Yeah, sure, your parents walked to school in the snow with bare feet and it “toughened them up” but perhaps the time of kids climbing trees and stepping into the wilderness has passed and the same experiences and benefits can be obtained via our ever-evolving technology?
Health and safety in the workplace, especially schools, is tightening up around the world and, in my opinion, for good reason.
Standards and expectations around safety are higher, and liability can – and will be – squarely placed on the shoulders of the negligent should anything ever go awry.
What’s the result?
More teachers and adults wiping their hands of education outside the classroom and filing that baby neatly in the ‘too hard’ basket.
In my humble opinion, education outside the classroom needs to remain an integral part of the education system.
I could write a novel, the length of which would rival the Lord of the Rings trilogies, but in the interest of time, I’ll stick to the key reasons outdoor education is, and always will be, dear to my heart.
Before reading on, please note that safety is of the utmost importance, as is the specific way in which outdoor education should be delivered to achieve these desired effects.
Mike Brown of the University of Waikato states, “The comfort zone model or variants of it, is widespread within adventure education literature (eg, Exeter, 2001; Luckner & Nadler, 1997; Prouty, Panicucci, & Collinson, 2007). It is based on the belief that when placed in a stressful or challenging situation, people will respond, rise to the occasion and overcome their hesitancy or fear and grow as individuals.”
Between the ‘comfort zone’ and the ‘panic zone’ lies the optimal ‘stretch zone’.
As cliché as it sounds, outdoor education gives students opportunities to push their boundaries and step outside their comfort zone.
The stretch zone is different for each child and the key to effective outdoor instruction is identifying that optimal zone in each individual.
I’ve witnessed groups on high ropes courses where students are doing star jumps on the balance beam 10m off the ground or leaping out to catch the trapeze while blindfolded.
For others within the same group, climbing to the top of the 2.5m high ladder is an achievement of which to be proud.
The success of it comes down to the students embracing a challenge and overcoming a fear.
From this, they gain a sense of self-accomplishment and self-esteem.
Others in the group must learn to be supportive, understanding and encouraging in order for their peers to reach their goals, and the overall growth of the individual and the group as a whole is huge as a result.
The outdoors is a great vehicle for students to develop interpersonal skills such as leadership, cooperation, communication and trust to name a few.
Again, activities must be structured specifically, in order to aid the personal growth of students, but take whitewater rafting, for example; it’s more than just blindly putting your paddle in the water and floating down a river. A crew must listen to their guide and learn to react quickly to a set of calls.
In order to be successful, the group must paddle together with correct timing and change their paddle strokes at the command of the guide.
The crew must trust their guide and crew mates and demonstrate clear communication skills in the process.
Rafting is not just confined to gnarly grade five white water; the same results can be achieved through lower risk white water environments.
The teacher in me always appreciates the clear action and consequence examples the outdoors provides.
If students cut corners in the classroom the consequence is usually in line with the school pastoral care code, but the link between action and consequence is not always crystal clear.
On the other hand, if a student is building a bivouac (natural shelter) in the bush and doesn’t work hard enough to ensure their roof is watertight, they get wet and have an uncomfortable night's sleep.
The consequence, and severity of that consequence is directly related to the knowledge and effort displayed in the building of the bivouac.
Another, less extreme, example is in team building activities.
When students rush the activity and don’t work together they inevitably fail, meaning they must repeat the activity again.
If they don’t change their tactics or method, they will continue to fail.
The life lessons which can be taken out of these experiences can be transferred to the classroom and sports field and enforce the idea of high personal standards.
The key is effective instruction and guiding students to make those findings themselves.
Personally, sometimes the best thing about being in the outdoors with students is seeing them develop a passion in the arena, or a certain discipline within the realm.
For them to stand atop a mountain after hours of hiking and soak in the view and feeling of accomplishment, or try a new skill such as surfing or snow-skiing and work through the struggle of motor skill development to get the rush of their first wave or uninterrupted run inspires me.
Just as a mathematics teacher gains a feeling of accomplishment when their students achieve well in a test, outdoor educators burst with pride when a student discovers an activity within the outdoors that uncovers a genuine passion or skill they never knew existed inside them.
I could go on, but instead, I’ll leave you with this: technology is an ever-present part of our lives and the lives of our students.
It is wonderful to have information at our fingertips but it cannot replace the personal growth opportunities that quality outdoor experiences provide.
Health and safety must be a priority but this hurdle is far from insurmountable and the risk of not including education outside the classroom within your school programme far outweighs the risks associated with the subject when led by able and skilled instructors.