Challenge courses in the United States have been in use by outdoor, leisure and human service programs since the early 1960s. During 1962 two ropes courses were constructed, one at the newly established Colorado Outward Bound School and the other in Puerto Rico, where a ropes course was used to train Peace Corps volunteers. Challenge courses remained in the domain of Outward Bound and similar programs until 1971 when Project Adventure began to integrate the challenge course into public school physical education classes. This movement was the beginning of a trend that has led to the current practice of using the challenge course as an educational, developmental, and therapeutic medium to enhance both personal and professional growth.
Changes in design and construction techniques, materials, training and safety protocols have combined to increase the popularity and utility of challenge courses. Treatment centers, schools, corporations, hospitals, correctional facilities, camps, the military, fitness centers, and other leisure and human service organizations have incorporated challenge courses into their programs to heighten services to all segments of society.
Prior to the 1980s a limited amount of research and literature was available documenting the benefits of participation in challenge course programs and activities. During the 1980s researchers in the field of therapeutic recreation began to report the individual benefits one could derive from participation in challenge course experiences. Research focused on identifying or demonstrating the benefits of participating in challenge courses primarily by psychiatric patients and at risk, adjudicated, and emotionally disturbed youth. The research and literature during the 1990s became more diverse, with efforts directed towards team building and group development, the physiological responses to participation in high ropes course activities, accessibility, risk management, and a variety of professional topics important to challenge course providers.
A challenge course is defined as a collection or series of events or obstacles suspended from trees, utility poles, and other structures; and/or activities that provide participants with unique problem solving opportunities for self-discovery, physical challenge, risk-taking, and group support. Synonymous terms include high ropes course, low ropes course, initiatives, group initiatives, group initiative activities, and team-building activities.