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.