Adventure-Based Counseling with Adolescents:

Lessening Racial Effect on Group Cohesion

J. Scott Glass

Mississippi State University - Meridian Campus


            This article reports the results of a study which examined the effects of participation in a low-element challenge course on level of group cohesion as perceived by adolescents of various races, between the ages of 11 and 14.  The effect of race as an independent variable was considered to determine how members of various racial groups might react differently to the program.  Results suggest that group cohesion developed through the one-day, low-element challenge course experience, and that there were no significant differences in perception of group cohesion by race.

Adventure-Based Counseling with Adolescents:

Lessening Racial Effect on Group Cohesion

            Over the past three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of challenge course programs (Nassar-McMillan & Cashwell, 1997) as interventions among adolescents with behavioral and social problems (Johnson, 1992) and as a method of building teams (Springett, 1987).  Facilitators of these outdoor challenge course programs provide testimony that these experiences bring about positive change.  However, research findings to substantiate these claims are rare (Braverman, Brenner, Fretz, & Desmond, 1990; Gillis, Bandoroff, Clapp, Gass, Rudolph & Nadler, 1991; Johnson, 1992).  Therefore, there is a need for researchers to investigate the uses of challenge course programs and to examine possible outcomes of their implementation (Davis, Ray, & Sayles, 1995).  In addition, the role and usage of low-element challenge course programs in multicultural counseling should be addressed.

            Springett (1987) acknowledged that one of the potential benefits for participants in challenge course programs is increased perception of group cohesion.  Cohesiveness has been identified as one of the key factors in the development of a group (Griffin & Pennscott, 1991) and an important variable for a variety of groups and different types of group processes (Evans & Jarvis, 1980).  Furthermore, the usefulness of cohesion as a mediator of group formation, maintenance, and productivity (Bollen & Hoyle, 1990) has led some social scientists to deem it the most important small group variable (Golembiewski, 1962; Lott & Lott, 1965).

            This study aims to examine the effect of participation in a low-element challenge course on the perceived level of group cohesion among adolescents of various races between the ages of 11 and 14.  Race is included as an independent variable to determine if various racial groups perceive the group’s level of group cohesion differently.

Low-Element Challenge Courses

            The label “challenge course” has been used to include a wide range of challenge programs used with diverse populations.  The program used in this study, located in Eastern North Carolina, is a one-day experience, lasting approximately 6 to 8 hours.  It consists of a series of exercises, called elements.  While some elements focus on leadership abilities and others focus on communication skills, all activities emphasize group cohesion.  These elements are designed to make few physical demands on the participants, however, they require participants to share responsibility and solve problems as a team.

Adventure-based counseling uses non-competitive tasks and depends upon group interaction for completion (Nassar-McMillan & Cashwell, 1997).  There are several significant aspects to tasks used in adventure-based approaches with low-element challenge courses.  They occur in a group setting using novel, noncompetitive tasks and are designed so that success cannot be reached individually (Wick, Wick, & Peterson, 1997).  The sequence of activities uses readily available equipment, and typically progresses from easier exercises through tasks that are more physically and mentally challenging (Alexander & Carlson, 1999).  The activities used build upon one another and increase in difficulty so that the group is consistently challenged.  This requires participants to improve their social skills and ability to work together in order to successfully complete the activities.

Low-element challenge course programs are composed of group activities that are constructed low to the ground, requiring less physical risk and more group cooperation than the typical adventure-based counseling programs utilizing high-rope exercises.  Ropes courses tend to focus on individual accomplishments and are built high off the ground, while low-element challenge courses are constructed low to the ground and require group members to utilize teamwork and display cooperation and communication skills (Harris, Mealy, Matthews, Lucas, & Moczygemba, 1993).  Successful outcomes to challenges depend upon the extent to which group members cooperate, trust, and communicate with one another.  Furthermore, these group exercises impart lessons that participants later can apply to problems in their personal lives (Harris et al., 1993).

Multicultural Counseling and Group Work

            In today’s society, group counselors will be routinely called on to assist in dealing with issues related to cultural diversity within groups (Johnson, Torres, Coleman & Smith, 1995).  As DeLucia-Waack (1996) stated, “All group work is multicultural” (p. 218).  In all aspects of our lives, people participate in groups on a daily basis.  Within any of these groups (e.g., committees, peer groups), members bring their unique cultural identity, which is developed through cultural background, race, gender and socioeconomic status (Conyne, 1998).  Therefore, an important task for leaders of group work is to develop the ability to help members learn about themselves and each other, which must involve attention to multicultural factors (McRae & Johnson, 1991).

            It was proposed a number of years ago that people who help each other and work together toward a common goal typically begin to feel more positively about each other and interact constructively when performing collective tasks (Sherif & Sherif, 1956).  This belief is one of the foundations of low-element challenge courses, such as the one used in this study.  Furthermore, research indicates that cooperative learning, such as experienced in low-element challenge courses, contributes to improved intergroup and interpersonal relationships in multicultural situations and promotes culturally diverse learners’ self-esteem (Manning & Lucking, 1993).

            Cooperative learning, such as challenge course programs, improves multicultural relationships for a number of reasons.  First, learners participating in these settings work toward the same goals and must communicate effectively with one another, have an understanding of the advantages associated with positive group dynamics, and recognize the differences among group members as a form of enrichment rather than as a deficit (Manning & Lucking, 1993).  The low-element challenge course program operates under the fact that groups must work together effectively in order to be successful on the elements, or exercises, they engage in on the course.  Each member is viewed as an important component of the group and the members experience success or disappointment as a whole rather than as individuals.  This focuses on each member’s strengths and incorporates those characteristics into the group.  Therefore, the differences of each member are viewed as positives rather than negatives.  In this situation, group members must recognize the value of helping others rather than working competitively.

            In addition, the goals of cooperative learning, as related to the low-element challenge course program, contribute significantly to the processes that build, promote and sustain positive interpersonal relationships among the various cultures assembled in the group (Manning & Lucking, 1993).  Manning and Lucking (1993) stated that although little is known as to how racial attitudes develop and change, positive human interaction among individuals of different races or cultures tends to create feelings of harmony in the persons involved.  The low-element challenge course program attempts to facilitate this type of experience for each member of the group.



            Participants in this study were 230 children between the ages of 11 and 14 attending public schools in Eastern North Carolina who volunteered and received parental permission to participate in the low-element challenge course program at the Don Lee Center and in this research study.  Students attending two junior high schools (i.e., grades 6, 7, and 8) and one elementary school (5th grade) formed the participant pool.  One hundred eleven (48.3%) of participants self-identified as being White, 91 (39.6%) labeled themselves as African-American, and 28 (12.2%) identified themselves as Hispanic.  In addition, there were 108 males (47.0%) and 122 females (53.0%).  The mean age of participants was 12.14 years (SD=.78).


            This study was conducted at an outdoor facility located in Eastern North Carolina.  A number of teachers in Eastern North Carolina contact the facility each year to schedule a day to bring their classes to participate in the challenge course program.  Prior to groups arriving at the facility, six teachers were contacted to participate in this study; four of these teachers agreed for their students to participate.  Upon receiving teacher consent, 300 permission slips for this study were mailed to the schools and sent home with students to be signed by their parents.  Of the 300 permission slips mailed, 230 were returned, for a response rate of 76.6%.  Failure to turn in a permission slip to participate in the study in no way affected adolescents’ participation in the challenge course activities.

            Permission slips were collected upon participants’ arrival at the facility, and school groups participated together as a whole in a number of large-group warm-up activities.  After a number of these exercises, participants were then divided randomly into smaller groups of 11 to 15 people each; these became the working groups for the day-long program.  Most participants were then administered the Group Cohesion Evaluation Questionnaire as a pretest by the principal investigator (PI), however, one classroom of students was randomly selected not to receive the pretest in order to determine whether taking the pretest influenced ratings on the posttest.  Instructions for each administration of the instrument were explained by the PI.

            Participants engaged in the activities of the low-element challenge course throughout the remainder of the day.  At the conclusion of the program, all participants were administered the GCEQ as a posttest.  This study was conducted during six days of data collection.


            Participants’ perceptions of group cohesion were measured by an instrument created specifically for this study, the Group Cohesion Evaluation Questionnaire (GCEQ).  The GCEQ was designed to assess group members’ evaluations as to how well their group was able to work together on the challenge course and whether the activities helped to foster such cohesion.  The questionnaire consists of 9 items, whose answers are scored on a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (Not at all like me/my group) to 4 (Exactly like me/my group).  Items on the GCEQ are similar to questions asked of participants during the processing phase that follows each activity on the low-element challenge course.

            To begin, 16 items were developed for the GCEQ.  These 16 items were then given to 7 expert raters, having an average of 6 years’ experience with low-element challenge courses.  These raters ranked the items in terms of perceived importance and ability to measure group cohesion.  The top 9 items were retained in the GCEQ and used in this study (See Appendix A) to assess participants’ perceptions of group cohesion.


            After arriving at the facility, participants engaged in approximately 30 minutes of warm-up exercises to help them become more comfortable in their new surroundings and in working with each other.  After these opening activities, participants were assigned to small groups and began to engage in the challenge course program.  Sample activities used during the challenge course, along with a brief description of each challenge, are listed below.

Group Juggling- In this activity the group stands in a circle and tosses bean bags to each other.  The group sets a pattern for throwing the bean bags and follows that same pattern throughout the activity.  The rules are (a) the person throwing the bean bag must call out the person’s name being thrown to, and (b) the toss must be made underhanded.  The group then tries to juggle the bean bags for thirty seconds without dropping any of the bags.  The goal of this activity is to drop as few of the bags as possible.  The group is allowed to try once, and then given an opportunity to improve on a second attempt.

TP Shuffle-  In this activity participants stand shoulder to shoulder in a random order on a 2" x 4"  board approximately 15 feet in length that is positioned 6 inches above the ground.  The group leader then asks the group to line up in order of their birthdays or their height.  To get in order the group must follow these directions:  a) no one in the group is allowed to touch the ground, doing so would cause the group to start over in their original order; b) the group members are allowed and encouraged to touch and hold onto one another; and, c) when in order they must notify the group leader.  The challenge is completed when the group is correctly in order.

The Spider’s Web-  In this activity the object is to move the entire group through the web without touching the web material and ringing the bells attached to the web.  Four or five small bells are tied on the web so movement of the cords that make up the web (a touch) is transferred to the bells.  A sounding of the bell indicates that the participant has touched the web.  The participant must begin again.  Only one person can pass through each web opening.  The challenge is successfully completed when all members pass through the web safely.

Data Analysis

            The first step in analyzing the data was to conduct a factor analysis of the GCEQ.  Factor loadings for the nine items ranged from .72 to .82.  Results confirmed a single factor consisting of nine items; thus, all nine items were used in subsequent analyses.  Reliability of the GCEQ was determined to be .9134, using Cronbach’s alpha.

            The primary hypothesis for this study was that participation in a low-element challenge course would increase the self-reported perception of group cohesion among participants without regard to race.  To test this hypothesis, a matched-sample t-test was used to determine whether there was a significant change in participants’ pre-posttest mean score on the GCEQ (indicating change in perception of group cohesion).  For this study, 167 participants completed both pre- and posttests.  A statistically significant increase in mean scores from pre- to posttests was found, suggesting that participants did perceive increased group cohesion as a result of participation in the challenge course program.

            Sixty-three participants completed the pre-test only.  In order to control for internal validity, a t-test was conducted to determine if administering a pretest to participants had any effect on their posttest responses.  This t-test compared the posttests from participants receiving both the pre- and posttests with posttest-only participants.  There was a nonsignificant difference of 1.1269 (t= -1.14; p <.05) in posttest means between those who received the pretest and those who did not, suggesting that participant perceptions of cohesion were not affected by taking the pretest.

            Stepwise linear regression was used to test the effects of race on group cohesion.  Results did not reveal significant differences in the posttest scores by race.  This independent variable explained less than one percent of the variation in posttest scores.  Thus, race of participants was not found to significantly affect how they perceived the development of group cohesion in the challenge course experience .


            This study revealed that various races (White, African-American, and Hispanic) perceived group cohesion in a similar manner as a result of participating in the low-element challenge course program.  For counselors, this information is powerful.  In order to become effective multicultural counselors, it is crucial for the counseling discipline to research and identify counseling tools which may aid in the lessening of racial effects without decreasing the importance of each person’s background.  The low-element challenge course program examined in this study requires that participants from various racial backgrounds work together to help their group succeed.  It is possible that the processes used in this type of program help to reduce race-based discrimination and help each member of the group feel connected to and a part of the group.

            This study found that a low-element challenge course program can be a legitimate method for helping diverse groups to experience higher levels of perceived group cohesion, while perhaps minimizing the effects of race.  The ramifications of this study can be related across boundaries to numerous groups.  All counseling groups can benefit from higher perceptions of group cohesion.  Feeling connected to the other group members helps to facilitate self-disclosure which, in turn, helps to facilitate personal growth, the basic premise of counseling.  It is possible that regardless of the reasons for a group’s origination, the use of a low-element challenge course program could help group leaders facilitate the cohesion needed to move the group along in its development to deeper stages of interaction.


Alexander, N. M., & Carlson, T. B. (1999). Adventure-based learning in the name of peace. In L. R. Forcey & I. M. Harris (Eds.), Peacebuilding for adolescents: Strategies for educators and community leaders (pp. 161-174). New York: Peter Lang.

Bollen, K. A., & Hoyle, R. H. (1990). Perceived cohesion: A conceptual and empirical examination. Social Forces, 69, 479-504.

Braverman, M., Brenner, J., Fretz, P., & Desmond, D. (1990). Three approaches to evaluation: A ropes course illustration. The Journal of Experiential Education, 13, 23-30.

Conyne, R. K. (1998). What to look for in groups: Helping trainees become more sensitive to multicultural issues. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 23, 22-32.

Davis, D., Ray, J., & Sayles, C. (1995). Ropes course training for youth in a rural setting: "At first I thought it was going to be boring..." Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 12, 445-463.

DeLucia-Waack, J. (1996). Multiculturalism is inherent in all group work [Editorial]. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 21, 218-223.

Evans, N. J., & Jarvis, P. A. (1980). Group cohesion: A review and reevaluation. Small Group Behavior, 11, 359-370.

Gillis, H., Bandoroff, S., Clapp, C., Gass, M., Rudolph, S., & Nadler, R. (1991). Family adventure questionnaire: Results and discussion. In Proceedings of the International Conference and Workshop Summaries Book of the International Association for Experiential Education, 19th, Lake Junaluska, NC, October 24-27, 1991.

Golembiewski, R. T. (1962). The small group. University of Chicago Press.

Griffin, B., & Pennscott, W. (1991). The development of cohesiveness and self-esteem in an experientially oriented training group. TACD Journal, 19, 53-59.

Harris, P. M., Mealy, L., Matthews, H., Lucas, R., & Moczygemba, M. (1993). A wilderness challenge program as correctional treatment. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 19, 149-164.

Johnson, J. (1992). Adventure therapy: The ropes-wilderness connection. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 3, 17-26.

Johnson, I. H., Torres, J. S., Coleman, V. D., & Smith, M. C. (1995). Issues and strategies in leading culturally diverse counseling groups. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 20, 143-150.

Lott, A. J., & Lott, B. E. (1965). Group cohesiveness as interpersonal attraction: A review of relationships with antecedents and consequent variables. Psychological Bulletin, 64, 259-309.

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McRae, M., & Johnson, S. (1991). Toward training for competence in multicultural counselor education. Journal for Counseling & Development, 70, 131-135.

Nassar-McMillan, S. C., & Cashwell, C. S. (1997). Building self-esteem of children and adolescents through adventure-based counseling. Journal of Humanistic Counseling Education & Development, 36, 59-67.

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Springett, N. R. (1987). The evaluation of development training courses. Master's thesis, University of Sheffield, England.

Wick, D. T., Wick, J. K., & Peterson, N.(1997). Improving self-esteem with Adlerian adventure therapy. Professional School Counseling, 1, 53-56.


Group Cohesion Evaluation Questionnaire

Group # ____________     Gender:        Male              Female Race: __________________

Age:  ___________________


Please tell us which of the following statements best describe you and your group.

                                                NOT AT ALL      A LITTLE        A LOT           EXACTLY

                                                LIKE ME/MY     LIKE ME/        LIKE ME/       LIKE ME/

                                                GROUP             MY GROUP    MY GROUP  MY GROUP

1.  We get along well together.                         1                                                2                                3                                4

2.  We feel good about our team.                         1                                                2                                3                                4

3.  We enjoy helping each other.                         1                                                2                                3                                4

4.  We stick together during                          1                                                2                                3                                4

     the challenges.

5.  I feel like my group will keep                          1                                                2                                3                                4

     me safe.

6.  We encourage each other in the                         1                                                2                                3                                4


7.  I feel like I fit in my group.                         1                                                2                                3                                4

8.  I want to work on more                          1                                                2                                3                                4

     challenges with my group.

9.  We help each other on the                         1                                                2                                3                                4


Mississippi State University – Meridian Campus

1000 Highway 19 North

Meridian, MS 39307-5799

(601) 484-0166

fax:  (601) 484-0279


J. Scott Glass, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Division of Education - Counselor Education at Mississippi State University - Meridian Campus.