Climbing and learning

Last evening’s jaunt to the Mission Cliffs climbing gym was successful in that I completed more bouldering routes than the number of mild injuries I sustained. I pushed myself to the limits of what I was able to do, just as all of the other climbers were pushing themselves to their limits, as well. In the midst of all the climbing and falling, I thought about how extraordinary it was that all of us within the bouldering area were able to work at the edge of our capacities although we were at such different skill levels.

How the climbing gym works is that the walls are covered in holds of various shapes and sizes. The holds are each marked with a colored piece of tape corresponding to a different level of route. You can do a V0 course, the easiest level, by climbing up the wall using only the holds marked with the color indicator for that course. On the same wall, there might be a V4, a much more challenging course, by following that course’s color of labeled holds. A course is more challenging when the holds are smaller and further spaced apart. In effect, the levels are all mixed in together on the same walls. Beginner boulderers can watch how the more experienced boulderers take risks and solve problems, and the more advanced can offer guidance to the newbies since we’re all climbing in the same place at the same time.

As the gym hours were winding down and more reasonable people had gone home for the night, Tantek and I observed a group of steadfast climbers continuing to huddle by one of the walls. They were creating their own climbing routes.

We talked about why they were doing this — about how there are many beginner-level routes, but as boulderers advance, there are fewer people at each skill level and correspondingly fewer courses. Advanced boulderers, then, have many fewer options, and thus are likely to want to create their own courses using the existing holds.

We brainstormed on how the newly-defined “hybrid” courses could be marked so that other people could follow them, as well. Some ideas were to have fiber optics in the holds that could be toggled on to highlight the correct holds. Another idea was to have all of the holds be translucent and only the applicable ones be lit from behind.

The climbing walls as they exist are an excellent example of how to cultivate an environment in which most learners can operate within their zone of proximal development. Allowing configuration of the climbs in a web 2.0-esque user generated fashion would allow the most advanced members of the community to operate within their ideal learning zone, as well (though our ideas are impractical, at best).


by freekorps, found on flickr

One thought on “Climbing and learning”

  1. I think I sense a project in the MAKEing. If we can just find a manufacturer for white semitranslucent holds, then I think we can patch the rest of the tech into a typical climbing wall setup to create the dynamically colored holds for different routes. We just need a location to build/setup a climbing wall. Like the back of someone’s house.

    You could even create dynamic routes that changed color while you were climbing them, or perhaps only showed you the next two holds you could grab, so you wouldn’t know where the route ended until you were near the top. Both would require weight sensors on/in the holds though.

    P.S. Note in the photo you included above that they use all holds of a certain color to indicate a route, rather than tape on the holds. I prefer the tape on the holds technique as it allows for many more overlapping routes to be tightly packed into a smaller set of holds and area of wall, though the colored holds path is more common.

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