Aim is high as kids climb into new program

Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2001

Kenai Peninsula students are climbing the walls -- and loving it.

This month, Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School in Soldotna got a new climbing wall in its gymnasium. The new addition was an instant hit with the children.

"What I really like about it is it appeals to every child," said Gretchen Bagley, the school's physical education teacher.

"You can make it more challenging, even for the child who is more athletic."

The new climbing wall, studded with brightly colored artificial rocks, stretches 48 feet along one wall. It stands eight-feet tall. Below it, a thick mat cushions any abrupt landings.

Most activities involve traversing the wall from one end to the other, only a few feet above the floor.

Bagley's students, practicing for the President's physical fitness challenge last week, favored the climbing wall so much they were reluctant to leave it when the time came to move on to other stations.

The sixth-graders said the wall seemed easy, almost too easy, at first. But now that they have mastered the basics, Bagley gives them more difficult assignments and they are enthusiastic.

"It's a challenge because some (of the handholds) are misshaped," said student Chelsa Paulk.

Some parts are hard to grip, and the climb requires a high level of hand-eye coordination, she said.

The wall was installed at the end of September by a team of specialists who came all the way from Rhode Island. Volunteers Richard Bagley and Dan Skipwith pitched in donated labor.

Gretchen Bagley started the students with simple tasks, like stepping up and down off the molded holds. But as they became more familiar, she asked them to try skills like turning themselves around and hanging on while facing away from the wall.

They found the climbs challenging, judging by the looks of concentration and heavy breathing.

"I've had more of them fall off lately," Bagley said.

The wall is a versatile obstacle. The artificial rocks, bolted to the frame, can be removed or rearranged. Students can practice individual or team activities.

Bagley called it a huge addition to the school's physical education program.

The purpose of the climbing wall is to improve upper body strength, balance, flexibility and endurance. It also improves cooperative and communication skills as well as self-esteem and self-confidence, she said.

The school plans to have a wall-climbing night for last year's sixth-graders, since they were in on the fund-raising portion of this project, and an open house for the community to come in and check out the wall.

Climbing walls in schools are becoming more popular across the nation, according to an article in The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

The possible activities on them include games like follow the leader, picking up objects while climbing and doing the traverse blindfolded.

The K-Beach climbing wall project dates back about a year. Bagley was at a conference in Anchorage, and participants toured a climbing wall at a school there.


Tyler Marcuson makes the stretch to reach the next hand-hold on the new climbing wall at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School.


When she told her school's Parent Teacher Association about the climbing wall, the members wanted to pursue getting one.

They worked on raising funds since January, with the help of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Ladies Auxiliary from Post No. 10046 in Soldotna, Kmart in Kenai and students selling candles. The wall's total price came to $3,600.

The new wall at K-Beach is not the first or last in a Kenai Peninsula school.

Kenai Middle School has a 36-foot-high climbing wall that has been in place for about a decade. Teacher Bob Summer, who is on leave this year, spearheaded its installation and has been the leader in teaching the students climbing skills, said KMS Principal Paul Sorenson.

The wall has been popular for clubs, special courses and activity nights. In addition, Soldotna Community Schools sponsors Wednesday evening sessions on it. Last year it got a new paint job, too.

"It has been a good program that the kids enjoy," Sorenson said. "It is very enticing."

The largest climbing wall in the district is in the Mariner Theatre in Homer High School.

That wall is a towering 60 feet tall, and requires climbers to use belay ropes through bolts above. Although it has been used in the past for Project Adventure and even by the Homer Volunteer Fire Department to train rope rescue crews, it has fallen into disuse.

"Basically, it's too tall," said Lance Petersen, who manages the Mariner Theatre.

The school installed a smaller climbing wall in the wrestling room, which is the one most Homer students now use, he said.

Another big climbing wall is in the works for the central peninsula.

Skyview High School and Soldotna Community Schools are working on getting one installed at the school south of Soldotna. Bill Holt, the community schools coordinator at the school, has been making arrangements, said Skyview Principal John Pothast.

The wall will be 24-feet high, and arranging the installation has involved engineering analyses of the wall strength, putting in belay bars, other safety engineering and permitting. Those steps are 99 percent completed, and the parts for the wall have arrived.

"We expect to have it done by Christmas," he said.

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