Canberra is an awesome place for mountain biking. With a range of well-maintained tracks close to town, they're convenient, accessible and a great way to spend a day or just wind down after work.
Mount Stromlo is a premiere location for Mountain Biking, with hundreds of different interconnected tracks and trails, all maintained by the local council. There's something for everyone here. For the beginner, there's an awesome playground area which is sign-posted with handy hints on how to ride each section. Full of logs, obstacles, berms, rollovers, seesaws and a pump track, this is great for basic training and skills development.
On the mountain itself, there are six major courses to ride, which can be combined or chopped and changed to create countless unique riding experiences. There's everything from the green beginner tracks to some wild double black diamonds for the expert rider. Stromlo has many days worth of tracks to ride and it's well worth planning a trip there with this in mind. From skills development to adrenaline pumping down hills, this is one fantastic place to ride.
Travel to the very edge of Kakadu National Park in Australia's remote Northern Territory, where you’ll discover ancient aboriginal artwork dating back tens of thousands of years. Not only will you see some of Australia's most remarkable rock paintings, but Kakadu National Park is a unique and stunning experience in itself.
Ubirr is deep in Kakadu National Park, which is one of Australia's most unique and beautiful national parks. The township, which consists of a general store offering take away Thai food, is a totally random outpost in an otherwise sparsely populated area. Ubirr is flanked by the East Alligator River (originally the crocodiles were mistaken for alligators, but when it was realised, the government didn’t want the expense of changing all the names on the maps, so it stuck). The East Alligator River is also the border to Arnhem Land, a traditional aboriginal territory, entry to which is strictly by invitation only.
To get there from Darwin, drive south along the Stuart Highway until you reach the Arnhem Highway. It’s then a 221km drive until you’re almost at Jabiru. Take the Ubirr Boarder Track. It’s sealed all the way to the border, so no worries if you don’t have a 4WD. The trail head is approximately 37km from Jabiru, which is also the last fuel stop. Advice for the drive: Do not drive at night. Between sunset and sunrise the proliferation of wildlife on the road is phenomenal and you shouldn’t drive at all in the dark.
Kakadu National Park is a wondrous landscape filled with an abundance of rare wildlife, including crocodiles. Make sure you avoid the temptation of wandering off to check out low-lying marshlands and stick strictly to the highway, as the risk of crocodile attack in this area is extremely high.
Arriving at Ubirr, there's clear well-signed tracks. The hike itself is not a particularly challenging one and is suitable for the whole family. It's relatively flat, with a single rocky peak to climb, giving you an amazing 360 degrees outlook right around the landscape. However, from a risk point of view, the heat is searing and there's precious little shade throughout the area, so make sure you have plenty of water.
Wandering along the dusty track, you soon come to the first of the stunning rock formations. The overhang, used as a shelter for aborigines in the past, has provided the perfect protection for the artwork, some of which date back around 20,000 years. Added to this, you can see how the landscape has changed over the millennia with some paintings located high up on the rock faces where once the ground was much higher, but as time weathered and eroded the softer parts of the land, the paintings crept down the wall. Many of these remain at eye level, so you can glimpse the amazing complexity of design.
There are different paintings throughout the area and something to take note of is the variation of what the art work depicts, depending on ice ages and periods of global warming, as the landscape dramatically changed. The pathway eventually takes you up to a stunning lookout. The awesome combination of remoteness, rare wildlife and ancient rock paintings makes this a wonderful and unique experience.
Dotted along the way with diverse and unique pockets of Australian wild flowers, The Wog Wog to Corang River hike is a great little overnight hike trek through rugged bushland on the edge of the Budawang Wilderness area. With a narrow, yet clearly distinguished track, this is a great taste of some of Australia’s most rugged wilderness areas located on the South Coast of NSW, just three hours drive from Sydney.
To get there from the sleepy town of Nerriga, travel south west along Nerriga Road for 17km until you reach Charley’s Forest Road. Turn left and continue along this road for approximately 6km until you reach the Wog Wog car park. The trail head is on the eastern side of the carpark, next to an information sign.
The walking trail is clearly marked and initially takes you down into a wide gully with some narrow boardwalks helping guide you over the first section. At the end of the boardwalk, the trail then morphs into a well-worn track that winds around for approximately 3km before you reach an intersection at GR 932 330. Take the left hand track at this point. This takes you through some more dense bushland, up and down gullies and through some low lying scrub all the way down to the Corang River.
Whilst this is a tracked walk, don't be lulled into a false sense of this being easy. It's a challenging track and the roughly 7km hike can take several hours depending on your fitness and the heat. This is a real wilderness area and quite remote, so you need to come prepared.
As you’re approaching the campsite the area opens up to some great views of the surrounding area before funnelling you down into the camp ground next to the serene and picturesque Corang River. The river meanders through ancient volcanic rock, leading to an amazing swimming hole a couple of hundred metres from the camp.
This is an amazing overnight trip and well worth doing as a way to introduce yourself to the stark rugged beauty of the Budawangs.
NEED TO KNOW
Length: 14 km (Return)
Time: 8 hours (Overnight recommended)
Grade: Difficult / Grade 4-5 (according to the Australian Walking Track Grading System).
Park: Morton National Park
Closest Town: Nerriga
Car Access: From Nerriga, travel south west along Nerriga Road for 17km until you reach Charley’s Forest Road. Turn left and continue along this road for approximately 6km until you reach the Wog Wog car park. The trail head is on the eastern side of the carpark, next to an information sign.
With outstretched arms the statue of Jesus (Cristo Rei) is a prominent and commanding landmark on the outskirts of Dili, capital city of the World’s youngest country, Timor Leste (East Timor). Built by the Indonesians to keep the predominantly Catholic population happy, hiking to the top of the mountain on which it stands is a great experience, giving you a bird’s eye view along the coast and over the city.
The walk starts at sea level from a car park at Cristo Rei Beach, East of Dili. The roads to the base of the walk are decent, but take a car, don't ride a bike as the roads can be quite dangerous due to the distinct lack of clear road rules and limited driver training. Opposite the car park, the rustic beach area has a few shelters which are prefect for a picnic lunch. The beach is popular with the locals, but don't expect too many waves as it's within a protected bay. The walk itself is an invigorating stair climb, dotted along the way with murals depicting the life of Christ. From the base you climb around 500 steps.
About three quarters of the way up there's a large amphitheatre where services are held on important occasions. From here, it's not far to the summit at which point you’ll find Jesus standing on top of a large globe and looking out towards Dili with his arms wide open. The views from here are stunning, as you have a commanding view right up and down the rugged coastline and over the city itself.
There’s always a lot to think about when preparing for an outdoor ed camp. Assuming you know where you’re going and what you’re doing sorted, then it’s time to prepare the finer details.
For most teachers, this is where it can become overwhelming. Often the feeling is, “I want to run an enjoyable and safe trip… but where do I start?”
The first thing to do is develop your risk management plan. Many other things will simply fall into place once this is done. Although the bane of many teachers’ existence, a good risk management plan can save you considerable time and effort down the line.
When building your plan, look at your daily routine and work out what the key risks are for each activity and how you will accept, eliminate or mitigate these risks. You’ll need to consider things such as time of year (season), weather, temperatures, location and emergency exit points. Add to this the specific risks for each activity in those locations at that time of the year and you’ll start to build a picture of what your key risks are and how you’re going to address them.
With your risk management strategy created, remember, this is a living document not a copy and paste job which just makes up part of the ‘annoying paperwork.’ All staff need to be aware of risks and mitigation strategies and be prepared to react and respond if and when it’s needed.
The next step is to sort permission notes, get updated medicals and provide a student packing list with all the items they need to bring (and things they shouldn’t). Have a detailed plan ready to go before you send this out to parents. You’re bound to get lots of questions so the more detailed the itinerary you can provide upfront, the better.
For the equipment list, clearly specify quantity and quality of what’s required. Whilst I know some parents might not be able to supply this, as a matter of safety, it’s important that you’re able to cater for any shortfall. One of the most important pieces of equipment is a set of thermals. Even in warmer months, it’s good safety practice to carry some thermals in case of emergency and if you’re running an autumn or winter camp, it’s essential that all students have a set. The reason being (not just to support our great wool industry), hypothermia is always a significant environmental risk due to wet and windy conditions in Australia.
With permissions notes, medicals and gear all sorted, it’s time to brief everyone! This is often overlooked, but it’s vitally important to run a pre-camp briefing for staff and students. This goes back to pro-active risk management. Set the scene, set the expectations and build the excitement for camp. After all, you’ve just spent weeks preparing something very special it’s now time to tell everyone about it! Showing images from a previous camp and location on a map, is a great way to put into perspective some of the experiences they’re about to have.
With all this done, it’s down to the last items and you’re ready to go! First Aid kits, spare Asthma Puffer, spare EpiPen, any medications, groups lists, medical summaries, food and you’re good to go! By the way… did anyone book the buses?
If you’ve ever read anything about organisational management, be it on teambuilding or leadership in the workplace, you’re bombarded with discussions on ‘culture.’ Culture is basically the shared values and beliefs that a group of people see as important and sets the standard for social and behavioural expectations within the group.
I’ve worked for schools which have had good cultures and some, unfortunately, which have had very bad cultures. The result of a school’s culture, good, bad or indifferent, impacts on the quality of the educational experience, the welfare of students and ultimately their growth, development and ability to transition out of school and mature over the long-term. You only have to look at recent examples of initiations happening at some university colleges in Australia to see how bad culture can lead to horrendous situations. Consequently, developing a positive culture with clear behavioural expectations within the school is vitally important for both social and academic growth. How exactly can outdoor education help?
Outdoor ed is a fertile ground for helping build a positive culture within your school as the learning space provides a far more emotional context for learning. It’s this emotional and empathetic side of students with which you need to connect, to be able to build trust and help students develop understanding and empathy for others. To begin with, the outdoors provides us with unique spaces, contexts and experiences which are vastly different from that of the regular classroom. It changes people’s states of mind and when you change your state of mind, you can learn, grow and develop far more effectively.
In a noise-filled digital world, an outdoor education experience is an opportunity for students to disconnect from the noise and reconnect with themselves and their peers. Taking a group out into a wilderness setting will change the dynamics for them and often students will become more open to discuss feelings, concerns and share stories and experiences which they would otherwise never share. When they have the time and headspace to do this, it enables you to work on all the soft skills such as empathy, teamwork and helping others, not because they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s often hard to convey these sorts of ideals within the structure and busyness of a normal school day, but when students are put in a situation where they have to live and experience something for themselves, that’s when you can get significant gains in a short period of time.
However, outdoor education experiences are not a quick fix solution and it can’t be done in isolation. What happens in the outdoors needs to be effectively transferred and translated back to daily school life for it to have any real impact. To begin with, ask yourself, what do you want to achieve from your outdoor program? Is it just a fun experience for students hiking or canoeing in the bush? Or is it far deeper than that? Are you aiming to push comfort zones, test thresholds and building resilience? Are you aiming to develop students’ empathy for others? Understand diversity? Gain independence? Build healthy relationships? To maximise the effectiveness of your outdoor ed programs and consequently use them to help build a positive culture within your school, you need to be clear about your objectives. They need to be natural, genuine and acceptable within the school body so you can get strong buy-in from the staff, parents and students before you even think about going off site somewhere.
This buy-in across the board is extremely important, as you can’t develop culture in isolation. One residential program I worked on a number of years ago had a few cultural problems to say the least. One of them was a confusion over what the actual aims and objectives were for the program. On the one hand you had experienced outdoor education staff who would lead the expeditions with clear set expectations that the students were leading each trip and were responsible for everything. The only time we would step in was if there were a safety issue. On the other hand, you had teachers back at base who were teaching lessons during the day and providing an old style of boarding house supervision at night with an overwhelming sense that the students needed to be constantly directed and told what to do. This was a massive disconnect, which ultimately left students confused and feeling disempowered, as they were expected to be independent problem solvers one moment and mindless regimented robots the next. Admittedly, this was an unusual situation. However, it highlights how an outdoor program can’t successfully shape culture in isolation. The learning and expectations need to be carried and supported back into the classroom and daily life at school, otherwise the value of the experience can become seriously diminished.
In contrast, I was working for a school in Melbourne and had the great opportunity to go out on a rock climbing expedition with a group of year 10 students. One of the students we took out with us was a special needs student who usually had a carer with him. However, this time there was no carer. I went on the trip fully expecting to spend most of my time looking after this one student, but to my great surprise all of the students in the group took it in turns to help him. They made sure he was included in the group, made sure that at meal times he was looked after and they genuinely encouraged him every day when rock climbing, even though he couldn’t do any of the climbs the other students were doing. This was an amazing thing to see. Each night after dinner, we ran a debrief about the day and discussed some wider issues around social responsibilities. The thoughtful ideas that were expressed by the students blew me away. This was a school that had instilled in its students a wonderful and genuine culture of caring for others. There was no confusion. There was no disconnect. There was a natural clarity of responsibility and purpose.
When I looked back at the way in which the outdoor education program was sequentially structured at that school from year 5 through to year 10, I could see how the clear aims and objectives, the staff, student and parent buy-in and the continuation of the same themes of community service and social responsibility back at school were all working together to help build this very positive culture. This is the critical key to success and can provide enormous benefits for students and staff throughout their time at the school. If you want to develop and shape positive culture in your school, then leverage outdoor experiences by setting clear goals and expectations and transferring them from what happened in the outdoor context, back into the wider context of life at your school. The process does take time, but the benefits that you’ll see over the long-term can be astounding.
To really understand how incompetent some people are when it comes to reporting incidents, you need only look at my old school. Wait, no… not the one of which you’re thinking! Let’s go back further to when I was in a Government high school myself.
It was the 90s, an almost lost decade when the great fashion styles of the 80s were now dead and replaced with slightly more conservative hair cuts and mobile phones that came in a bag. Yes that’s right, A mobile didn’t fit in your pocket. It came in its own bag. They were enormous! I remember that everyone thought that people who carried their own bag phone around, must have been either super important, or a complete tosser! In reality, it was the latter, but I digress.
Whilst I prefer not to talk about my high school experience, because it could lead to far too many expletives being used in every sentence, the remarkable thing about life is the fact that we can learn some great lessons from complete idiots. Just take a look at the Darwin Awards, which is a great testament to this fact. Sadly, I don’t have another contender for the Darwin Awards on this occasion. However, there’s no shortage of idiots involved, so for those of you involved in risk management, this is what not to do when your school bus gets hit by a semi-trailer.
Now it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the day trip to Narrabri without putting it into some sort of context. Why were we travelling two hours from Tamworth in Northern NSW to Narrabri just to have an argument?
For me, this was one of the most exciting days of the year. It was the regional debating championships and for one, it had me out of school for the day, which was always preferable. More importantly, it was one of the best debating competitions around. Sadly, the English staff who were supposedly running debating, didn’t share this view. Since it wasn’t Rugby League, the rest of the school had a dim view of it as well. The only time I’d actually been to Narrabri for the championship was two years before when I was in Year 7 and we did very well, getting into the finals but coming runner up at the end of the day. The next year however, one of the students slept in, and so rather than leaving one student behind, the stupid teacher waited and did nothing for an hour and a half, until the student got on the bus. We arrived massively late and forfeited every single debate. Yet another stellar moment for the English Department.
However, I’ll leave it at the fact that the English Department and I did not get along. There was some unpleasantness. I remember in Year 12, I was excluded from the debating team for apparently being too argumentative… but that’s a much longer story for another time!
Back to the matter at hand. I was thrilled to be heading off to Narrabri for the day of debating. It was a knock out impromptu debating competition, which I loved and given the previous year’s mess, I was eagerly anticipating getting there and at least competing in the first round!
Despite the fact that it had been raining overnight and drizzling that morning, all was going well. I was picked up on time in town, which was a pleasant surprise. Jumping on the bus, I found a seat right in the middle of the mini-bus on the driver’s side. It was on the outskirts of Tamworth when I first noticed the bus seemed to be all over the road. It was raining more heavily and the driver, one of the illustrious English teachers, had managed to slip the bus off the road twice into the soft verge at the side of the bitumen. On the second slip I banged my knee hard into the seat in front of me. “What an idiot,” I thought. (I was thinking worse than idiot… but I’m keeping this PG). This year we were in no hurry, but the teacher seemed hell-bent on racing the whole way there.
Another twenty minutes on and with a few more bumpy shunts all over the road, we were close to Gunnedah and approaching a narrow bridge over the Mooki River. It was raining. We seemed to be speeding in a bus that had already slipped off the road a number of times and now were approaching the narrow wooden Mooki Bridge. I glanced up to see a semi-trailer heading in our direction. It was half way over the bridge. Then everything suddenly slowed down.
I don’t remember hearing the screech of the wheels, but at some point the teacher had slammed on the brakes, the wheels had locked up and the bus spun around in slow motion 90 degrees. We were now sliding sideways straight along the road, completely out of control. Out my window, a massive bull-bar- covered grill was coming straight for me. Nothing profound was going through my mind as I grabbed to push my back hard into my seat and braced myself against the seat in front. There were no seat belts and we were about to be T- boned in the middle of the bus.
It was the quick thinking of the truck driver who saved us that day. As I watched helplessly from my seat, the massive bull-bar came closer and closer. Suddenly the rig of the semi-trailer veered sharply left. It’s wheels shifted and rumbled off the side of the road. The driver was now trying to turn hard left and the bull bar was facing slightly away from me, but with the truck close to us now and with nowhere left to go, I held my breath. The bus was deathly silent.
The most frightful, deafening sound of crunching metal smashed the silence. The semi had clipped the rear of the mini bus. The side windows shattered. Glass sprayed slowly through the air like a thousand diamonds hovering slightly, as the bus spun violently, before arcing to the floor. Glancing back, I saw the semi-trailer roll onto its side and into a ditch next to the road. We came to an abrupt stop. I sat there stunned as everything seemed to return back to normal speed. “I’ve got to get off the bus,” I thought. “What if it explodes?”
With my ears ringing, I could now hear screaming and shouting throughout the bus. All I could think of was what if another truck comes along and hits us? I scrambled off the bus. It sat awkwardly, still halfway across the road. The massive semi-trailer lay motionless.
Despite our teacher being a massive tosser, unfortunately he didn’t have an enormous bag phone, so we had to call emergency services 90s style!!
I ran across the old narrow wooden bridge to the other side. Sure enough, another truck was picking up speed as it headed out of town. Standing in the middle of the road I flagged him down. I can’t remember what I said, or even if it made any sense, but with wreckage strewn all over the road ahead, it was fairly obvious we needed help. The truck driver got on the CB radio and soon we could hear the sounds and see the flashing lights of the ambulance and police racing towards us.
A couple of students were still on the bus. The teacher had run off to the other vehicle and not bothered to check on any of us, despite the common sense rule of check your students! Given the fact he should have owned a bag phone, this wasn’t surprising in any way. As in every movie climax after the life or death conflict has been resolved, the flashing lights and uniforms around us seemed to create a sense of calm. I think I was too stunned and possibly concussed at this point to really be feeling anything. Although, I remember thinking, “We’re going to be late for the debate again!”
A couple of students and the truck driver, who in his superb efforts to save us had broken his leg, were loaded into ambulances and rushed off to hospital. We were loaded back on the bus which still could be moved and driven to hospital. To say I was reluctant to board the bus was an understatement, especially with that guy at the wheel, who in my opinion was completely responsible for everything that had just happened. However, the police determined the bus could be driven only about 4 km to Gunnedah Hospital.
We sat around and waited to be seen in hospital. One after another, a doctor checked us. My knee was sore and I felt exhausted. Otherwise, I was fine. For us, the ordeal was pretty much over, but for everyone else it had only just begun!
Thanks to modern forms of communication at that time (the CB radio), which could be easily listened into by anyone, the 8.30am local ABC radio news had already broadcast the accident informing all the northwest that “a bus from a Tamworth school had crashed.”
Panic arose for some primary school parents whose children had left that morning for Canberra. The 9am news stated, “The bus was not from Oxley Vale School.”
The phones at our school, those ones that plug into the wall, went into meltdown, as only a tiny bit of information was released on the radio. By 11am, the school was named. It didn’t say that it was the debating team, a significant point by which most parents would have known it didn’t involve their son. Everyone, however, had assumed it was a football team or some other excursion and thus many parents were trying to ring one phone number all at once. The parents with children in the debating team had also found out and couldn’t contact the school due to the phones being engaged.
If there’s one thing you should do in the event of a critical incident, it’s inform the parents of those involved as soon as you can! Release a detailed statement to the rest of the school community based on clear facts and in line with the needs of the community. Failing to do so, creates more problems. It creates panic and uncertainty and parents will fill in all the blanks you’ve left for them with their imagination. Soon parent imagination can turn into pseudo facts and you will have an even bigger mess on your hands. It’s hard to respond to that and much harder from which to recover.
Rather than using another phone line to call the parents of the students who were involved, the school did nothing. Yes, that’s right! Nothing at all! The hopeless response to this major incident is probably one of the reasons why I believe risk and incident management is so important. Seeing people do something so badly, usually prompts me to do the opposite and make sure it’s done properly.
A teacher at the school told my older brothers and gave them the tiny bit of information that was heard on the radio. One brother rang our mother at her work with the words, “The bus has crashed, but David is all right.” She in turn rang our father at his work and he kept dialling the school number to see if he should drive to Gunnedah or where.
The school sent a teacher in another bus to come and pick everyone up from Gunnedah Hospital. There wasn’t anything wrong with this in itself. We were collected at the hospital, driven back to Tamworth and dropped off either at or near home or at a parent’s work with no meet and greet to the parents, nor any sort of handover. I was the only student with immediate parent contact. One boy was set down in town and had to wait about three hours for his regular school bus to take him home to Manilla.
A number of students were dropped off at empty houses. After almost being killed in a horrible collision with a truck, the teacher somehow thought that dropping shaken teenagers off at an empty house was an appropriate thing to do! Even the most useless and incompetent teacher should have known better than that! Perhaps the teacher who picked us up should have been carrying two bag phones. As he was head of welfare for the school, it’s rather ironic that he appeared to know nothing about student welfare, but again that’s my opinion and a much longer story for another time in regards to what I believe was his incompetence and inability to fulfil an important role.
The idea that it was ok to drop students off at home when nobody was there after a traumatic road collision was stupid even for the 1990s. I remember being dropped off at Tamworth West Primary School where my mother was teaching her Year 4 class. I wandered in, still possibly concussed and remember lying down somewhere in the classroom and falling asleep. Mum sensibly refused to take me home in her lunch break.
What should have happened? All students should have been driven back to school. No one should have been left alone. Day boys could have been left under Matron’s watchful eye, until their parents arrived to collect them. Boarders could have been supervised by Matron and/or their dormitory master.
From an incident response and management point of view, the lack of communication was pathetic. It might have been a lack of training, a lack of response planning, or just the fact that I went to a school that appeared to be run ineffectively. The bottom line was that there was no plan in place if something went wrong. It was evident that everyone was simply making things up as they went.
Whilst critical incidents are fluid in nature and you may need to respond in an inter-active way to contain the initial situation, there is absolutely no reason why any school or organisation can’t have clear actionable steps in place to be able to respond quickly and effectively to a major incident. It’s vital that you inform parents and if needed, draw on resources in the wider community, such as local radio.
Over the past 25 years, at no time did anyone from the school contact my parents to let them know what happened! At no point was the incident ever debriefed! At no point did anyone ask about the debating! Two years in a row, we’d forfeited the most awesome competition in the region and to this date, the school still hasn’t officially told anyone that the bus crash actually occurred.
The Principal suddenly left the school and the questions about the crash, that parents asked at the P & C meeting, were unanswered.
Despite all of this, I learnt some very important lessons as to what not to do in a situation like this. One thing it highlights though, is the fact that for all the carry on I’ve seen over the years from people who don’t understand risk management and incident management, the fact remains, being on the road with students is one of the highest risk factors possible.
Driving to the conditions, avoiding peak periods of traffic and having a fatigue management policy and procedure in place is vital to reduce this transport risk that’s part of every trip away from school.
Let’s put this back in context. We were going to a debating competition!!! Sounds very low risk and not even worth doing a risk assessment on, yet had the truck driver not reacted the way he did, our bus would have been cut in two and a few more sun-bleached crosses would have stood scattered at the side of the road, lovingly surrounded by flowers, tended only, in decreasing frequency, by the broken families who were never told what really happened that day.
Just a short one this week about an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years in outdoor ed programs has been that of clustering. What I mean by this is the group dynamic of needing to be close together when in large open spaces. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s interesting to watch how this can change over a longer-term program as students become more comfortable with their surroundings and the natural environment. For students from cities, most of the groups with which I’ve worked, big open spaces tend to be uncomfortable. When it comes to hiking, canoeing and camping, no matter how much space you have, the students tend to need to be very close together, even if they’re not friends.
I started to notice this across a number of canoeing expeditions where we were paddling on quite wide lakes. Whilst you never want a canoe group to be too far away from boats to boat, quite often students will paddle right on top of each other, rather than giving everyone else room to move. The same is true when they’re setting up their tents at the campsite. No matter how large and unoccupied the camp ground, the students tend to cluster together with tents almost on top of each other and rather than use free time to socialise with friends, they often cluster into one large group.
This is definitely a very primitive comfort zone issue and the fact that students feel safer in large groups when out in the wilderness. From a management point of view, this is great, as it’s easier to keep track of where everyone is. Just look for the massive group and listen for the noise. However, the problem with this is that as a group they can miss so much about the environment around them. They can miss the opportunity to switch off and just enjoy the peace and quiet of the unique landscapes and environments they will most likely never see again.
As I mentioned however, for longer programs, this distance seems to increase. Students feel more comfortable in the environment in which they’re in and as this comfort increases, they don’t need to be as close together to each other as before. They also develop an attitude that it is quite safe and this adds to the de-clustering effect. It’s interesting to watch this transition too as it creates greater moments for reflection and relaxation and opens students’ minds to so much more. It enables them to switch off from a massively connected world. It enables them to focus on the beauty of the world. Students can focus also on how much bigger the world is than just their own lives and their own experiences.
It’s not often that I write about history, however, having studied mediæval history at uni, many aspects of it really didn’t make sense until I went and visited some of the places where these events occurred. Half of what goes on in Game of Thrones, was just daily life for many people throughout this period. At one point, the Pope was concerned about the level of violence throughout Europe. To deal with this issue, he made a decree that on a certain day nobody was to carry a weapon, therefore the world would have a break from violence and be made safer. Sadly, only the honest people followed this edict and were horribly slaughtered as a result.
From the age of the Vikings to the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, we covered a lot of ground at uni and there are so many places left to go to be able to put the pieces together. However, as I was in Wales, it was time to get a greater understanding of the expansion of the Normans and Edward I’s conquest of Wales. This conquest brought Wales under the control of the English monarch in 1283 and despite skirmishes and uprisings, its remained as part of the United Kingdom to this day. To establish and maintain his power base in Wales, Edward built a series of castles to fend off the Welsh princes. The scale of one of these castles is hard to understand until you’re actually there.
Despite Cardiff being the capital of Wales today, with its own amazing castle, for Edward I, due to a Roman legend about a foreign king coming and falling in love with a Welsh princess and ruling the land, it was important to build his capital in Cænarvon the centre upon which the legend was based, which helped him gain, or appear to gain, legitimacy in his kingship.
All of Edward’s castles were designed by the architect James of St. George. James was a Savoyard (from modern Italy), and he incorporated elements in his design from Europe and the Middle East.
The fact that he built so many so quickly is amazing. I spent the morning climbing up and down the various towers, which I’m sure at one point were all linked together. However, due to the castle being in ruins, not everything remains intact. The time and energy required to get up and down the dizzying spiral staircases is surprising. If you could imagine trying to do that in full armour whilst being attacked by someone with a sword, you start to appreciate not living in mediæval times, add to that the Black Death and infant mortality and a six hour wait in a modern hospital waiting room doesn’t seem so bad.
What’s really important however, about going to a place such as Cænarvon Castle, walking through the dark halls, peering out from the battlements and standing on the towers looking out over the surrounding township and the sea, is that you start to gain a real understanding of history. Through technology, we can now travel places without leaving the classroom, which is good in some ways, but the virtual world can never replace the real world experience of going somewhere. You can’t feel the icy wind on your cheeks, smell the dank odour of the dungeons and be amazed at the sheer enormity of the structure, as you walk through the gates. All of this is lost in the virtual experience.
Although taking your class overseas to tour the various castles, monasteries and cathedrals of Europe may be a more challenging task than switching on a virtual world, the difference this will make is enormous. At the very least for your own teaching, travel far and wide to as many places as you can to see and experience sites such as Cænarvon Castle. This will have a huge impact on your ability to better understand and teach that part of history.
Using the environment as part of an experiential education program is vitally important. So how does the environment change or improve the way in which you can engage with students? Many times, I’ve had some great fireside chats with groups of students that would have never been possible in the classroom. There’s something remarkably special about the natural environment that breaks down barriers within groups and allows for discussions and experiences totally different from a classroom and the built environment. It can often be and should be an even safer place for discussion, as it’s separated from our daily routine and connects us with thousands of years of human experience and relationship with the land.
If you think about how a classroom operates, you have a teacher at the front and no matter how hard you try to create a ‘new classroom’ through open planning or adding bean bags and colourful shelving, the reality is, the space still operates in the same way. A group comes in, a teacher is there, you have a class, the group leaves and the teacher is there ready for the next class. So this is a process. It’s quite structured, regardless of how laissez-faire you want to be about it.
However, the natural environment, whether it be in the bush, the rocky mountain wilderness, a rainforest or coastal setting, there’s very little structure to it and consequently, this space changes the emotional dynamics and experience of the group. In terms of experiential education, if you’ve been on a challenging hike, canoe activity, or maybe a team building task, whatever the case may be, it’s a shared experience and should be debriefed afterwards. However, think of where that debrief should take place and how much the environment will impact on its effectiveness. If you’re running out of a basecamp with building and rooms, what’s going to happen if you take the debrief inside? What unnatural distractions and complications have you just added to the group dynamics? Alternatively, what will be the group’s behaviours and dynamics, if you find a quiet place away from anything man-made? Test the theory out for yourself. However, from my experience, there’s a dramatic difference. The reality is that people are more open to sharing and listening to thoughts, feelings and ideas, than they are in built up environments.
The natural environment provides a wonderful connection with our heritage, which is often forgotten in a highly connected world that is full of endless noise and distractions. Getting back to a natural environment can change the way your students feel, the way in which they are able to express themselves and ultimately has a powerful and positive impact on their learning. It’s interesting when you take a group out of a city and bring them into a unique bush setting.
I was speaking with Mary Preece, the education manager for Bundanon Trust, an art centre in the Shoalhaven. Mary has found a similar phenomenon as she works with a lot of city kids. As part of their art program, they take students out into some beautiful Australian bush locations on the property. They have no phone connectivity, there are no buildings around and the only way the students can get to where the workshops are being conducted is by walking. From the moment the students get off the bus, there’s literally a collective sigh of relief and after that initial transition, one of the activities they do is to lead the group into a rainforest. As they walk the students down into the gully, the natural light is filtered and it becomes slightly darker and the students respond by becoming naturally quieter. This experience with the rainforest, enables the staff to create an extremely relaxed and peaceful environment, free from the noise of everyday life, somewhat of a rarity in this day and age, since many schools mistakenly believe that cramming as much into a student’s day as possible is the best method of creating ‘well-balanced’ individuals.
However, without the constant bombardment and endless white noise of the world, it enables students to focus on what’s truly important in life and lets them live in the moment for what can be a very different and immensely effective learning experience. The reality is that for tens of thousands of years, humans have been connected with the natural environment and being away from the built up environment helps us reconnect with a physical and emotional connection that’s being strained by modern life.
Why do we like going to the beach? Why do we like going bushwalking? Why do we like going to lookouts and seeing the natural environment in all its beauty? Why do we like a cool breeze in summer? Why does a change in season, change our mood? It’s all of these environmental connections that have developed over millennia, we often lose through our modern lifestyle. The more we’re connected through digital technology, which can massively improve some parts of our lives, unfortunately, the more distant we can become from ourselves and those around us. It’s really important that with modern life, we don’t lose that connection with our natural environment. Consequently, building opportunities into educational programs for environmental connectivity is extremely important and valuable for staff and students alike.
How does a change in the environment change our state of mind? How does it change our health? How does it change how we relate to others? With youth mental health an increasingly massive issue, the more that educators can enable students to be in touch with and control over their emotions, the better equipped they will be to develop the resilience that’s needed to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world.
Experiential education is not just about running a series of activities so students can experience something different and schools can cram another thing on top of their programs to justify their fees and distract parents from the fact that they’re still stuck in the 1980s. It’s much deeper than that. Experiential education is an immersive method of education that when combined effectively with the natural environment, can massively improve student health, well-being and their ability to relax, clear their minds and be open to new thoughts, ideas and ways of doing things, which are all critically important skills in a rapidly changing world. Carefully structuring activities with environmental connectivity in mind, is vitally important in a noise filled world to help students reflect and become mindful of where they’re at in their own lives and where they want to be going. This ability to disconnect from the connected and built up world, even for a short period of time, can provide some amazing long-term benefits that last well beyond a student’s time at school. The noisier the world gets, the more important it will be to ensure you have thoughtful and effective environmental connectivity as part of your experiential education program.
An interesting phenomenon is whenever I’ve taken groups out on canoeing expeditions. We tend to paddle on quite wide lakes. There are very few areas where it narrows to the point that we’re either paddling a rapids or we’re paddling close together or need to be paddling close together. However, given the wide open river, the students I work with tend to all cluster together in really small groups. They only use a tiny part of the river. The same is true when they’re setting up their tents. They clustered together in a really small groups despite having masses of open space which they can utilise. This is interesting from the aspect of is this something that we’re finding with city students. Are they afraid of open space or are they made to feel uncomfortable by open space?
As the camps progress, this distance seems to increase. They feel more comfortable in the environment. They don’t need to be as close together to each other as before. There’s a sense that it is quite safe where we are. That’s quite safe doing what we’re doing. It’s this interesting transition that occurs because of being in the natural environment.
This is why it’s so important to use the natural environment as part of any of your Experiential Education Programs. It opens students’ minds to so much more. It enables them to relax. It enables them to switch off from a massively connected world. It enables them to focus on the beauty of the world and to focus on how much bigger the world is than just their own lives and their own experiences.
You can even try with exactly the same question, the same topic basically. See how effective it is covering an important topic and it could be talking about bullying. It could be talking about dogs. It could be talking about decision making. It could be talking about relationships. If you talk about any of these in the classroom, you get one same answers. However, if you talk about these in a different setting, in a wilderness setting, in a bush setting, you will get an entirely different set. It is going to be more involved. It’s going to be more relevant and it is going to be more effective as a learning process for those students. It will enable them to reflect on their answers and how they feel about their answers. Whereas if you do it on class, all they’re thinking of is the next recess break or the next class. You lose that. Therefore, it is vitally important to use the environment as part of your Experiential Education Programs.