Having recently been to a risk management conference, this got me thinking! Are some schools becoming so risk averse to the point of harming kids?
When I was at school, I'd never heard of something called an incursion. In fact, I've only heard it in recent times. To me it just sounds like the school is getting raided by teams of crazed militia. I'm not sure whether it's just a stupid term for having a guest speaker, or an attempt by schools to avoid taking kids off site, by bringing the excursion to them.
If it's the latter, then there’s several problems with this, as so much learning occurs by actually getting out there and doing stuff, not by hanging around in the classroom. This is not to devalue the benefits of a guest speaker, but seriously, call them a guest speaker. The next time I go to a school to do a presentation, if they call it an incursion, I may feel like I need to bring a large collection of stray cats and let them loose to cause an expected level of disruption!
There is a serious point to this though. I’ve noticed an increasing number of schools opting for this type of experience for their students (maybe not involving cats), but having ‘incursions.’ The idea of a virtual ‘excursion’ falls into this same area of total risk avoidance and borders on stupidity, because we're creating a generation of people who can't cope with any sort of adversity. They're too used to having everything done for them or being able to do everything at arms’ length through technology. When things get real, they go to pieces.
A recent example of this was on a long-stay camping program. The students aren't allowed to bring phones, because part the aim is for them to have a break from the distraction of technology. One student was caught with his phone, and when confronted with this and the phone was confiscated, he had a complete meltdown.
This same concern ties back into the idiotic notions of incursions. Let's keep everything safe and risk free because we’re worried too much about consequences. I’m sorry to say, the world is full of real consequences and if you don't educate kids and expose them to at least some of this, then you're setting them up for failure. There are many excuses why people want to avoid real experiential education, but if you want kids to learn and grow, you need them to face real challenges, feel discomfort and be able to build up some resilience in anticipation of what will hit them once they leave school. The danger of failing to do this, means that you're just setting kids up for failure. Therefore, by totally avoiding risk, you're actually causing real harm to the students.
So the next time you're thinking of either going to the art gallery, or bringing the director of the art gallery to you, stop being stupid, book a bus and go and see real works of art, rather than have someone just come and talk to you about it. Real experience produces real learning outcomes and there is no substitute for this in life.
Managing medical concerns at school and on excursions is one of my biggest worries as a teacher! Anaphylaxis is at the top of that list, since a reaction can be almost instant from the allergen and has a cascading effect. This means the longer you leave it, the more difficult it is to recover. However, despite this serious concern, it just means effective strategies need to be in place to ensure preventative measures are the number 1 priority.
In outdoor education, we usually run our programs a considerable distance from emergency medical care. As a result, this adds an additional layer of risk to any trip away. However, rather than worry about this and feel as though it’s too risky to take kids away, my focus has always been on effective preparation and management. This ensures that the chances for an anaphylactic reaction becomes so low, it’s not an issue.
If a student’s medical profile is flagged with an anaphylactic allergy, I’ll phone home and talk to mum and dad. What I need to know when I call is what are the specific triggers? Can they have foods which might contain traces of the allergen? When was the last reaction and what happened? Even though this information might be in the medicals, I prefer the first hand information from parents, so I can effectively brief my staff. I also want to know how well their son or daughter manages their allergy. Are they aware of what can happen? Are they aware of what foods they can and can’t have? This information is vital in helping provide teachers with the best management strategies in the field.
As an example, on one program, I had 247 students out in the field for a week long camp. 11 of the students had allergies which could result in an anaphylactic reaction. Based upon the information from the parents, and the fact some activities were hours away from emergency care, I carefully placed students with the highest needs in the closest proximity to emergency healthcare facilities. In one of the extreme cases, given the number of allergens that the student was affected by, I asked his mum to provide and pack the week’s food in an esky for her son and I provided a clean stove which was specifically for his personal use.
At the end of the day, it about clear channels of communication between parents, teachers and the child. Even though all staff are trained in first aid and anaphylaxis treatment, effective preparation and prevention is far more important. For every activity we do, we go armed with a list of dietary requirements and only shop according to each individual excursion. We don’t plan meals months in advance to save time. It’s about providing the best meal options for each individual group. This way, we’re prepared and able to ensure we provide a safe environment for every child and a wonderful memorable experience away from school.
What's the point of spending time and energy setting up an outdoor ed program aimed at building leadership, teamwork and initiative, then subsequently provide no opportunities for students to actually take responsibility for any of this themselves?
So often I see teachers ‘run’ programs, in that they take the students out, think for them, navigate for them, constantly give instructions on how to do everything and determine the whole schedule for each and every day.
Realistically, students can get this sort of experience any day of the week at home or in the classroom. So don't make the mistake of doing this in your experiential education program!
The command and control operational management style is often starkly noticeable if contracting out your program out to a third party. Whilst some organisations are great, many of them process groups the way you'd process cattle through a dairy. They get herded in, run through the process and led out the other end none the wiser. For cows, the experience seems ok, having chewed a bit of cud and hung out with some other cows. However, has the cow learnt or achieved anything from this? Not really! The only enlightenment she’s achieved is having less milk. But there's lots of money in pointless processes. Look at government departments. They're great at it! I mean really great at it! I guess when you’re onto something good, you should stick to it.
Experiential education however, is not about a process of running fun activities for the sake of it. There’s so much more depth to it than that. It’s about the opportunity to lead, not to be led! The opportunity to take risks, not to have someone tell you what to do. It's about teamwork and decision making.
For teachers, to giving up the reigns and allow students be challenged, experience new things and grow from this may feel awkward and difficult at first. However, if you don’t, then you’re wasting some fantastic educational opportunities.
I've seen teachers on experiential education trips wanting to control and run everything and I mean everything!!! From setting up tents, to collecting firewood, to holding onto a bag of cereal in the morning and dishing it out flake by flake. Some teachers just can't let go of control. If you're like this, it's time to stop as you're not helping anyone with anything.
You need to stand back and allow your students to take the risk of leadership, decision making and self-management and allow them to have the chance to shine and the chance to fail! They're going to learn more from this than they ever will if you were to jump in and catch them before they fail. All you need to do is frame an effective debrief if they do fail, to create a great learning opportunity from this. Conversely, when they display initiative and leadership, use this to extend and challenge your students. You will be amazed the difference this makes.
To be able to do this effectively, when you get into the field, provide your students with a clear and detailed briefing on what needs to happen and what roles need to be fulfilled. Only do this once, as failure to listen can lead to some great learning opportunities for those who choose not to. On the conclusion of your brief, the responsibility needs to then be given to your students to make it all happen. Your role now is purely a safety one to ensure that the wider range of risks are monitored and addressed without intervention in the group decision-making process. The only time you now step in, is if there is a potentially dangerous risk that arises and requires your experience and knowledge to manage.
By allowing students the chance to take on responsibilities they’d not normally have, helps to super charge the learning opportunities in a short period of time. Mistakes are made, tempers are frayed and people are pushed well outside their comfort zones. Whilst this may sound like chaos to some people, it’s a natural and highly effective way of teaching and learning for everyone involved. You can achieve more growth and development from any of your experiential education activities by allowing your students to run them themselves, rather than having you or any other teacher do it for them.
So for your next experiential education activity: Set it up once, let go of the reigns and allow your students to take the initiative and shine.
Food on camps is tricky, but not in the sense that it's hard to do well, there's just so many considerations when you're catering for a diverse school group. Added to this, you often don't know the kids very well. Before camp we do a lot of work preparing for any group and no two camps are the same. To begin with, we look at medical risks and dietary needs. What concerns are there? Do we have kids with allergies? Will some additives make them sick? Will bread and milk cause them to be ill? Can they eat meat? Is it the right sort of meat? Are there any other foods are of concern?
Having catered for so many groups on camps and residential programs, one of the key concerns was that everything has to be ‘normalised.’ Even though I might’ve been catering and cooking for a number of different dietary needs, because they’re kids, I never want anything to stand out or be remarkably different. The last thing I want to hear is a whiney toned, “Why do they get that?!” So if I was cooking burritos for example (which kids love), I'd cook a variation of the burrito for everyone to enjoy. Some have mince, some have chicken, some have tofu, some have beans. Some have tortillas, some have gluten free tortillas, some prefer just to have it on the plate!
Regardless of the mix of ingredients and the time that goes into this, the most important thing from my point of view is every student’s well-being and part of that is making sure they don’t feel ‘different’ a meal times. I’ve been to far to many venues that provide vastly different meals for the kids, making them feel left out and even isolated due to their dietary needs. I won’t have any of that on the camps I run and it’s not unreasonable to expect the same! To be honest, I love buying different foods when I go shopping. I think of all the cool combinations I can do for pizzas, curries and salads just to name a few! Whatever the menu is, I just love wandering around and searching for the best combo to make sure my one meal, can be eaten by all! This does take time, but once you’ve got an idea of a meal plan, each time you have a student with special dietary needs, it’s now only a matter of checking the plan and grabbing the right ingredient!
The contingency plan is one of the most vital things to have as part of your overall excursion management plan. I can't stress enough how vital this is, as well as the ability to be flexible with it. Often when things are going wrong, there's usually not just a simple straight forward option for plan B. So it's good to have plan C & D up your sleeve just in case, to ensure you’re never cornered into thinking there’s only one alternative!
The reality of taking kids anywhere is that things happen. No matter how well you plan, something can come out of left field, like bad weather, vehicle breakdowns or random acts of God, which can often be hard to predict and can escalate quickly. Recently we had one such program where every which way we turned it was one chaotic weather front after another. It got to the point where we had multiple contingency plans for every single day! If one didn't work or was unfeasible, then we were ready to with the next one! Throughout the program we were constantly using C, D & E. Whilst there’s no real value going into the details of each and every plan that we had to work around and how or why they each did or didn’t work, the key issue here is about the ability to change and adapt, which’s the most important thing.
If you ever end up reading serious incident reports into accidents on excursions, there’s a pattern that emerges each time. It usually starts out with a poor decision being made about weather, an activity, the skill level of a group or leadership abilities. This is usually followed by a second poor decision, which starts the unravelling process towards the ultimate major trauma that occurs. What often becomes glaringly obvious when reading the report is that there was no contingency plan! So what happens if things don’t go to plan? Well, don’t force the issue and try to make everything work for the sake of it! Regroup, rethink and adapt. This will let you and your group do another activity safely and not end up facing an inquiry.
When planning your excursion and assessing the risk profile, make sure you build in a Plan B & C if things don’t work out. Then if you have to enact a secondary plan, be flexible in its application and simply cancel if need be. At the end of the day the safety and well being of the group, far exceeds the need to just do an activity!
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.
Ok so, this is something that should go without saying, but it really annoys me when it has to be said. I’ve been in the situation before on a number of occasions where we’ve shared a venue with another school and after dinner you notice some of the teachers sneaking off to have a drink! I mean seriously!!!! WTF? They even speak in poorly veiled code that most kids would understand.
I was reminded of this the other day, when I was plowing through a boarding school training manual, something which just seems common sense after working in boarding schools for 15 years. However, I still had to go through this and there was a question about the school’s alcohol policy, which was really easy to answer! Zero! Nothing whilst on duty, on back up, on camp or anywhere near the kids! It makes perfect sense! So why is it so hard for some teachers not to have a drink for a few nights?
The real danger is if something unexpected happens and yes, on camp, something unexpected happens all the time. Things like finding a kangaroo in my bedroom, finding a funnel web spider in my bed, kids accidentally falling out of bunks and hitting their heads, kids getting stuff in their eyes, one boy cut his leg tripping up a step late at night when he was trying to get a drink of water after lights out. So yeah, anything can happen!!!
When something random and unexpected does happen, you’re immediately on deck, and so are other staff, even if they have to be woken up. I’ve had the experience of night time trips to the hospital and having to delegate responsibility to other staff, but what if they’d been drinking? This puts everyone in a compromising position!
Scenario: You must take a student to hospital to get urgent treatment, but your backup staff have had something to drink, therefore not able to responsibly deliver their duty of care. You’re suddenly put in a terrible situation and really have no back up at all. What if something else happens? Who can deal with it then?
Before I get too preachy about this, it’s something that you as a responsible adult must make an informed decision on. Even if it’s one drink, it’s one too many! If you can’t go a couple of days without a drink, then perhaps you shouldn’t be taking kids anywhere.
At the end of the day, all staff members are responsible for kids throughout the camp and they need to be able to effectively step in if something happens. Stay sober! Stay safe! Then if anything ever happens, there’s no come back on you at all.
Abseiling! Most people will be either super excited, or suddenly feeling anxious. I'm somewhere in between! I love abseiling down a rope and have descended small towers to massive multi-drop cliffs, but it wasn't always that easy.
I'm not afraid of heights as such, but it's a really unnerving feeling taking that initial step back off the cliff. My first experience of abseiling was at Lake Keepit Sport & Rec. It was on a Scripture Union camp when I was 12. Fitting the weird harness was the first challenge, followed by the sitting around and waiting... and sitting and waiting... and sitting and waiting... I think this is the biggest problem with abseiling as an activity for kids, the waiting, but a bit of an unavoidable one too. Having said that, the upside from this activity is enormous!
Reflecting back on my experience, I nervously approached the top of the abseil, clutching at my harness as I stepped closer. With the safety line firmly in my hand, I peered cautiously over the edge, looking down at what looked like an enormous drop. The instructor didn't say much, which didn't help, bedside manner is really important at this point! I was connected onto the belay and abseil line and then told to go, with little to no other instructions. I teetered at the edge for what felt like an eternity. Not wanting to look down, but at the same time, wanting to see where I was going. I looked forward and stepped back, my heart pounding so fast I could feel it bludgeoning my ear drums. I took another step awkwardly lurching back. My foot slip, but I caught it in time and I was over the edge! Leaning back, suddenly I was abseiling! The rest of the experience was an exciting blur and before I knew it, I was on the ground staring back up at the drop that didn't look one little bit as hard as what I had thought at top.
Abseiling, despite being perceived by some participants as one of scariest and most dangerous activities you can do, nothing could be further from the truth. It's infact one of the safest! Think about it, you've got a harness, which is then connected to an abseil line, and on top of that connected to a belay line, which is a setup as no single point of failure system. So from a risk point of view, it's super safe! From the kids point of view (and even some teachers) however, it's a different picture all together. The real value here is that it's a great learning experience which can be achieved with high level of perceived risk.
The abseil is simple. Walk backwards!!! That's it! But the psychological challenging to get yourself over the edge is the real task! Most participants freeze right at the top. Not half way down, not near the bottom, right at the start of the decent. This is something a good instructor can work through and talk calmly and patiently with anyone who is finding it hard to take that first step back off the tower, or cliff. Don't pressure anyone to the point they're feeling overwhelmed! That's not good for anyone, be supportive, help them, but if they decide not to go, then just let them know how well they did when they tried it.
For those who push themselves past their fears, this can be a very powerful experience. It's this breaking down of fears and overcoming the anxiety of taking that first step back which can boost someone's self-esteem in a massive way! At the end of the session it's vital to debrief with everyone! Get them to reflect on how they felt before and after. Relate this to overcoming other fears and pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone in their every day life to really achieve and reach their potential.
Not everyone is going to be able to overcome the fear of taking that first step, but those who do, learn so much about themselves in doing so.
There are so many fantastic team building activities for kids, which can vary from simple trust activities with little to no equipment, right up to obstacle courses or races that require significant preparation. However for the purposes of simplicity here are three simple ones which I love to use.
1. Entangled Hands: Get the kids to stand in a circle shoulder to shoulder and put all their hands into the circle and take someone else's hands. They can't both be the same person's hand! Then they have to work as a team to unravel the knot of hands without letting go until they're all standing in one big circle hand in hand. This is a fun activity that kids can get into and do with no equipment needed. Key to the success of the team in this game is effective communication. There's lots of communication needed to achieve the untangled circle, as it will involve co-ordinating with each other, stepping up over arms and twisting around every which way! A great variant to add in is for them to do it without talking!
2. Shared Sight: You're going to need a blindfold, two ropes and a couple of random obstacles for this one! Lay out the ropes so they snake around the room to make up a course that must be travelled, then randomly place some obstacles such as soft toys or drink cans along the way! The idea is that one kid is blind-folded and the other, using only their voice has to safely guide them through the course without touching any of the obstacles or the rope along the way. This game not only requires communication, but a huge amount of trust as well, therefore helping to meld participants into a cohesive team.
Huge Amount Of Trust Needed For This Activity
3. Raft Building: This activity requires a few pieces of equipment, including poly pipe capped at each end, empty sealable barrels and some lengths of rope. The wider the selection of items the better, because it allows for greater variation in design and greater creativity from the kids. You will also need to be near a creek/river/pool for this challenge and there's a great chance that everyone's going to get wet!!!
In small groups of 4-6 kids, set clear parameters as to how many pieces of equipment they can use. From the collection of materials they then select and use these limited resources to build a sea-worthy raft, that will not only float, but safely carry all members of the team across the river and back. It's amazing how many variations of a raft are created each time, some far more effective than others. In this activity the kids must work together to design, build, then paddle the raft as a team. It's a great way to engage all members of the team and whilst some may be stronger in design or building, others may be stronger in paddling and steering.
The real test comes when the kids have to carry the raft down to the river banks and it hits the water for the first time!! Does it float? Yes!!! Does it float with everyone on it?... Well ummm...
There are a huge range of skills being developed in this activity and it's such a fun one to do. It builds confidence, communication, leadership, teamwork, trust, cooperation and coordination! Even if the raft completely falls apart on the water, it's the process the kids have used in creating that craft that's so important in the overall learning process. If all else fails, you're still going to have a great laugh seeing these makeshift vessels breakup and see the kids scrambling to grab all the pieces before they float away!
Ergh! I hear you cry! To be honest I feel the same way about most excursions and the food that's served. It's crap and all the staff try and sneak off for coffee or brunch at any fleeting opportunity.
I've had a lot of camp food over the years and it's varied from 'I think they're trying to poison us' to 'that's really awesome!'
So why is it so inconsistent between venues? Is it because it's hard to cook for so many people? Well... In a word... No! It's actually not! A lot of the time it comes down to total laziness on the part of the caterers. Once the kitchen has a look at dietary needs, that's it! They simply concoct the most average bollocks they can imagine and slop out to everyone. Since you're only there for a few days nobody seems to notice (or care)! But does this make it okay for them to do a rubbish job?
Absolutely not!!! If a venue and program want to have a great reputation for quality, they need to put just as much effort into their food as they do the safety and management of the activities they run the two shouldn't be seen as mutually exclusive. If you serve crap and kids aren't eating, this just adds to the activity risk, so don't do it!
I've owned my own café and been a cook for a residential snow sports training camp in the US, so I know from experience that it's not that hard to cater for large groups with decent food. It just takes a bit of thought and effort!
Cooks need to stop using the excuse that some people don't like spice for making food taste like crap. Too many of them try to race to the bottom to cater for the minority and end up producing nothing but rubbish. This results in food being neither delicious, nor nutritious.
However, my experience hasn't been all bad and I can think of three programs I've worked on, where the quality of the food was awesome! Every meal was simple, flavoursome and there was plenty of it.
So what's your point? Well, my point is don't accept mediocrity when it comes to what's served! Leading up to your excursion, as part of your planning, talk to the catering staff and see what they're going to provide. Make changes if it isn't suitable and provide some honest feedback for what's served. Failing that, leave someone else in charge of the kids and join the rest of the staff at the local Thai restaurant.