor pursuits have a reputation as being the product of individualistic pursuits driven by ego and conquest. Take, for example, critiques of the recent hit Freesolo, a documentary in which famed rock climber, Alex Honnold, ascends El Capitan without the protection of a rope. A 2012  article in the Journal of Health Psychology highlights qualitative accounts that suggest such experiences in managing fear can be transformative and provide a greater sense of meaning and purpose 1.

At Alzar School, we aren’t doing anything quite as extreme or challenging as Honnold, and yet – it is all relative! Kayaking across a class II or III rapid may register a similar psychological response for our students as freesolo-ing in Yosemite did for Honnold.

Outdoor pursuits foster healthy communities by encouraging active lifestyles that prevent many non-communicable diseases but also can have positive social and emotional effects (Is Nature right for you?). In his bestselling book The Last Child in the Woods (2008), Richard Louv cites a study by Stephen Keller at Yale University in which youth participants in “well-established wilderness-based education programs”, including the Student Conservation Association (SCA), the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Outward Bound (OB), showed positive impacts in self-confidence, self-esteem, optimism, independence and autonomy. Keller points out that working with others is a necessary component of such programs and his qualitative evidence demonstrates growth in interpersonal abilities as well, such as cooperation, compassion and friendship (Louv, 2008, p. 230). Other studies point to reduced anxiety, restored attention span, as well as enhanced self-efficacy, mindfulness, resilience and overall well-being2,3.

Alzar School draws from outdoor programs such as OB and NOLS in our philosophy of outdoor pursuits and has found success by nudging students out of their comfort zones, thereby providing opportunities for students to lean-in with motivation in personalized ways to achieve their peak performance. In our group setting, we also strive to actualize a sense of belonging and shared purpose. Living in such close quarters and participating in adventurous activities together is inherently part of the “stretch zone” for many of our students.

Alzar School students scouting a rapid at Kelly’s Whitewater Park.

To prepare our current semester for their journey ahead, the next few weekends are dedicated to running three critical courses: Swift Water Awareness, Wilderness & Remote First Aid, and Kayak Clinics. These activities are designed to move youth out of their comfort zone while at the same time equipping them with skills to avoid being pushed into a stifling zone of panic and exhaustion. Surfing the zone in between is our goal, providing space for ample individual and community growth.

Alzar Students practice arm slings in Wilderness Remote First Aid class.
Students kayaking on the Main Payette.

As Redbull athlete Matt Prior says, “comfort kills ambition”. So, students and parents of this upcoming semester – feelings of discomfort and moments of panic may be arising as the reality of your, as we like to say at Alzar School, “full-on” semester settles in. You can rest assured knowing that the light at the end of the tunnel is bright and inspired, full of passion and purpose! 

About the author: Rachel Ackerman is a former Science Teacher and a Blog Coordinator at Alzar School.