Escape From The Cave!

Bungonia Caves - Barely Room To Crawl!

Bungonia Caves - Barely Room To Crawl!

What better way to freak out a bunch of teenagers than to take them into a cramped cave in which your chest is flat to the ground and the roof grazes your back. Then turn out the lights!

If this sounds like something you'd love to do, then Bungonia caves is the place to do it! Deep in the Southern Highlands and on the edge of the Shoalhaven Gorge, lies Bungonia National Park. It's an easily accessible area not too far from the Hume Highway. Here there's a stunning cluster of caves with a variety of challenges for all skill levels. Now even though I really enjoyed this experience, caving isn't really my thing, so I'm not going to give you any technical details about the caves themselves. If you're going to do this, make sure you have an experienced guide to lead you, as every cave is different and this presents its own set of risks and challenge.

However, for a simple explanation, caves are cramped and dark and this provides an excellent opportunity for some great experiential learning. The cave I mentioned at the start is quite a short one, literally tens of metres long. However, it can take your group ages to get out in total darkness!

This activity is a fantastic one for developing communication skills and teamwork. The fear factor that's added in with the total disorientation that comes with being in complete darkness, is the perfect way to test even the most confident of students (and teachers). Now this exercise isn't about messing with people's heads. It's about building a team that can communicate, work together and develop a cohesive plan minus one of their most important senses. You really don't understand total and utter darkness until you've been in a cave like this. Some kids totally freak out, but if you're leading the group, resist the temptation to just turn the lights back on. That's a last resort and defeats the whole point of the exercise.

Once everyone has crawled down into the cave with their lights on, there’s an area in which you can gather everyone together and brief them on the task. Once you're done, it's lights off! Time to work together to get out! Now you get to see the group dynamics either gel or implode and it happens really quickly. Robbed of their ability to see, basically someone needs to take charge and use their other senses to start leading people out. But it can't be reliant on one person. Everyone must do his part! That's why I love this activity, because it forces people to quickly accept or reject the team and the team leaders.

There’s no glimpse of light from anywhere. You can literally hold your hand in front of your face and you still won't see anything, no subtle movement, nothing! It feels weird!

After the initial excitement of being in total darkness is over, you can expect the stress level of the group to increase, and they suddenly realise you're not joking about getting out. This activity can bring a group together, in which case they're usually out in a fairly short amount of time. (Remember, it’s not that deep a cave). However, it can also tear a group apart with nobody wanting to take responsibility, poor communications and internal fears overwhelming students. This sort of experience is raw, challenging and can lead to some amazing learning outcomes.

No matter how long it takes your group to get out, the two most important elements of this activity for you are the pre-lights-out briefing and the post activity debrief. By carefully framing the activity and letting the students know this could be challenging, but they've got each other, then this can guide their purpose and focus their minds. In the debrief of the activity, let them run through how they felt and how they found the communication and team dynamics and let them know how you felt in there as well. Even though it's a safe activity, it can still be unnerving and make you feel uncomfortable too.

This activity is great for putting people right out of their comfort zones. However, we only ever grow in our lives when things are uncomfortable and by adapting to meet the challenge of that discomfort. By providing positive feedback for when the team pushes past their discomfort and grows, is ultimately the goal of this amazing experiential education activity. It’s well worth a trip to the Southern Highlands!

What's The Point Of Outdoor Education?

Hiking - Outdoor Education

I’ve been reading a number of articles lately which have had a common theme about where education is headed. Given the number of theories on how people learn and retain information best, it always strikes me as odd when experienced educators, usually in management positions, suddenly think that more time in a classroom equates to greater results for the school.

Whilst this might work for some students, what’s the point of having a cohort of super intelligent and well educated doctors who have the bedside manner of a pathologist? Many big companies pay people like myself large amounts of money to run team building and leadership programs for their staff, because they don't have the capacity to effectively deal with people, work as cohesive teams, adapt and problem solve! Just as an aside, if you are from a big company and you have a large amount of money to give away, I’m more than happy to run a corporate team building weekend for you!

If this is what more and more organisations are looking for, why then is it so hard for schools to see the value in what outdoor education does? I can’t for the life of me work it out! Many schools have outdoor education as a token gesture annual year level camp. More often than not, they also get someone else to run it for them. The problem with this is the fact that activities in isolation don't add up to the long-term benefit that a well-structured outdoor ed program can deliver and it's these long-term benefits that make all the difference to the overall educational experience.

The whole point of modern education should be to provide students with a dynamic skill set to tackle the challenges of life, not just academic, but social and emotional as well! This is where outdoor education comes in. Forget about the specific activities for a moment. Worrying about this can be a distraction from the wider picture, so instead think about what emotional and spiritual goals you want to achieve from your programs. Be specific with it too! Do you want doctors with a good bedside manner? Do you want trades people who can setup and run their own enterprises? Do you want kids to be honest, responsible and functional members of society? Or do you just want a number so the principal can feel good about themselves? Anyone can get an academic result. To be honest, it's probably one of the easiest things in education. Yet producing independent, innovative, determined and compassionate young men and women is a far more difficult challenge for educators.

Briefing The Kids Before Kayaking

Briefing The Kids Before Kayaking

The world however, needs young men and women to be equipped with far more than a university entrance rank. By only focusing on academics, you're actually setting kids up for failure and failure is something modern adolescents aren't very good at handling. I’ll talk about the lack of resilience in kids today in another article, but for now I’ll stick to the point. You need to provide more than academics and a token gesture of a year level camp each year. Outdoor education needs to become an integral part of your school's program and culture.

What should you do about it? Well, for starters, the school needs a director of outdoor education, one who's experienced in developing and delivering innovative, sequential learning programs that link together and increase the challenge that the students must face as they progress through the years. Then allocate time throughout the year to challenge students in their social and emotional growth through outdoor activities. Better still, look at a longer term year 9 or 10 program. Let's be honest, these two years could be a complete waste of time, so you may as well do something constructive with them, rather than just let them tread water until they're a bit more mature. There's some awesome long-stay programs being run around the world, so check them out and see how you could shape the lives of your students with something like this. If all else fails, at the very least, link every year level camp to real social and emotional outcomes so that teachers can work towards achieving them, not just ‘getting away’ for a week.

The whole point of outdoor education is to push kids outside their comfort zone and to challenge them. It's not until we begin to feel uncomfortable about something new, that we actually start to develop and grow as individuals. It's this emotional and social growth that becomes invaluable to the child’s overall education. The more they're given real opportunities to deal with the reality living with others, working as a team and reflecting on their own life and actions, the more balanced an individual will be.

Forget the insane drive for academics at all cost. Whilst it produces some pretty numbers that everyone can go ‘ooooh and ahhhrr’ for about five minutes, all of this is often meaningless and easily forgotten. Whilst it helps the principal make out that they're doing a great job, it also produces crappy soulless lawyers, crooked politicians, rubbish doctors and rude tradesmen who don't wipe their shoes at the door.

Outdoor Ed is more important than ever to help develop real life skills for each and every student. Don't leave leadership, team building and resilience to someone else. It's a vital part of education for young men and women so they can lead healthy balanced and wonderful lives.

Great Teaching Moments!

Mountain Biking - Outdoor Education

This week is simply about an awesome teaching moment, which led to such an awesome feeling inside! It's why I actually love this job so much! The awesome moment and great feeling was triggered by a single smile!

With the rains and floods of last week having subsided and the program returning to 'normal' it's time for some mountain biking! A frustrating phenomenon is becoming increasing pronounced. I noticed it a few years ago and sadly it's getting worse. That's he fact that kids aren't learning to ride a bike! Even though we run mountain biking as part of our program, until now, we've been limited to one day per camp. If a student couldn't ride, then there simply wasn't the time nor the resources to teach the non-riders anything. If we tried, it would be at the cost of everyone else, which is unfair to the other kids who want to challenge and push themselves. So we bought some bikes for the campus.

In anticipation of the upcoming mountain bike activity for our year 9 students (14-15 years old), we offered one on one sessions for any boys who weren't confident about riding. I had one taker and one helper! I kitted them out with helmets and gloves then ran through all the safety checks on the bike before getting started. The success rate for riding with non-riders at this age is fairly low. Not because of lack of skills, or ability, it's the lack of attention span to stick with something longer than 5mins, a sad reflection on society and parenting on both counts. However, with any skill, it takes work and persistence and that's what makes all the difference.

Throughout the morning it was a combination of pushing the bike, falling off the bike, running over my toes, running over his friend's toes and generally messy wobbles that looked like they might go somewhere, but then ended up with him laying on the ground time and time again.

The great thing was though, was that this didn't phase him. I kept working with him on balance, body position and movement and these falls became less frequent and the front wheel lurched around less violently each time. We had a break for lunch and then another session in the afternoon of class work, before heading back out to the oval to try again. It was the same result, front wheel everywhere, feet on the ground more than on the pedals and seemingly no balance. Suddenly, like the switching on of a light, it changed! He was on the bike, the front wheel was stable, he was pedalling! He was riding the bike!!!

He turned the bike towards me and that's when I saw it, this beaming smile across the boy's face. He was up and riding! He'd done it!!! It was an awesome sight to see and it felt so good from my point of view that he'd stuck to it and got there! Whilst this sort of thing happens every day as a teacher, it's often quite subtle, especially in the classroom, but out here, it was there for everyone to see! A great end to the day for a boy who had just never had the opportunity to try riding a bike until now!

Stop! Paddle Time!

Canoeing - Outdoor Education

Last month I talked about team building activities which are great to engage kids of all ages. It helps them come out of their shells and challenges them in ways that Xboxes can't. Whilst these activities might last an hour or two, what happens if you want to make this a longer, more involved and more challenging experience? Since I've now canoed more kilometres (about 147km) this year than I've run so far (134km), I thought it was high time to talk about it.

Canoeing is one of the best ways you can keep kids engaged in a team building activity over a number of hours or even days on expedition. There's something magical about travelling to a remote inaccessible location along a winding river, barricaded on two sides by pristine wilderness or high vaulting cliffs and nothing but water in front of you. But it's not just about the scenery, sadly most of which teenagers don't appreciate. It's about the journey and the experiences along the way.

Amazing Scenery

Amazing Scenery

The canoe expedition has a multitude of challenges for the kids, beginning with loading the canoe! Getting the balance right is so important because if they're going to be paddling somewhere over a long period of time, trying to do that with a lopsided boat is really hard and sometimes it just means you go around and around in circles. For a high school group, I wouldn't load the boats for them, I'd demonstrate how to do it, then let them use their initiative to pack their own boat. This is always an interesting process to watch with some students getting it straight away, whilst others have to repack several times. It also means nobody can stand around and let others do the work for them.

Getting into a fully laiden boat is the next challenge! Most people will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid getting their feet wet, and in doing so I've seen some spectacular fails! Everything from pushing down too hard on the gunnel (side of the canoe), to stepping on the canoe with one foot, leaving the other foot on the river bank and the boat slowly but surely slipping away from under them. Then there's the inevitable splash! Life lesson: Don't be afraid to get your feet wet!

Glassy Smooth Water

Glassy Smooth Water

When you eventually get away from the shore, (which can take a while) it's time to paddle. Before any expedition, it's important to have run various skill sessions with the kids, to ensure they can execute a range of paddling, steering and emergency skills. Including forward stroke, J-stroke, sweep stroke, ruddering, emergency stops and X-rescues. All of these skills require teamwork and co-ordination and by doing this you also help manage the risk involved in the activity. As you travel along on the expedition it's good practice to cruise up to each boat and just see how the techniques are looking, providing feedback to correct, as well as reinforce if the students are doing it well.

After a few kilometres, everyone usually settles into a nice consistent rhythm and now it's a great opportunity for the kids to talk with each other! If you've got hours on end to chat with someone you don't know very well, this provides such a valuable opportunity for some great social development along the way. I've had some fantastic chats and some of my most memorable teaching and mentoring moments in a canoe, so it's far more than just a nice paddle around. It's about relationship building and communication! It's astounding what issues, questions and concerns can come up from your canoe buddy when having to sit and paddle with them for hours on end. Everything from favourite movies to life goals and ambitions can come out, but don't ever force it! Just use this opportunity to enjoy the environment around you and let the conversation flow naturally.

The End Of The Day!

The End Of The Day!

Whilst I'll talk more about risks involved in water activities on another occasion, it's worth mentioning that when the going gets tough, everyone needs to adapt to the conditions! Often when paddling in the afternoon you may end up with a decent wind against you. If this happens, keep your boats closer together and try to instill in everyone the need to paddle harder when conditions get harder (whilst you'd think it goes with out saying, it's seriously not often the case). This is a great test of teamwork and a really good debrief activity for the evening, where you can relate the need to adapt to harder conditions when canoeing, to the need to adapt when faced with other challenges in life.

Ultimately canoeing, on one hand is developing physical co-ordination skills, but on the other it's also a fantastic platform for developing team-work and communication skills. It's well worth looking at building in a canoe expedition as part of your outdoor ed program.

Don't Believe Everything You Think

Abseiling - Outdoor Education

Over the past three years, as I've worked on various outdoor ed programs, I’ve seen a pattern repeating itself over and over again. With a new group every few weeks, I've found the same kind of engrained beliefs the students have about themselves presenting again and again at the start of each program.

When the students arrive, I run a session on goal setting. In this, we outline why we set goals, how we go about achieving goals and why we should be setting goals outside our comfort zone! Despite this, it’s not until we actually get out into field and start doing some challenging activities that students get the opportunity to field-test their skill level and resilience.
 
Often we’ll be running an activity where the students have little previous experience. As a result, they’re hesitant or even fearful of the activity. The feeling of pushing outside one’s comfort zone starts to solidify in the students’ minds. However, I've noticed an increasing number of students shy away from activities that involve any form or risk, or perceived risk of failure.
 
Some of this feeling of fear is perhaps due to lack of experience. Other fears however, are often inherited from external sources such as parents and family who may have misguidedly told their children to always ‘Be Safe!’ ‘Don't take risks!’ and because their children are so perfect, they can't possibly fail… at anything!
 
One of the problems this creates is an irrational fear of dangers that don't actually exist and the fear of failure to the point that it's better not to try, than to risk being seen as less than perfect. The number of ‘perfect’ children I now find who have such low self esteem and lack of self belief is astounding!
 
When setting up activities we run, especially when we’re looking at abseiling, surfing, high ropes courses and even riding a bike, I say to the students beforehand, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think!’
 
I usually get blank stares, ‘What’s he talking about?’  I leave it at that.! I don’t go into any other details before starting the activity.
 
Whatever the activity may be, I make sure that it's designed to push the comfort zone and boundaries for each and every student.
 
Because of their pre-existing self-beliefs and low-levels of resilience, more often than not the students will go into an activity thinking, ‘I can’t do it!’ It's really just their first line of  defence to avoid their fear of failure.
 
Whenever they tell me, ‘I can’t do it,’ I generally respond, ‘Why not?’
In return I usually get ‘Because…. Blah, blah, blah!’
By this time, I've tuned out as they’ll throw up every possible excuse to avoid trying. These excuses tend to come out in rapid-fire succession, just in case the first one doesn't sound believable enough, they've got the next one ready to go!
 
What they're basically saying is, ‘What excuse can I make up to protect myself from possibly failing?’ and it's this fear of failure that's increasingly driving behaviours in students.
 
However, unless there’s some pre-existing medical condition, or some real reason as to why they can’t participate, I ignore their complaints about not being able to do it and instead encourage them to give it a go!
 
Whatever the activity, we’ll graduate it throughout the day to increase the level of challenge. For example, in mountain biking, we’d start with simple biking skills, how to set your seat height, how to pedal, how to change gears, how to brake, a very important aspect. We move on to how to go over an obstacle, how to go over an obstacle when moving at speed, how to go over multiple obstacles in succession and how to negotiate around berms, downhill at speed. The activity is therefore getting harder and harder, but it's graduating at a pace with which the students can manage.
 
Suddenly, without realising it, the students are riding on relatively steep terrain covered with some serious obstacles. A couple of hours ago they were telling me, or more to the point, themselves, that they couldn't do it!
 
With a ropes course, we start with low ropes, which are literally one step off the ground. They're simple stable challenges. However, after this, we ramp it up to a high ropes course where there's an increased perception of risk.
 
We often have students who are afraid of heights and this is a great activity to seriously push them outside their comfort zone. It makes them feel fear, it allows them to confront their fears head on and I work closely with these students to pushing them through that fear and enable them to truly challenge themselves and their firmly held beliefs. Once you can get them to punch through those self doubts, then their attitudes change, their confidence growth with it.
 
The same is true with surfing because a lot of students have never surfed before. Some are afraid of the water. Some are afraid of the surf. Some are afraid of getting eaten by sharks. The reality is though, you’re more likely to get killed by a vending machine falling on top of you than you are getting eaten by a shark. But people are still afraid.
 
No matter what the activity, the biggest challenge for students always comes down to all of the irrational fears that run through their minds telling them they can't do it.
 
However, once you get them involved and engaged in an activity, the fears disappear from their mind. They forget about all the excuses they made up as to why they couldn’t do something because their minds are now focused on the here and now and before they know it, they’re actually doing the thing they told you they couldn't.
 
I love to see this when it happens and I use this to positively reinforce those affirmative risk-taking behaviours that the students have pushed themselves to do.
 
In debriefing the activity, I revisit the issue of facing fears, happily saying to the student, ‘You’ve just achieved something that you told me you couldn’t do. Two hours ago you told me, “I can’t do it,” but what’s happened?’
 
I encourage all the students to respond individually. Invariably they’ll say, ‘I did it!’ And they’re really excited about it too. You can see it in their faces and in their smiles. They’re excited to have conquered their fear. They’re excited to have done something they’ve never done before.
 
To conclude the debrief, I’ll do a summation then reinforce my original statement, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think.’
 
Suddenly, I see lights going on! Some students are having an aha moment! What I said at the start is now making sense. Whilst they mightn’t remember it at the start of the next challenging activity, I’ll remind them of it and consequently they start to further process how to better approach challenging situations.
 
When students begin to realise their thoughts can shape so much of their lives in both positive and negative ways, this can become a powerful tool to help them master their approach to new challenges and experiences. Instead of telling themselves they can't do something, they've now got a power reference point of how and why they can do something they never thought they could.
 
Using briefing and debriefing frameworks to provide relatable learning moments, is vital when working with teenagers who might not always feel comfortable nor confident in everything they’re doing, even if they pretend to be.
 
Whilst life’s not all high ropes, mountain biking and shark dodging, when students can use these more challenging experiences and relate their success in these back to every day life, they start to become more resilient and realise they can push through other challenges they face.
 
Relating outdoor activities back to a wider context in this way, can be extremely effective in helping teenagers to push themselves outside their comfort zones and grow. It helps them to adopt a better mind-set for the way they should approach the next activity, or the next family matter or the next big decision they need to make in their lives. Chances are if you do the same, it could help you to push through some of your own long-held fears and apprehensions.
 
So remember, Don’t always believe everything you think!