Long gone are the days of going on camp for the sake of going on camp. Education is changing, and outdoor education is playing an increasingly important role in that change, helping to develop a vitally important skill-set of problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork, which is needed in a rapidly changing world.
Having worked on many different outdoor education programs, we’ve always needed to ensure we were setting the right level of challenge and hitting the right social and emotional developmental goals for our students. If we make things too soft and it’s just ‘a walk in the park,’ it results in complaints. If we make things too hard, and it’s like trekking to Mordor, it results in tears and complaints. Therefore, how do you find that happy medium?
Essentially, finding that balance is through understanding the needs of your students and clearly setting out what you want them to achieve from the experience. Are you developing teamwork? Are you developing resilience? Are you developing relationships? Are you developing personal responsibility? Are you developing leadership? An answer to each of these questions will help shape your approach to ensure your students are getting the most out of their outdoor experiences.
What you want is an authentic approach to address your students’ needs and not just a camp for the sake of it. To make your outdoor education programs as authentic as possible, it’s extremely important to understand the cultural and social context of your school. What are the biggest challenges your students are facing at school and at home? How does the culture of your school influence planning? What are the right teachable moments needed for your students? How much have they been pushed outside their comfort zone in the past? How much further can they be pushed in the future?
There truly is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to this and understanding the skill-set and level of maturity of your students, is critical in designing the right type of program. For example, one school I worked for, their Year 9 program was massively challenging with 5 days of a relentless expedition which saw students moving from sunrise to sunset every day. It pushed the limits in every way and was about personal challenge, teamwork and strength through adversity. However, they’d been building up to this from year 3 with a graduated, sequential program that pushed the limits a bit further every successive year.
Conversely, another group of year 9s I worked with, who had no other real outdoor education experience simply needed to be able to work together on a very basic level. Therefore, canoeing 20km in a day, followed by 19km of hiking the next day was out of the question. Instead, problem-solving and initiative games followed by a short canoe trip and a mountain bike ride was the most beneficial approach, because this was all new to them. It was a bit challenging, and far enough outside their comfort zone to create some teachable moments on which to reflect, but not enough that it was going to end in tears.
Some of the most powerful and memorable learning experiences come from outdoor education. However, as with every other aspect of education, this can be significantly improved through careful and authentic design to support and build upon any specific areas of need for your students. The more outdoor education is targeted at the specific social and emotional needs of your school and your students, the more effective it will be in producing great results for your students. Be it problem solving, teamwork, resilience, leadership or simply understanding the needs of others, focussing on these outcomes can have a profound effect on everyone that goes out on one of your school programs.
Having worked in the snow sports’ industry for many years, both in Australia and overseas, I love being up in the mountains. It’s a great place for students to have a unique, challenging and rewarding experience doing something very different from their regular schooling.
However, with every trip away there are some significant issues you and your staff need to be aware of. Here’s a few great resources to help get you started on your trip planning!
General Snow Safety www.snowsafe.org.au/
Ski Resort Info
Thredbo - https://www.thredbo.com.au/schools/
Perisher - https://www.perisher.com.au/plan-your-trip/groups/2019-school-groups
Falls Creek - https://www.fallscreek.com.au/schoolgroups/
Mt Hotham - https://www.mthotham.com.au/discover/more-options/groups/hotham-school-tertiary-groups
Mt Buller - https://www.mtbuller.com.au/Winter/plan-your-visit/schools-and-groups
Happy Skiing! I hope you have a great season!
On a visit to the US I took some time out to go skiing in Park City. It's a fantastic resort and an awesome historic township. It now even has an Australian run café, which meant I could have a decent coffee (all the important things being from Australia). I’d prepared myself to go a month without decent coffee, reliant on bitter or burnt espressos as a backup plan. I was however, pleasantly surprised to find myself standing in front of a recognisable Australian business and safely drinking a good cup of coffee.
Despite this extremely important tangent, what follows has nothing to do with coffee. It was early in the morning on a crisp crystal clear day over on the Canyons side of the resort. I was skiing past the ski school when a sign caught my attention, “Please, No Parents In The Learning Area!”
I laughed, as I knew exactly why there was a need for something like this the moment I saw it. Whilst it's very important for parents to be involved in their child’s education, there's a right way to go about it and a wrong way to go about it. More often than not, parents, generally through a lack of understanding go about things the wrong way and many of them constantly insert themselves into situations where they should just stand back and allow others to teach.
From what I’ve seen over my years of involvement with education, Helicopter & Tiger parents, need to relax, find themselves a hobby that doesn’t involve them living vicariously through their children. Whilst the underlying belief these parents have is that they’re ‘helping’ and making sure they get the ‘best’ for the child, the reality is that they’re doing more harm than good and wasting their own life and opportunities at the same time.
It’s probably easier to remove the salt from the ocean than it is to remove the helicopter from the parent, but seriously, they need to back off and let their kids breathe and experience a few things in life for themselves. This doesn’t mean that everything should be done at arms’ length, but I can understand the need for the sign as over-involvement of parents can be just as bad, or even worse than under-parenting.
I realise it is a challenging balance, but if you look at it from a work point of view, how would everyone feel if someone went from department to department telling everyone how their job should be done. From marketing, to finance and the janitorial services how would everyone feel if your clients hung around giving instructions on how their work should be done? It wouldn’t be long before security was called and the person was ejected from the building.
I would have thought the whole point of taking your kids to ski school is so that you could ski somewhere awesome yourself. Hanging around offering suggestions or taking photos would be the last thing on my mind. I would have ditched the kids and headed up the closest double black only lift. Ski school and school in general is a great sort of child minding service, which hopefully employs talented instructors and teachers who will be able to care for your children and teach them something far more effectively than you can. This, of course, eventually pays off later on, as you’ll be able to ski with your kids, until they get way better than you and then leave you for dead, suggesting perhaps you should go and have some lessons.
However, from this the most important thing is that sometimes parents need to be able to step away from a situation and allow their children to be taught by others. If they’re not prepared to do that, then why not teach them everything they need to know themselves? This would seem to be preferable for many parents, until they realise the reality of how much time, energy, experience and effort goes into teaching others.
At some point, parents must let go and if they haven’t by high-school years, then the damage they’re going to do over the proceeding years is significant. Again this doesn’t mean parents should have no involvement, but appropriate experiences should be looked for where that increasing independence can be gained. Some effective programs I’ve worked on have been medium and long-stay residential programs, in which there was little choice for those helicopter parents but to stay away. If medium and long stay programs aren’t an option for your school, then perhaps erecting a barrier near the entrance is the next best option. At the end of the day, it will enable students to have a far better educational experience than the endless hovering could ever provide.
For me, as I said, I’d just leave them at the ski school and allow them to try new things, slip, fall and get back up again all by themselves. It’s the learning through these experiences that make the best skiers and the snowboarders, not the manic parenting and suggestions from the side. Perhaps, as in Park City, a giant sign is just what’s needed for all of our programs to remind parents of the fact that it’s time to let go a bit and let their kids do something a bit ‘risky’ for themselves.
This is probably one of the single most unpleasant things to read as an outdoor education and risk management professional, but it’s vitally important that any teacher taking a group of students anywhere reads and learns from the extremely tragic experiences that are outlined in any coronial inquest. The lessons learnt from these, must inform our approach to risk management and safety for every program we run.
There are often two dramatically different types of coronial reports. Firstly, the tragic accident, which could not be reasonably foreseen, and despite all efforts to respond, a life is lost. However, more often than not, it’s the second type of report and coronial finding that clearly demonstrates systemic failure and usually a series of events which with each step/poor decision/delay, leads to a fatality.
Whilst both are undeniably tragic, the second leaves families, schools and all those involved destroyed for life. As you read through one of these, the warning signs, deterioration of conditions and clear evidence that there’s a problem is usually abundantly clear. Whilst many would say it’s easy to see that in the rear-view mirror, which I agree is entirely true, as hindsight is very powerful, but often the obvious warning signs are there. Thus, understanding your environment, your group and the risks involved in what you’re doing, should have already provided you with enough insight to take the action needed to prevent a situation deteriorating into a critical or fatal situation.
What’s vitally important from this is the need for situational awareness. Instructors and teachers need to be aware of a range of factors (which are usually outlined in a risk assessment) and ensure they’re proactively considered and managed. Reading coronial reports is a horrible, but important part of that skills development for being aware of conditions and situations which have led to irreversible and tragic consequences.
I found myself in one such situation a number of years ago. We were out hiking west of Nowra and heading in towards Kangaroo Valley. It was a bright sunny and hot afternoon in February and a massive, angry storm rolled in faster than crazed shoe shoppers on Boxing Day. We were suddenly trapped on a ridge with pelting rain, lightning striking all around us and drilling the ground with no pause between the lightning and the deafening concussion of the thunder. Strike after strike after strike, it pinned us down. Perched on our packs in the ‘lightning position’ we could do nothing else other than stay clear of trees and wait out the storm. However, the storm persisted and hour after hour we had no option but to stay put.
Suddenly there was a break in the storm and the other group leader had the idea that we should keep going despite the conditions around us. We were heading towards a river which needed to be crossed to get to the camp site. We had saturated gortexes and some students were showing early signs of hyperthermia. It was not a good idea to press on, but full of bravado and telling the group that if we didn’t, the other group would think we were weak, a nauseating feeling hit me. This didn’t feel right. We had too many factors at play. The extreme weather, the equipment failure and the condition of the students. When something feels wrong, then you must act immediately. It’s not a matter of waiting to see what happens. Stop, regroup, bring in other resources and respond before things spiral out of control.
This is the critical tipping point of any coronial inquest. You can often determine the point of no return where the decision to continue inevitably led to the fatality and often it’s based upon poor thoughtless decision making, where there is plenty of evidence that it’s time to stop, regroup and rethink everything. Thankfully, the nauseating feeling on the mentioned trip, was telling me things are deteriorating and we need to change tactics. We waited until the main storm passed, went and grabbed the 4WD and then moved the group to an alternate campsite. Soon after setting up we had a fire going and everyone had something warm to drink.
Whilst it’s painful and distressing to read coronial inquests, it’s vitally important that you do as part of your ongoing risk management training and professional development. Understanding the experiences of others and the tragedies of the past can help us to make better decisions and ensure the safety of our groups into the future. It’s those lessons learned, that are powerful and stark reminders that risk management must be a living, breathing approach to running any program and not just a document which is dusted off when it’s subpoenaed by the coroner.
As part of your on going risk management, it’s well worth regularly reviewing and workshopping coronial reports with your team to ensure the situational awareness and those tipping points are at the forefront of everyone’s minds every time they’re out with a group to ensure everyone has a safe, challenging and enjoyable experience.
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.
For the adventurous rock climber, Mount Arapiles in Tooan State Park Victoria is an absolute must! This is a world class climbing spot and regarded as the best in Australia, attracting locals and international climbers alike. Four hours North West of Melbourne, the mountain range suddenly rises up out of the near dead-flat Wimmera plains, a stunning sight in itself, but wait till you get to the top!
The nearest regional centre to the Arapiles, is Horsham. Head west from there on the Wimmera Highway until you get to the small township of Natimuk. There’s a really good general store there for some basic last minute supplies. From there, you can’t miss the mountain range. It’s dramatic, stunning and rises up out of the Wimmera plains to dominate the landscape.
There are over 2,500 different routes to climb on this mountain, which provides a massive range of options for the beginner, right through to the advanced lead climber. Even though you’re bound to find other climbers around, there’s plenty of options from which to choose.
To get started, there’s a number of small, short climbs with easy road access and simple to setup top belays without having to lead climb up. These are perfect for the whole family, training the kids, or just bouldering to improve your own technique.
Further in, the mountain opens up into a massive collection of climbing routes for all skill levels and abilities. There’s an abundance of multi-pitch lead climbs up challenging rock faces, chimneys and stand-alone rock pillars. For less experienced climbers, guided climbs are available from the local area. For the experts, grab yourself a route map and get climbing!
The views from the top are stunning. The mountain is a stand-alone feature on the landscape, so all around you it drops down to the beautiful agricultural plains of Western Victoria as far as the eye can see.
There’s way too much to do here for just one day, so plan to make a trip of it. If you want to stay onsite, you must book camping in advance via the Parks Victoria Website. The camp ground has a great international atmosphere, with people from all over the world hanging out and taking on the variety of challenging rock faces. Whilst this is an all year round location, Summer here does get really hot, so from a risk point of view just keep that in mind.
If you love climbing, then this is by far the best place to do it in Australia!
• Sleeping Bags
• Sleeping Mat
• Gummy Bears (because you just can’t go wrong with them)
• Camping Stove
• Firewood (You're not allowed to collect wood from the site.)
• Insect Repellent
• Clothes for hot midday and cold nights
• Climbing Gear (helmet, ropes, harness, devices, shoes)
• First Aid Kit
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.
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.