One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all
Before you get too worried about my state of mind, if you haven’t worked out the reference already, you should go and play White Rabbit by Jefferson Aeroplane. One, it’s a cool song and two, it’s suitably trippy for this article! If you don’t get what it all means, that’s ok. It’s basically a drug trip song that’s used in just about every TV and movie drug montage ever with the connection to Alice In Wonderland.
Anyway, before I explain it to death, this week, we’re talking about drugs!!!! Today there’s no shortage of them. Students are on just about everything you can imagine to get them moving and motivated, to slow them down and focus them. To stop them sleeping, to make them sleep. To make them more productive, to make them less destructive. To fight bacteria, to promote bacteria. To balance them out, to unbalance them out! To get them regular, to stop them being too regular!
It’s a wonderful world of pharmaceutical profits in every schoolbag! Doctors seem to give out drugs more often than candy… which they’re no longer allowed to give out, because candy may contain traces of nuts.
Whilst drugging kids up to their eyeballs is entirely up to the parents and their doctors, the problem is that teachers then get lumped with this huge responsibility of administering medications when they take students away on camps. Most teachers in my experience are ill-equipped to do this and lack the confidence to do it properly.
In most cases, giving medications is fairly straight forward. You look at the packet and what it says on the box and you follow the instructions. Generally, it’s usually no more than giving a pill, a puff or a small dose of some sort of liquid. If staff are being asked to provide an injecting service, perhaps mum, dad or the doctor should come on camp instead.
Even though it’s a fairly simple process, it can be overwhelming with everything else that’s going on during camp. I found this to be the case on one camp program where we had a lot of students who required daily medications and a lot of other things happening at the same time. It wasn’t until one teacher forgot a student’s ADHD medications in the morning that the problem became really apparent. If you can imagine Bart Simpson on steroids, that’s pretty much what the student turned into without his meds. It didn’t make for a good day at work. Instead, it was just containment and damage control until bedtime thirteen hours later. It’s not something I ever want to go through again. The problem is that it’s so easy to forget medication in this way as one distraction on camp can lead to another and whilst every teacher is trying their best to manage, sometimes things like this can slip through the cracks.
So, how did I solve this crack problem? Well I built an app to remind teachers when medications were due. It triggered alerts 5mins before the medication was due and then another 5mins afterwards if something was missed. Then it was a simple checkbox that showed the right medication, the right student and once it was administered, it was timestamped. This became a core feature of the Xcursion platform and now one of its most frequently used functions.
So now despite the tidal wave of speed coming your way to slow those manic kids down, you can be assured that you’ll be able to get every pill to every student that needs it, on time, every time. It will leave you comfortably numb and happy in the knowledge that you’ve supplied a stack of controlled drugs to small children and prevented them from go troppo all day.
But if you don’t have a way of tracking this with something like the Xcursion app and instead decide to go chasing rabbits, and you know you're going to fall. The best defence when things go completely wrong is to Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call. Just ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall…
There are two major things with which humans aren’t great. Change and uncertainty. Unfortunately, for those who struggle with both of these things, modern life is becoming increasingly challenging, as they’re now a huge reality of the fast-paced digital world.
I don’t want to delve too much into the impact of change, as it’s a whole thing unto itself. However, what I’ve noticed is that avoidance of uncertainty in teenagers appears to becoming worse and worse and somewhat detrimental to their experience of life. However, I don’t want to blame teens for this. I want to blame their parents as they’re the ones predominantly responsible for bringing them up and providing a world view that either helps or hinders their ability to deal with uncertainty.
I’ve noticed this trend over the past few years on camps and expeditions. The desire for instant answers on everything caused by search engine education and a sense of every moment of the day being carefully scheduled without deviation, presents a massive problem when things don’t go to plan. The problem is that life isn’t always straight forward, nor is it predictable. In fact, quite the opposite is true and life can often be a chaotic mess of which at times, is hard to make sense. Yet, we find ourselves increasingly teaching students who are quite incapable of dealing with uncertainty.
This is a problem on many levels. Gone are the days in which someone could live their life with little to no change or variance in what they did. In times past, people could go to school, leave, get a job and stay in that job until they retired. For many people, leaving their own town or village would have been unheard of and travel wasn’t something that many people did to find work or simply move around. However, this has not only changed, but dramatically shifted to another extreme. Employment is becoming increasingly casualised in many parts of the world, with tech companies saying how wonderful the ‘gig’ economy is, which for the record it’s not! It’s forcing many people into serious underemployment and a constant need to change and re-invent what they’re doing.
Whilst the change of the workforce is a whole massive issue unto itself, it’s just part of the overall continuous change that is happening in our world. Change is constant and change can be taxing on the most dynamic and resilient of us.
What does this mean for students who want to avoid uncertainty? Unfortunately, it means they’re going to seriously struggle in life. Much of the resistance I’m seeing today for students to get involved in something, involves higher-order thinking. Problem solving and adaptability. Whenever they’re forced into taking a longer amount of time to work out an answer, they can’t do it, or more to the point, don’t even try. Instead, they give up because they can’t search for or quickly come to an answer.
It’s therefore important for us to help the avoider face uncertainty. The only way for them to develop the skills needed to cope in the modern world is for them to face uncertainty. In outdoor ed, we can do it by standing back and watching students figure things out for themselves and only step in if there’s a safety issue. This forces action and decision-making processes in students which aren’t being used on a day to day basis. No longer can they have the answer searched for them, nor will every minute of their day be scheduled so they know what’s happening next and at what time.
The spoon-feeding for exams approach that I’ve seen so many schools take, has only reinforced this practice of uncertainty avoidance and for us to adequately prepare students for an ever-changing world, then we need to do more to expose them to uncertainty and give them opportunities to work with that uncertainty, try something new and achieve an outcome that is not scripted in anyway. When we can be doing this for all education, then we might just be able to train the next generation to not only cope with change, but thrive in a very different environment that will continue to change and evolve in 5, 10, 20 and 50 years time. The ability to embrace and deal with uncertainty, is a far greater skill to have than simply knowing the answer to an exam, or where to find it. This is a huge challenge, but one that outdoor and experiential educators are well-equiped to not only meet, but exceed expectations for how well they can do this and ultimately equip students with the right skills for the new digital age.
As the world becomes increasingly connected, yet disconnected at the same time, there’s been a phenomenal trend towards addiction and reliance on technology.
Whilst some technology is great and having built a tech company, I could hardly argue otherwise. Yet other parts of it are insanely destructive. I was running a program recently with a group of 7th Grade students, which is nothing new or unusual for me as I’ve run a number of these over the years. They tend to be the extremely fun, activity-filled programs which are so exhausting the kids and staff are so tired, they don’t have time to think about anything else other than what the next day of fun activities will hold for them.
However, what happens to an awesome fun camp, when the messaging from parents leading into camp (and often during) is all wrong? Suddenly, one of the most exciting and memorable experiences turns into a battle for survival! A short day hike becomes an epic hobbit filled journey through the badlands with constant threats of demons and sheer cliffs to fall off at every turn. A canoe on a lake becomes a hazardous sea crossing and don’t even mention archery...
So what’s the source of all of this? It’s often separation anxiety of the parents who have been connected with their child so much, having read lots of rubbish parenting books which have resulted in them paranoidly giving their kids a mobile phone, so that when they’re at school or not in their direct line of sight, then can have that constant re-assurance that they’re only a text message away. I often wonder, how did anyone survive without this?
The other problem is the language which parents use with their children as they say goodbye. I can’t take all the credit for this observation, as there’s a great book called “Feel The Fear, And Do It Anyway,” by Susan Jeffers, which goes through some unhelpful messaging that parents often use that doesn’t not actually keep them ‘safe’ on demon filled camps, but holds them back from so many opportunities the world provides.
I won’t ruin the book for you, as it is a great read, but basically telling children to be ‘safe’ all the time rather than give everything a red hot go! This holds back growth and development and undermines the potential to build any real resilience, when faced with real danger or real problems. So with the toxic mix of goodbye messages and constant communications through a mobile phone, the scene is set for a hard week ahead, caused by the lack of trust and understanding on the part of the parent and that’s a lack of trust in both staff and their own child.
How can we address something like this as it is a risk to smooth operation and functioning of the program? The first step is to inform and educate parents. If they know where their child is going and what they’re going to do on camp, then this will start to build trust as well as defuse some of the anxieties which parents are really good at transferring to their children.
Simply sending out a single page letter about camp isn’t quite enough now in our distracted world. Instead, a pre-camp briefing after the letter is a far better way to approach it. Having a clear and to the point presentation about the camp is a great way to engage and educate parents about outdoor and experiential education and where it fits into the wider context of education. Focusing on the skills and relationship benefits is often a good way to highlight the value of camp to a broad audience whose opinions many vary dramatically. It also give you an opportunity to disclose important information about risk and risk management. As part of your presentation, this is important to address, as any potential major issues or questions which go unanswered will either lead to wild speculation, a level of distrust or both.
In amongst this, you don’t want to tell parents how to do their job. Instead, suggest talking about the excitement of camp and what opportunities the students going to have for some fun, rather than instilling worry, fear and loathing. It all becomes this great self-fulfilling prophecy. If kids think that it’s scary, they’ll miss their parents and are worried they’ll have a bad time, it’ll be a scary bad time and they’ll be homesick. If kids think that it’s an exciting adventure where they’ll face challenges and be able to get away from mum and dad for a bit, then they’ll have an exciting adventurous time, enjoy their experience and have lasting fond memories of it.
A lot of this can’t be done at school, but must be done at home in the days, weeks and months before camp. This not only sets them up for success on a camp, but sets them up for success in school and in life.
It’s through setting the scene that can determine how students engage with and are able to enjoy the experience. Before any big new camp or escalated stage of your outdoor education program, take the time to provide a thorough and informative presentation to parents to help reassure them and get them onboard with why camps and outdoor education are so important in the overall growth and development of their child.
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 -
Mt Buller -
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.
There’s nothing like a few random events and incidents to shape how exciting an expedition can be. One time, I had a group of Year 9s out on a mountain biking expedition and we headed to Canberra to ride Mount Stromlo.
Mount Stromlo, just south of Canberra, is an amazing area to mountain bike. We’d been doing a number of training and skills’ development sessions leading up to this final expedition. To start with, we’d done an introductory mountain bike course, an overnight down at Mogo, which has an awesome downhill called the snake track, and now, Stromlo was the biggest and final challenge for the students.
Getting down there in the afternoon, with a few coffee breaks along the way, we started riding the playground area. The playground is a cool part of the mountain which has different obstacles, drop downs, seesaws, berms and all sorts of things you might encounter on a ride up or down the mountain. It’s a great area to teach and reinforce some basic mountain biking skills before tackling something much harder. This went really well and we had a great ride that afternoon. That evening, we went into camp, set up, cooked dinner and settled in for the night. The only thing was that it wasn’t the warmest of evenings, dropping down to -3 C overnight. Waking up the next morning, the tents were covered in a thick layer of frost. To be honest, this is typical camp weather at this time of year, but it’s still bracing when getting out of the tent.
The morning was also thick with fog. Again, typical in and around Canberra due to the confluence of all the hot air that’s created in parliament and settles each morning to blanket the city with a layer that’s harder to see through than a public service investigation report. Whilst this layer usually burns off by about 11am, it didn’t disperse until well after lunch, making it a still cold, but now crystal clear afternoon.
Having ridden up and down the summit once that day and after lunch we were out on an extended ride. Being Canberra, a lot of the tracks are named after political things or euphemisms. So, for example, Pork Barrel, Double Dissolution and Party Line are all different tracks on the mountain.
Going down Pork Barrel, which is an awesome run, one of the boys hadn’t quite judged the steepness of the run as well as he should have. Flying over his handle bars, he didn’t bounce very well and managed to land hard on his knee. With a fairly obvious tear in his pants and a laceration to the side of his knee, I pulled out my first aid kit, put my gloves on and had a look. It was quite deep and deep to the point where you’re seeing the whiteness underneath the top layers of skin. I cleaned out the wound that had a nice bit of grit in it, attached some steri-strips to hold it together and put a sterile dressing over the top. It was one of those border-line cuts that if you were at home, you wouldn’t bother with stitches, but if you’re out on an expedition and not able to take things easy, then it’s probably worth getting them just to be sure.
Not deterred by this, the boy jumped back on his bike and kept riding. We continued along a different track which headed back towards the base of the mountain. With a few more ups and downs, and what I thought was some fairly light afternoon riding, suddenly, the next boy was off his bike and landed hard on his wrist. For this one, I took a look at his wrist. Despite having gloves on, he’d landed on his palm and a sharp rock had torn through the glove and a gritty bloody residue remained.
I cut his glove off with my shears, inspected the wound and quickly stopped the bleeding before cleaning it as best I could and bandaging. Because it was so deep, getting in there and trying to clean anything out was a little bit beyond what I wanted to be trying by the side of the track. Added to this, the complaint of the hot pain in his wrist was a worry as well. Rather than patch and keep riding on this one, I strapped the boy’s wrist, bandaged it up and walked the rest of the way down the hill with him and the other walking wounded to the car park and finished for the day.
Since both students required a little bit more medical assistance than I could provide, I decided to take them into the hospital. The last time I was in Canberra hospital, I was supposed to be in and out of there in an hour. However, it turned out to be seven hours and I had to stay overnight. Given this was the last experience, I decided that we should have dinner first, which was nachos that the boys had made with guacamole dip, salsa and sour cream. It was great meal, one of the best camping meals I’ve had in a long time. We quickly had that before we jumped into the troopie and headed off to hospital.
It’s always interesting when you turn up to hospital with multiple students with injuries for the same activity. You get the ‘you’re an irresponsible teacher look from everyone around you.’ So after checking both of the boys in with the triage nurse, we sat and waited whilst getting stared at by those around us. Remarkably enough, we probably only waited about twenty minutes at the most, which was exceptionally good timing considering the last time that I had to wait in Canberra Hospital. The boys were seen by two different doctors who were quite amused by the whole afternoon’s events and being mountain bike riders themselves, didn’t give me the ‘you’re irresponsible look’ after I explained what had happened.
It turned out though, because one of the boys was over the age of 15, under the ACT Laws, due to an accident in a public place, he had to undergo a mandatory blood alcohol testing. As a result, this boy had his blood taken and sent off to the police for analysis, which he thought was pretty exciting.
The other boy, as his tetanus shot was out of date, he had to get a tetanus injection. Hence we had the needle nurse who came to take blood out of one and then back to jab the other. I saw all of this as I moved between the two emergency beds and chatted with both the doctors. The end result was one student with six stitches and a blood alcohol test, but thankfully no fractures in his wrist. The other had three stitches and a painful jab in the arm. All in all, a reasonable result!
The boys were quickly discharged from hospital and on the way back, we had to for the ‘mandatory fast food run after a trip to hospital’ drive. I managed to make my calls to their parents from the warmth of McDonald’s whilst eating a caramel sundae. It was sub zero outside, so we were in no hurry to get back. After dessert, we went to the shops, grabbed a few things such as milk and chocolate and back to camp.
Everyone was asleep when we arrived around 10pm and it was even colder here than it had been in town. I quickly sorted myself out for bed. Jumping inside my sleeping bag, I had a pleasant, long, cosy sleep.
The next morning, I checked on the boys and unfortunately given the injuries, we decided that we couldn’t ride because we didn’t have any spare staff to look after the injured and effectively supervise the rest of the group. Hence I decided that as we were in Canberra, we could have a look at a few things around the place.
We started at The Australian War Memorial, but turned up too early, so we ended up going to the cafe for coffee and cakes before heading inside. I always love going to The War Memorial and to hear a really interesting interview with the Memorial’s director, Dr Brendan Nelson, check out Xperiential Education. We never seem to have enough time there, but on every trip, I always learn something new.
After this, I rang the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office. Yes, I know he’s now no longer the Deputy PM, but before his philandering day, I worked on his campaign, after running against him at preselection. Unfortunately, he had back to back meetings but his secretary organised for us to have a tour in Parliament and tickets to Question Time.
Question Time is a big thing in Australia where all the politicians are in the house and questions are asked of the Prime Minister or the various ministers. Some questions are with notice so they are pre-known by the questionee and some questions are without notice, but generally still known to the person. It’s more theatrics than anything else. I’ve actually done some of the preparation work for this in the past where you prepare a briefing for each question that’s going to be asked. Generally, the politician doesn’t bother answering the question anyway and instead answers something else completely.
Before going in, we’d parked in the basement. The troop carriers that we were in were too tall to go in the general car park and so I drove up to the oversize vehicle car park, took a ticket from the machine and drove in. Glancing back in the rear view mirror I notice the other 4WD drive in straight after me. Despite the bright yellow boom gate, the driver had not realised that he had to actually stop and press the button for a ticket. Now we’d managed to get two vehicles into the parking lot with only one ticket. ‘Well, that’s going to be an interesting problem to solve when we’re leaving.’
After explaining to my colleague that the big yellow barrier means stop and collect a ticket, we headed up to security and through into Parliament where our guide was waiting in the foyer. We’d managed to all get through security without issue, or that was what we thought until the other instructor was marched over to us by a security guard to let me know to start the tour, as he’d been caught with a credit card knife in his wallet and had to go and have a chat with the federal police as it’s a prohibited weapon in the ACT.
I was trying not to laugh in front of the boys because even though it was pretty funny, it wouldn’t have looked good laughing about it. Unfortunately, this didn’t work when the boys all broke out in laughter. I wished him luck and off we went, with the boys speculating on whether or not we would have to bail him out of jail that afternoon.
On the tour, I ran into a couple of politicians I knew, briefly saying hello and moving on so as not to distract the guide from his talk. We finally caught up with the other instructor at the end of the tour. Luckily for him, he wasn’t charged with anything but he had to surrender the knife to the police.
We headed back out the front of Parliament, where we made our lunches before heading back in for Question Time. Since the Deputy PM’s secretary had organised tickets, we managed to skip the line and were ushered straight in to the southern gallery which looks straight down on the government benches. Question time was the usual back and forth and nowhere near as exciting as one time years ago when people were getting dragged out by security and the place went into lock down. Having said that, it was an entertaining afternoon and kept us out of the cold for a bit.
Finishing up at Parliament, we managed to drive both 4WDs out of the parking lot by running them bumper to bumper. Ok, so there were probably other better solutions, but this was the most challenging and fun one to try. Then we drove back out to camp. It was now later afternoon and getting quite cold, but despite the random change of plans, the boys had a solo activity to do. They had one hour to write a final reflection on their experience on camp and what they had learnt from these experiences. Whilst most of them probably wrote about the instructor getting taken by security for possessing an illegal weapon, hopefully others wrote a little more reflectively.
By the end of the hour, the sun had dropped behind the hills and it was freezing cold. I wrapped up the activity at 5pm then we were all ready and headed back into town for dinner.
Wait a minute! What did we go to Canberra for again? Sometimes, in outdoor ed, events can dictate the program, or at least changes to the program if and when things don’t go to plan. The best thing to do is to be flexible, adaptable and always know there’s another learning experience and teachable moments outside of what was originally planned. Going forward with an activity just for the sake of the activity more often than not can lead to negative outcomes. It’s always good to be able to adapt and change plans if circumstances dictate. In this case, we had to do it because of injuries, but in other cases it could be weather, equipment or a range of other random possibilities that are sometimes hard to predict. Ultimately, it was still an interesting couple of days and a memorable expedition and adventure for all involved.
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