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.
No teacher should ever be allowed to go back to the school that he or she attended as a student! No, seriously, they shouldn’t be allowed even into an interview. You’re just asking for problems.
This is one of the weirdest workplace situations possible, yet it’s been accepted and encouraged by so many hopeless schools which believe they cannot survive without the shackles of the past.
Think about it. With what other business or organisation can you get a job where you’ve had such an involved relationship as a child? None! That’s right, none! You can’t be in the military as a child and then go back and become a general. You can’t spend six to twelve years of your life in hospital to go back and be a doctor there. You can’t spend the same amount of time in any other sort of workplace and then end up back there as an employee. So why is this something that’s ok in schools?
In my opinion it’s not ok. It’s weird. It’s unnatural and anyone who wants to go back to the school in which they were educated has some serious mental health issues which they need to work through. Even if you enjoyed your time at a school, going back there as a teacher is a completely different role and experience. Schools who are employing former students as teachers, could be setting themselves up for failure.
Over the years, I’ve come across some highly talentless teachers who, by virtue of the fact they went to the school, got a job back at the school. Perhaps because they were too afraid of the real world, they stayed there long enough to get promoted even further beyond their talents. No further can this problem be highlighted than when a former student ends up in charge of a school. This is quite insane!
Education should be about progress, challenging the status quo and pushing the limits of what’s possible. Taking people back into a school with no other real world experience than that of the same sheltered school environment as the sum total of their life experiences, is only asking to possibly perpetuate poor educational practice and culture.
To be effective in today’s educational environment, teachers need to have diverse life experiences so they can impart not only knowledge, which is becoming less and less important as we speak, but to educate others from their own life experience to help prepare students for the real-life challenge outside of school. If teachers have never stepped outside of school, let alone the school they went to, then this could be a train wreck just waiting to happen.
Hence, if there’s a teacher whose only life experience has been the school which they went to as a child, either don’t hire them, be skeptical about their ability to teach in any meaningful way and if they’re already at your school, perhaps it’s time they broadened their horizons and went out and got some real life experience.
The days of the ‘old school’ mentality that perpetuated rotten cultures and practices, needs to be one more ghost of the past never to make its way back into education. Empowering former students to realise this and help them to get a job that will let them grow in themselves, is the kindest thing you can do for them and for your school. At the end of the day, going back to teach where you were a student is just insanely weird and something everyone can and should live without.
Technology is evolving so rapidly, it’s near impossible to keep up with the relentless pace of change. From one month to the next, we see yet another new development, a new ground-breaking idea, a new way of doing things that will forever change the world! With this amazing digital transformation, which has brought with it so many benefits, it’s important to pause for a moment and think about what the consequences are for education.
Despite the immense benefit that technology has brought to the world, education is a unique field that on the one hand can benefit from efficiencies that technology can bring, but on the other, is at significant risk of failing the next generation of students the more it relies on technology to achieve its aims. The irony of owning a software company and being against technology as an educational driver, is not lost on me, but there’s a reason why I believe the over-use and over-reliance on technology is extremely concerning, as I’m also a teacher.
Firstly, our model of education is all wrong. Despite what some schools will tell you, creating an open-plan classroom is merely window dressing on a system and process that’s essentially not changed since the dark and smoky days of the industrial revolution. You get a group of students, put them in a room, teacher teaches them something, teacher assesses them and students get a mark! Congratulations! You’ve now done the exact same thing the old grumpy guy in the 1890s did, but just without the cane in your hand.
Many people will claim today’s classroom is different because they’ve integrated technology! In most current job descriptions for teachers, there’s a line about your ability to integrate said technology into said classroom, but what does this mean? If you’re still teaching basically the same way that the old grumpy misogynist was back in the 19th century, then throwing in a computer will serve no real purpose, other than making the cost of education go up.
Consequently, it’s worrying to think that by simply adding technology to outdated practices, that it will produce better results. Technology based learning systems are expensive and pointless without real teachers teaching a set of modern skills, which are focused on critical thinking, communications, problem-solving, teamwork and most importantly, adaptability. You can’t get any of this from either traditional education, nor creating virtual teachers and virtual classrooms.
Education for the 21st century needs to be far more experiential. We’re seeing an increasing reliance on devices amongst children and teens that appear to be leading to great prevalence of mental health issues and an inability to form real, healthy and long-lasting relationships. As some of the most important skills needed for the future are all to do with building effective relationships and being able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, this disconnect needs to be addressed as a priority before we throw any more technology into the classroom in the hope that it will magically address the problem.
The current state of education today is ill-equipped to handle the reality of what our next generation needs to be successful in a world that is changing so rapidly. Critical to the success of education into the future is not technology itself, but the ability of students to understand technology and leverage it for a real purpose. The risk is that our current generation and education system has been caught off guard by the enormous digital dislocation that’s happened in the last 10-15 years. This has resulted in many students and young people today being so reliant on devices that they’re now leveraged by technology. When this happens, we’ve failed as educators and we’ve opened the next generation to a serious risk of failure, if and when that technology fails.
To truly create an education system that helps students to grow in a positive, healthy and pro-active way and set them up for success, far more emphasis is needed on relationship building, teamwork, being able to fail and learning from failure. This needs to be done in the real world, through real world experiences. Technology can and should be a part of this, if it’s a natural fit, but technology doesn’t always need to be in the mix, as often we learn more from other experiences that don’t involve technology. It’s often from the ability of the teacher to identify a teachable moment and use this that students learn the most. It can be unplanned, unexpected, but something happens, or is said or done and the teacher leverages this moment for the benefit of their students.
This comes back to my earlier point that it’s through experiential education that students learn best. Teachers who have a wealth of experience can often find and react to teachable moments that would never be possible with virtual AI type teachers no matter how well-programmed they were.
Whilst in the past you could adequately prepare students for the future by teaching fairly narrow content that needed to be retained for a specific job for life, this is no longer the case. It’s important for the future of education, that we have teachers who have had real life experiences outside of the classroom and the academic world, who can provide real, genuine guidance for our next generation. It’s through the ability of an experienced teacher to react and teach future focussed skills that we will see the best results for our students into the future.
After talking about how awesome Twisted Sister were, I might have got you excited about the classic Chumbawamba song Tubthumping! Such a great song, but again another one-hit wonder that now occasionally finds its way to be played at awkward school reunions and trivia nights. However, as interesting as random bands are and as pointless as school reunions are, I am not going to talk about either. Instead, let’s talk head injuries!
Whilst for many people, a head injury might be preferable to going to their school reunion, I don’t want to seem blasé about one of the most significant issues with which we have to deal as teachers, coaches and outdoor instructors.
Concussions are what I would describe as a hidden injury. Whilst sometimes it’s extremely obvious that someone has suffered a concussion, when they’re struggling to remember what you said to them 30 seconds ago, there are also times where the injury goes quite unnoticed. Sometimes, after a hit to the head or a massive body collision, a proper assessment isn’t done and the student continues to play on.
One of the biggest problems with concussions, from a first aid point of view, is that the signs and symptoms are not blatantly obvious. If for example someone breaks an arm, especially if it’s a protruding injury, you can see it’s broken from satellite imagery. If it’s graze or laceration, there’s usually lots of blood and so it’s time to glove up and stop that bleeding. There is a reason why people say “bleedingly obvious,” and you’ll understand exactly what they mean, if you’ve treated someone with an open wound, let alone someone who’s taken a dive in a bed of oysters… but that’s a story for another time.
Head injuries and concussions however, that don’t involve lots of bleeding, aren’t always so obvious and nor is the recovery process. When you’ve broken that arm at right angles and passers by with no first aid training feel nauseated just looking at it, it’s obvious you need to get that looked at by a doctor. The process is quite clear from now on in. You go to the hospital, the triage nurse looks at you and goes ‘Oh woah! That’s broken!’ The old lady you sit down next to in the waiting room goes ‘Oh woah! That’s broken!’ and finally after a 6 hour wait in emergency, the doctor said ‘Oh woah! That’s broken, but we’d better get it X-rayed just to be sure!’
However, with head injuries, it’s not so clear cut. Because we can’t see an obvious trauma, we can often risk not even considering that an injury has occurred. The student after all got back up and is playing again. The student might not feel too bad, just a little dazed… but can ‘walk it off’. Unfortunately, inside the student’s head, the brain has just been bounced around and is suffering the effects of a mild concussion. If however, a student has a major concussion, it’s far easier to notice and remove the student from the field or activity. Thankfully, our awareness of and attention to major concussions has improved dramatically in recent years. However, it’s the mild concussions that worry me, as they can remain hidden for an extended period of time.
When someone suffers a concussion, they should seek medical advice and have a clear recovery plan laid out for them. However, with a mild concussion, medical advice is not always sought and the student doesn’t rest and recover, but instead, goes to the next training session increasing the risk of more significant trauma and then onto the next game, once again at increased risk. A concussion on top of another concussion, on top of another one can have a massive multiplier effect and lead to further damage to the brain being caused. Traumatic brain injury and/or CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) can result.
As I’m not a doctor, and there’s far better medical information and advice on the specifics around TBI and CTE I won’t go into all the details here. But as a first teacher, coach or instructor and often the first responder, we should be ensuring we are baseline testing our students prior to commencing high risk activists such as extreme sports and contact sports. We should be mandating helmets or head gear wherever possible and also remaining situationally aware throughout the activity or game looking for big hits to the body or head that might result in the mild concussion that can be so easily overlooked as it’s not bleedingly obvious to the old lady in the emergency department. It’s easy to test for a concussion, but much much harder to deal with the fallout if you don’t.
As educators, we want to challenge our students and help them get the most out of sports, the outdoors and every other opportunity that school affords them. We want them to out-live us and be forced to go to those awkward school reunions, so they can pretend to be far more successful than all the people they hated at school and claim they invented the ‘Post It Note’ or are now an internet Billionaire having invented ‘Fake Block’. Making our students suffer awkward conversations at school reunions to which we don’t have to go, is good! However, letting them suffer from a traumatic brain injury or CTE from multiple concussions when we can so easily check with something like the International Diagnostic tool, is unacceptable.
We do have a very high duty of care for our students and being aware of the risks involved in concussions and also how we can effectively respond and manage them, is vital for us as teachers, coaches and instructors. If you haven’t done so already, do some research, go to a seminar or listen to a podcast on this. The more we understand about concussions, the more we can do to recognise and treat them as we would any other traumatic injury.
For more clinic information speak with your doctor and a few useful resources below:
Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist History Podcast
Pocket Concussion Recognition Tool - updated 2017
I've been reading a lot of business books lately. Some are amazing, some are total crap and some are just repeating everything else that everyone else has already said, yet still pretending that they thought of it first. Whilst business books are great to read, I reached saturation point last week and everything started appearing to be exactly the same. I've also been driving thousands of kilometres to get to meetings and listening to audio books along the way, but again everyone's sounding the same, telling me the same thing over and over and I needed a break. Ok, so quick sidebar and for those of you thinking about writing a book on business. Please resist the temptation of reading the audio book yourself, unless you have some form of training in media production. It's a rare thing to come across someone who can write logically and fluently and perform their own work with an entertaining flair, most business writers can't!
Having said that however, in my frustration of endless repetition in business tomes and the drones of their authors reading them to me, I woke the other morning to an offer I couldn't refuse! It was a free gift from my purveyor of fine audio books, obviously because I either spend too much money with them, or just not enough. Anyway, the gift was in the form of Girt, (a mysterious word whose usage came to prominence when written into Australia’s national anthem and means surrounded).
The book Girt is about the settlement history of Australia. “Ugh! Yuck! Australian history,” I hear you cry. “How boring!” Well having a degree in Medieval European History, I thought that too. However, nothing could be further from the truth (with the exception perhaps of Hilary's approach to online messaging). I downloaded my free gift and started listening to it right away. Written and narrated by historian David Hunt, this is an astoundingly hilarious account of the unspoken tales of Australian history that show how a nation was discovered by accident more than design and built on the back of dodgy deals generally involving rum and settled predominantly by people who really didn't want to be here. However, due to their rampant compulsion to blow their noses on something nice, rather than wipe it on their sleeves, they were transported here for all the handkerchiefs they borrowed!
I won't go into all the details of the book as I can hardly do it justice and, after all, you can read or listen to it yourself. I will say however, that it was a rolling barrel of laughs as David explored how dysfunctional the early days were in the new British Colony of New South Wales. Although I do note some important general guidelines for those future empire builders looking to send their criminals far far away:
1 Don't make the currency of your new penal colony an alcoholic beverage. If I have to explain why an entire country's economic system shouldn’t be rum-based then please close this window now and go and update your fb status to stupid.
2 Beware the high number of seamstresses in the phonebook. You might get more than your seams taken up.
3 Quickly trademark the name Macquarie and register all the domains you can. You’re guaranteed to make a fortune licensing the use of this name.
4 Don't go to hospital!
If I'm not making any sense, it's either because I'm writing this late at night, or you still haven't read the book!
Ok, so there is a point to all this, other than recommending a fantastic book. The book was so far removed from business, it was the refreshing break I needed from my business. When we focus on something so much, we often lose touch with other things which excite us and make us happy and that's been the case for me. Listening to a wonderful and interesting history that had nothing to do with work or business was great. It gave me the chance to switch off and really enjoy myself and that's so important for anyone, not just entrepreneurs, to be able to do. Take some time for yourself, recharge, refocus and just take the time to enjoy life.
As for Girt, even if you're not into history, read it. It's the most engaging and interesting history book I've ever come across and you will be richer for the experience.
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.
For thousands of years, society has had social anchors for young people when they're growing up, developing and transitioning into adulthood. However, with the digital dislocation that’s occurred, many of these social anchors have been hacked away and have left our youth floating aimlessly in the infinite digital world. The process of self-discovery has suddenly changed into something quite different.
Often, youth would have parents, mentors or peers with whom they’d have a whole range of different experiences. From this, they would learn and experience the world from within supportive smaller community groups. They would learn about expectations within the social group and within society and through a process which is often seen as an important transitional coming-of-age, children were brought into the adult world reasonably well equipped to face the challenges that life can bring, but also prepared for all the subsequent opportunities and responsibilities that come with adult life.
However, for many cultures, this process has been completely scuttled by the digital age. Consequently, children are not finding mentors from within communities. Instead they’re trying to find out how they fit into the world through sites such as Google. The problem is that Google is not exactly the best place to find out reasonable answers when in search of complex emotional questions such as, Who am I? If searching for your place in the world has come to this, you are most likely to find some random spiritual nonsense websites or links to a cool Jackie Chan movie in which he has amnesia and spends the entire movie running around, yelling ‘Who am I?’ at people. Unless you want your life evolving as a Jackie Chan movie in which amnesia is the main theme, perhaps a more traditional approach is needed. There are certainly better ways of developing a sense of identity and a sense of self, than asking the soulless digital world what it thinks.
One thing that we should be asking ourselves is, who has created the digital age? Has it been people with huge amounts of life experience? Has it been created by people that you would trust with your kids? If you actually looked at some of the real back stories of the people who developed and built the major infrastructure and the major platforms on the internet, you’d be horrified at the lack of moral sense and the total lack of understanding of anything outside of greed and profit. Two great books which explore the horrific and idiot world of tech companies are Disrupted and Chaos Monkeys. These provide just a glimpse inside a world driven by immature, greedy profiteers. Is that from where you want your children to get their moral compass?
It's a sad reflection on society when some of the most influential things are run by people whom you wouldn't let near your children. Yet everyday, they’re being invited into homes, workplaces and school without a second thought. It's like allowing the Pied Piper free reign and access to an entire generation of kids and we all know how that turned out the first time around!
Unfortunately, digital devices have become a fantastic means of babysitting and are justified by people who pretend that, ‘It’s digital learning.’ It’s not. It’s just lazy parenting, the consequences of which are now starting to be felt, with an over-reliance on devices and an underwhelming sense of place and self worth in many children and teenagers. Congratulations modern parenting tactics! You’ve kept them entertained whilst you’ve been sipping your latte, but at what cost?
Ok! I might be being a little harsh here, however, it is a danger if over-relied upon. What are some of the core social anchors of which we need to be aware and we need to re-secure to ensure that we’re bringing up kids in the most positive and proactive way? Family first! It’s important to have a strong, loving family unit, in which both parents communicate well with each other, set expectations and provide love and boundaries for children. Next, they need a wider set of older role models, mentors, who may well be outside the direct family structure, but as the children develop into teenagers, these older mentors become very important in the transition of the teenage boy or girl into young adulthood. These connections are some of the most challenging to find these days, as this is one of the anchors that’s been torn apart by technology and modern society. However, be it through school, sports or a workplace, teenagers need this older type of role model to help them transition from being a child and acting like a child to being an adult and taking on the responsibilities of an adult.
Another important social anchor is that of one-on-one time spent with either mum or dad, away from the rest of the family and disconnected from the digital world. Getting away and hiking together, or riding bikes, or some sort of special one-on-one time is really important to have without the phone or the digital device adding noise. It’s times like this that can help build important bonds and give opportunities for relationship building and building trust that can lead to important, honest and open discussion about any issues that might be being faced by their son or daughter at that time. If parents are providing time, space and opportunities for this to happen, then this is a good way of reinforcing a vitally important social anchor of the family. However, if they’re too busy and leaving these questions to be answered by the frat boys who have built social media, then they’re going to be spending a lot more time later on in life trying to undo this damage.
Technology has significantly impacted on many traditional social anchors for children and young adults in their learning, development and transition into adulthood. Many of these anchors have been torn away to the point that they’ve left many young people lost in a noisy, soulless digital world searching for meaning that isn’t really to be found there. However, despite this sudden impact of technology, being aware of this fact and the potential damage it can have on the development of children and teenagers, parents and teachers can do something about it and through paying more attention to the changing emotional needs of children as they grow and supporting them through time spent together, along with other adult mentors, can have a massive impact on their self esteem and their ability to come of age and thrive in a fluid and ever-changing world.
Computer games are fun! Let’s be honest! Who hasn’t sat on a computer or device for hours trying to move up a level or defeat a boss in some sort of computer game. Candy crush was my poison and it was totally addictive until I deleted it and went cold turkey. I’d managed to complete 257 levels before I’d realised I was an addict and had to stop.
Similarly, other games such as Diablo (1,2 & 3) and COD (Call of Duty) became temporary black holes for my time, sapping away hours upon hours with mindless action, collecting lots of gold and killing countless zombies, orcs and dodgy Russians! Whilst this was a lot of fun, I did get bored with them quite quickly. However, the danger for many people, including myself, is when addiction and time spent on these games consumes everything and reaches unhealthy levels.
Game play is a clever art in itself, which is designed to play on people’s desire for endless hits of dopamine and adrenaline. It’s the reward for success and the fight or flight mechanism which has ensured our survival through the ages. However, what’s the cost of this unnatural stimulation of these chemicals in our bodies?
I recently saw a kid engrossed in a café game on a tablet. Having run my own café, I watched for a bit, interested to see what sort of idea a game developer had come up with for this. The basic idea was that you, the player, was preparing meals, serving customers and collecting money all at once. The game was timed and so as the time elapsed, the customers became increasingly dissatisfied when not served. Whilst this is true and challenging in real life, as customers don’t like to be left waiting, what’s the point of this in a game targeted at kids?
As I watched, I noticed the level of anxiety increase in the kid who was playing. The speed at which the customers appeared increased, as did the frustration of trying to achieve the goals of the game. With so many games like this targeted at children, there needs to be more done to regulate such designs. With processes designed specifically to manipulate the behaviour of children, there needs to be a level of accountability that comes from these developers. What moral code of ethics are they working under that makes them feel justified in designing systems that increase anxiety and build addictions.
The long-term impact of this is yet to be seen. However, there’s already an increasing trend of greater mental health problems in children and teenagers. It’s high time that software developers who target children with their products, provide age warnings, based upon potential anxiety and addiction, rather than just sex and violence, for their products.
Games can and should be enjoyed by those playing them, not as yet another source of anxiety and degradation to people’s mental health that they can become. Parents should be vigilant in their approach and assessment of games for their children, but at the same time, there really is a moral and ethical responsibility for developers to do something about this growing issue, when just like smoking, their products can have a lasting detrimental effect on people.
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.