Why Is Free Time So Hard
Free time in the outdoors is challenging. As an experienced outdoor ed teacher other than lightning, high winds and trees falling over, free time is always my biggest concern. “Why’s that?” you ask. “Isn’t this just quiet down time?”
No!!!! Who told you that? It’s actually the causation of the majority of injuries on outdoor programs. “What?” I hear parents scream in the distance. Yes, that’s true, it’s not the activities such as abseiling, or high ropes which have a very high level of perceived risk that are the problem and causation of many injuries. It’s the sitting around doing nothing at outdoor centres which leads to many of the injuries we see in outdoor programs.
The Budawang and Etrema Wilderness areas are some of the most rugged and challenging areas in which to hike in NSW. Having led many groups through both these wilderness areas over the years, filled with snakes, hippies, crazed possums and often a shortage of access to fresh water and evacuation routes, the thought of simply hanging around on an outdoor campus with a group of students for free time, is more worrying than anything I ever could have and did encounter in those tough, unforgiving wilderness areas.
In recent years, I’ve noticed a changing phenomenon. Kids are really rubbish at doing free time, especially when there’s no structured activity going on. Most children’s lives, especially with two working parents, have become so over-structured that the idea that they might have to entertain themselves or find happiness in quiet time is something completely foreign. This is a real problem for our over-stimulated children, who on camp generally don’t have the option of pulling out their phone to play pointless addictive and life-wasting games to stave off the threat of a lack of over-stimulation and having to socialise in a meaningful way.
Unfortunately, what happens as a result of children who are not used to free-time being given lots of free time, is that stupid and poorly thought out games start. These can often result in running around dangerously in areas with which they’re unfamiliar and not always well-supervised in. The other potential negative scenario is that to cure their boredom, they look for other unhealthy things to do, such as picking on each other in unpleasant ways. It’s no surprise that the majority of outdoor education injuries occur during this time.
There’s a false sense of security which goes with being in a hard-top cabin style outdoor ed location. The idea is that it’s not really that risky compared with the activities that were being done during the day. How can you compare that high ropes course which scared the life out of everyone, with sitting around talking or more likely running around madly. Sometimes, teachers can think that once the activities are over, then it’s also their own ‘free time,’ so they can relax a little. Sadly I’ve seen far too much of this over the years and ultimately, if you’re on duty and sitting on the lounge inside a building where you can’t see any children and thinking you’re providing suitable supervision and an effective duty of care, then you’re a moron and should not be teaching. If you’re reading this blog, I would suggest that’s not you, but I’ve seen it first hand and it’s unsurprising the majority of injuries on outdoor programs happen during free time at outdoor centres.
How do we reduce the incidence of injuries when we know kids are finding it increasingly difficult to do free-time? Firstly, don’t employ idiots! This is a good basis upon which to start. However, if you’re lucky enough to have a good staff, as part of your pre-program safety briefing, highlight this as a key risk that you need everyone to look out for. Give a couple of examples if you’ve seen things as I have of what can and does happen when supervision becomes laxed, or a false sense of security is created by the differential between an activity such as abseiling and hanging around dorms.
However, one huge opportunity is to run some structured games during this free time. Sure, it means teachers have to run another activity, but that’s far preferable to the trip to hospital and the awkward phone calls back to home and school to explain what happened and why there’s a student in hospital after ‘free-time’ injury. To be honest, I’ve had to make a lot of phone calls over the years in regards to injuries, but the most awkward and difficult ones to deal with are the free-time ones, because they’re really hard to explain the reasons as to why they happened. A fall from a mountain bike which caused a broken wrist is far easier to explain and manage and has less blow back, than trying to explain why a shoulder was dislocated inside a dormitory.
The reality is that children do find free-time increasingly difficult due to the over-stimulation and over scheduling of their lives. Whilst it would be great to think they can have some much needed free-time, this has often proven to be some of the most risky periods of time during outdoor ed programs where the most injuries occur. The best option is to ease students into the idea of free-time by structuring some initiative games, group activities, or light exercise during these times, rather than just ‘free-time.’ As a result, you’ll spend less time patching kids up, going to hospital and having awkward conversations.
How casually everyone walks past cenotaphs these days. With the world filled with phone tranced zombies who barely see anything, how are they expected to see the ultimate sacrifice of others? Chances are, many people are more likely just to walk head-long into the memorial due to distraction, rather than noticing it for what it’s worth.
However, ANZAC Day helps focus people’s attention on the importance of sacrifice, love and friendship for a set of beliefs about how life should be. It’s not to glorify war, but to honour the stand against tyranny and the fight for what is right in this world for everyone to live free from fear, hate and oppression and have the opportunity to live a life of their choosing.
Sadly, our world is still a long way from this ideal. In Australia, we live in relative safety and security, but the recent events in our neighbouring New Zealand, highlight that we still have a long way to go and we should never lose sight of the fact that the lessons of the past must inform our decisions into the future.
In a time when communication across the globe has become instant, and often overwhelming, it’s worth reflecting on the experience of soldiers on the front line. It took weeks or months for mail to get to or from the front. Letters from the front were read by someone else before being redacted and then sent on. Even innocuous remarks about the experience on the front line might have been struck out, in case they could cause disquiet back home. Yet most tragically, of the many letters that were sent, by the time the letters were received in the home country, the soldiers who wrote them had been killed in action, or missing, presumed dead.
With instant messaging and the ability for news media to live stream coverage of war-torn areas twenty four hours a day, it’s hard to fathom and comprehend the lack of information, and the slowness of communication back and forth between loved ones during the wars of the past 100 years. Yet the value of those communications were timeless. Letters were kept and cherished as an important connection from back home, to those who had left to serve.
There’s nothing glorious about war and the scars and emptiness with which it has left so many people, but the fight to defend democracy and freedom is why we must always remain vigilant to protect a way of life that allows freedom of speech, movement, association and the ability for so many to walk around like zombies and see nothing of the world around them. Consequently, on ANZAC Day, it’s important for us to honour those who made a stand against tyranny and oppression, so rather than having heads bowed staring mindlessly at a phone, it’s an opportunity for our nation to bow its head in honour and respect for all those who served to protect the wonderful nation and life we enjoy in Australia today.
If you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the traditional economy, then keeping an eye on the activity in the main streets of town is a great way to do it. I hear you saying, “Why do I care about economics? Isn’t this about experiential education?”
Good point! But bear with me on this, as there is a point. If we’re training students to be productive members of society who are independent, thoughtful problem solvers and are employable, then you need to understand some of the subtle, and not so subtle shifts happening in society today.
Everyone knows the digital world is here to stay (unless our politicians start a war they can’t finish and everything goes Mad Max on us!) Luckily I know Angry Anderson, so at least I’ll be able to join one of the lawless gangs roaming the desert without too much of a problem. However, before we sharpen our boomerangs, let’s pretend for a moment that we won’t be plunged back into the dark ages and have to fight for every litre of petrol as if it were our last.
Sorry, I’ve digressed slightly, maybe. Retail shops are closing at an alarming rate and what’s replacing them? Nothing! Maybe the occasional ‘pop-up’ shop that’s here and gone in the blink of an eye. However, ‘For Lease’ signs spatter our retail and office fronts and once popular Main Street locations are sitting vacant for longer and longer. Some of it can be attributed to high rent in these locations, which the market should eventually fix. However, often it’s the fact that businesses which were once main stays and anchors of our main streets are gone and nothing has replaced them.
Recently, I went book shopping. We had an end of program dinner and there were a number of prizes I wanted to give out, hence I was in a bookstore for the first time in years! Like many other book stores, it was in a prominent location. However, it was in the middle of a closing down sale. Everything was on special, so I bought quite a few books. When I went to pay, Jennifer, the lady behind the counter asked me if I’d like to join their book club. I guess she’d been instructed to ask everyone, but I didn’t see the point of joining a book club of a business that’s closing down. It’s like a free membership to the Roman Senate in the 5th Century AD. It’s better that you don’t accept it.
This is not to say I don’t read books. Well, to be honest, I actually don’t read as much now. Instead, I listen to them. I can get almost any book I want with a couple of clicks and the quality is generally excellent. Although some readers are “rubbish.” I have returned a few which almost put me to sleep. This is never good when listening to them in the car. So the reading of books is not declining, but the way in which we’re buying and reading them is.
The fact is that here is something that’s been a staple of society ever since Mr Gutenberg got all IT savvy in the 15th Century and decided that ‘copy and press’ with his fancy new International Book Machine (IBM) was a far better and cheaper way of plagiarising books than having teams of monks continuously write out copies with a quill pen under candle light. Monks were now freed up to go out and help do the valuable work of the church, which was mainly selling indulgences to fill the coffers of the Pope and adorn their monasteries with ornate silver and gold.
Despite the printing press replacing a lot of jobs, other jobs emerged from this. However, today we’re not seeing the same redevelopment and reinvention of jobs. Sure you might need someone to monitor automation systems, but this is only a fraction of the workforce that’s being replaced. The lack of new businesses coming to replace old ones in our main streets is a clear and real indication of this shift. The long-term outlook for employment of those we are teaching today, isn’t looking good.
The huge problem is that schools aren’t scrambling to address this. It’s massive. It’s already impacting on our communities and a profession that’s not well-known for being adaptable, is now on the front line of a seismic shift in an economic and social revolution. The traditional classroom, an invention of the industrial revolution, is ill-equipped for what’s coming.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel which is not just a marauding gang with sharp boomerangs and burning torches. To address this, experiential education needs to massively expand in schools. It needs to make up the majority of the curriculum. The school day shouldn’t just be sitting in a series of classes, going home, doing some homework and then coming back the next day to do it all over again. This only prepares students to be able to sit in a room and do exams, which in the workforce tends not to be very useful.
It’s time to get out of the classroom and change the style of teaching. Change the way in which teachers are being trained and include a significant practical, experiential education component to their training. This is not just more classroom prac work, but is working in a business or an industry totally unrelated to education. This can then translate into a far better understanding of the changing dynamics of the workforce in which our students are growing up and make them far better teachers with some real life experiences behind them.
We must do something about this massive problem now! We will continue to see the subtle shift on our streets. More shop fronts closed up and not rented. Fewer checkout chicks at the supermarket and bank tellers have all but been replaced by automation and machines. Whilst these are not bad things in themselves, efficiencies are great in any operation. However, the real problem that we need to address is the preparation of our students for a world in which there are fewer jobs and few opportunities for a single occupation approach. We must be leveraging our programs to train adaptability as the number one priority. The world is changing and our most successful students will be the ones who are able to not only cope, but thrive in an environment in which the goal posts are continuously changing. If you don’t believe me, go for a walk along the high street in any town. Chances are, we’re only seeing the beginning of this trend and we need to do something about it right now!
A Mix of Old & New
Kyoto is an amazing city of contrasts. A bustling city of around 1.5 million people, which is central Kyoto, not the surrounding areas, this mega city seems to go on and on and is connected to Osaka through an unbroken series of medium and high rise apartment buildings. It’s crazy to think that this combined urban area consists of around 20 million people.
It’s an astonishing and busy place. I arrived by Shinkansen, aka the bullet train, from Tokyo and managed to find my way through the crowded station onto the subway and eventually to the hotel. Not trying to get through a crowded train station carrying a pair of skis was a wonderful bonus this time around. Instead of skiing, I was out exploring some of the astounding history and culture of Japan.
Other than trying to get through Tokyo station in peak hour, I’d not been out into any major Japanese cities before and this was a fascinating experience. The outward impression I have of Japanese cities is that they’re kind of ugly. There are lots of tall buildings which on the outside look dull and grotty, interspersed with a few amazing ancient castles, temples and traditional styled houses.
A massive population, random sprawling developments, recessions and years of deflation, haven’t helped the look of many of the cities in Japan. Functionally, over design seems to have been the thought at the time. Despite this outward appearance, once inside one of these mega cities, you can find endless hidden gems of the ancient world, living right alongside colossal skyscrapers. The cities have simply grown up around and consumed so many of these places that were once focal points of small villages and townships.
Kyoto, for example, has a lot of temples and I mean a lot! Everywhere you turn, there’s another temple staring back at you. You can be walking down a laneway and a simple old wooden doorway can take you into another world. I came across many of these by chance. I had a fairly general map from the hotel which indicated areas where the major temples were, but on the way there I found temples in the middle of shopping centres and in amongst suburban housing areas.
The moment you step through one of these doorways, it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time and out of the city. The change of atmosphere is stark. Gone are the bustling noises of traffic and the manic pace of the city. Instead, you’re surrounded by a serenity that’s further enhanced by delicately tended gardens and bamboo water features that continue to flow gently. No wonder the zen garden is such an art form, as it can dramatically transform and create a quiet space, even amongst millions of people.
I found the same experience time and time again as I stepped inside an ancient building. It feels a world away from the hectic pace of the surrounding city. The Imperial Palace, nearby castles and countless temples were all the same. Somehow, time has stood still inside these spaces, whilst the city has exploded around them.
Another interesting place which provided the same dramatic contrast, was the Japanese Gardens next to Himeji Castle. There’s a major four lane road right out in front and a massive car park opposite. Inside, however, is a serene series of masterfully designed and maintained gardens where I heard the birds chirping for the first time in days and saw huge koi fish swim lazily through the ponds, expectantly popping their mouths out whenever someone’s shadow appeared over the water. Buffeted by solid traditional Japanese walls, these gardens are a wonderful example how the old and the new within huge cities co-exist.
Koko-en Garden Near Himeji Castle
From here, you can walk ten minutes down the road to a gaudy neon lit mall, filled with seemingly endless shops and constantly swiftly moving crowds of shoppers and commuters rushing through one of seven identical Starbucks stores that line the streets. This dramatic contrast shows the underlying complexity of the modern world and the desire to escape to quieter and more relaxing times and spaces from the past.
There’s something wonderful about both sides of this mix of old and new. It’s important to preserve and value our global heritage and cultures and at the same time we still need to build cities which can leverage the technological advances and advantages that are being continuously designed and developed in the digital age. Whilst we can all hope that city design into the future will be less ugly than what it is now, the reality is that this is just the surface and once you step inside, you’re only moments away from a serene green space or a preserved vast estate. Working out how to best link all of this together with some thoughtful design, is definitely going to be an ongoing challenge for the next few generations, but the possibilities of future cities which connect both old and new in a seamless manner is an exciting prospect to anticipate.
Professional Development Time
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of professional development. Most people will groan when they hear PD, as they’ve experienced the classic ‘first day(s) back’ professional development time, which could be just a complete waste of time and energy for all involved. From what I’ve experienced over the years, you may as well have another day of holidays and it would be far more beneficial. Whilst much of this is done to save money and meet the mandatory PD hours requirements for teachers, are teachers actually learning anything that will improve their teaching practice or professionalism, or is it just an exercise in futility?
Don’t get me wrong! PD is vitally important, but is self-initiated and directed learning a far better approach? What I’ve been doing recently for my own PD has been through two different forms. The first has been reconnoitering new areas of the countryside to further develop a program. This is always an exciting and challenging time as now you’re exploring new areas with which you’re unfamiliar and trying to find suitable tracks, trails, rivers and campsites which are suitable for the age and experience level of the group for which you’re planning. Sometimes, it’s easy and quickly falls into place. Other times, it’s like trying to get out of a darkened pit full of goblins whilst being stalked by a ring-obsessed weirdo.
On this occasion, it was closer to the latter, as we found out the new area was not a nice babbling brook surrounded by gentle countryside, but rather a vicious, shallow, rapid-flowing white water filled gorge. We were about 2km in when we realised how nasty it was getting and what was supposed to be a pleasant three hour paddle, took seven hours! Thankfully, we didn’t have to battle orcs along the way, but at some points I was hoping that eagles would come and rescue us. Sadly, it was not to be and we had to navigate and negotiate the gruelling gorge that went on for several kilometres.
During this time, we’d also looked at mountain biking, canoeing and hiking as options in and around Canberra as there are some amazing national park areas with great tracks and trails throughout. Despite the fact that a number of these options weren’t particularly suitable to take students on, this was an extremely successful trip. From a professional planning point of view, even if you’re not going to change your program in any measurable way, going on “reccies” is a useful exercise, as you’re reinforcing your own skill set for navigation, route assessment, logistics planning and risk management. It’s all these concerns that you suddenly find come back to the front of your mind when looking at new areas that can naturally feed-back into your existing program and help you re-think, re-assess and improve upon what you’re already doing.
The other PD I’ve been doing has been the more traditional kind, in terms of workshops and conferences. Sometimes these are hit and miss when it comes to helping you in your teaching role, but that mainly comes down to what sort of conference you’re going to and which sessions you attend. The first one I went to was a digital schools’ conference. It was basically exploring how technology can be better used in education. I sat in on a couple of sessions which were excellent as the presenters hit the nail on the head! It’s not really about the technology. It’s about the use of technology as part of a wider educational experience. When you boil it all down, the skills you’re learning in STEM and trying to innovate with are exactly the same as what’s being learnt through outdoor education.
The core principles of innovation are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
The core principles of outdoor ed are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
Simple right? Well sadly, it’s not always the case and often teachers can see the use of technology or coding as the end goal or the learning outcome. As in outdoor ed, often schools see the outcome as getting kids outdoor or learning how to ride a bike or canoe. These are all just the means through which these core cognitive and experiential skills are being developed.
I also had the wonderful opportunity to present on innovation and how the chaotic and imprecise science it is to develop an idea into something that solves a much wider real world problem. I also explored how this can be translated into the context of education and why this is now such an important part of the modernisation of education that might one day see us escape from the industrial revolution hangover upon which our curriculum’s based.
The second conference I went to was more closely related to outdoor education and covered some fascinating insights into concussion identification and management. This was a great up-skilling opportunity for me, as whilst I’d understood and had managed a number of concussions over the years, I was able to get a far greater understanding of what happens with the injury and how it manifests itself. This is something that a senior first aid course would never cover and even with the wilderness courses I’ve done, it was only ever touched on briefly. Yet attending a comprehensive keynote presentation by a leading medical specialist in the field, was an amazing learning opportunity.
PD can be both insanely frustrating if it’s done poorly, or immensely beneficial if it’s done well. Some people might perceive PD at conferences as junkets, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. From the Wilderness Risk Management Conference I attended last year to the various ones I’ve been to this year, it’s helped me attain a much greater understanding of my own professional practice and helped me to reflect and review what I do as an outdoor educator and how I go about doing it.
I have to admit I have great memories of the enforced PD days from school days past. At one school I was once part of an English/History faculty. We taught an integrated unit called Valley In Perspective, that combined English/History/Geography and Outdoor Education. It was in some ways a little heavy on the academics for my likings, but overall it worked quite well. We were always allocated a day at the start of term for ‘meetings,’ which was code for sitting in the office and wasting lots of time, something which I can’t stand doing. However, one of the teachers had a boat and so instead of sitting in the office, we went and spent the day on his boat. We would discuss work for about an hour, but then would relax for the rest of the day lazing about the deck or going sailing and usually having fish and chips for lunch. Whilst many a useless manager would say this was a waste of time, it was an excellent team building exercise and our team of four worked exceptionally well together, despite the school being a disastrous toxic mess in which to work.
Ultimately, PD is vitally important for renewing and up-skilling you in your professional life and can have great benefits when done well. Meetings can be of some value, so long as you limit their time and have clear goals and objectives from the outset. However, to get any real-residual benefit from professional development, you need to go out, test your existing skills and continually learn new ones which can help you to become a far more effective educator throughout your life.