This is a crossover post between my education blog and business blog, as it fits in both. However, since Experiential education is any education where you just go out to do something. It’s not about theories. It’s not about book work. It’s about getting in and actively problem solving or engaging in a real world activity that’s malleable, has real consequences and outcomes which are either positive or negative, depending on how somebody approaches the task.
So why is this so important? One of the big problems with mainstream education, is the fact that most of it is completely impractical. Most academics would yell savage rebukes and cast terse derision on me from their lofty ivory towers, which incidentally were all built by tradesmen and artisans. However, I’m not here to knock academics and the role in education, because they play an extremely important role, but it’s not one for everyone. Experiential education, on the other hand, is for everybody. It’s the way people have learnt for tens of thousands of years. One of my favourite lines from The Simpsons, is when Homer turns the hot water on, scolds himself and yells out in disbelief. “What?! H Means Hot!” This really sums up how experiential and education works. You do something and there is a real consequence.
Much of this has been lost by the drive of politicians to make sure that academic standards are high. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate into practical jobs for students leaving school. A whopping 2/3 of school leavers will never go to uni, yet almost the entire educational framework is based around training to encourage everyone to go to uni. It just makes no sense! This is only scratching the surface of a much broader issue, so over the next while on this blog and my education one, I’m going to explore more practical ways of learning through experiential education. What lessons do people remember the most? It’s the ones where they see or experience a real outcome not just the theory of an outcome.
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.
Winter is coming, and although that might now strike fear into the hearts of those guarding the wall to the north, it’s an awesome and exciting time for those who like snow sports. Apart from teachers being able to get a trip away to the snow, with huge responsibility thrown in, what’s the point of running a ski trip?
There are two aspects of ski trips. They’re either developing skills and social and emotional connections, or they’re about training and competing. I’ve been involved in both types of programs. However, for me, the social and emotional growth is far more interesting than standing around at the side of race tracks helping kids wax their skis.
Snow sports are a great fun way for students to learn and improve skills, take responsibly and socialise. Skiing and snowboarding can be engaging for anyone of any skill level. Across the range of outdoor activities, for me, it’s more fun than anything else and I’m not going to try and hide that fact, but if education can’t be fun, then what’s the point?
I always think that no matter what you’re teaching, if you can’t make it engaging, then why bother?! Snow sports, which includes skiing and snowboarding are technical and physically demanding sports. It’s challenging for so many people, because balance and fitness are key to ensuring you can ski all day, not have accidents and not wake up feeling as though you’ve been hit by a train. Therefore, if you’re going to be running a snow sports program, a fitness regime in the weeks/months leading into it is a must.
For school administrators scratching their heads wondering how this is educational at all, here’s where your education comes into it! Kids need to understand effective preparation for so many aspects of their lives. Most of the time they don’t need to prepare anything for themselves. However, failure to prepare in an alpine environment can lead to injury, exhaustion or serious illness putting others at risk in the process. Leading up to any ski trip, you should provide students with a program that builds their fitness to increase strength and stamina, making sure you do it as well.
This sort of pre-trip fitness is often neglected because too often people see trips to the snow as a fun holiday and not a physically demanding sport. You’re not going to run onto the sports field and play an intensive match having not trained at all. If you do, you’re going to risk injury and of course, you’re most likely going to lose. To avoid this, everyone going on a snow sports trip should have to meet minimum fitness requirements so they don’t end up in the medical centre on the first day.
Whilst there are many other considerations when preparing for a trip to the snow, having fit, well-prepared students will significantly decrease your risk of injury on the mountains. It’s in everyone’s interest to get out, get fit and have a great time at the snow.
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.
Nobody really likes taking kids into hospital. Most of the time it ends up being the teacher who’s got time off, or the last person out of the room! Let’s be honest it’s a crap job that nobody wants. Firstly you have to take at least two kids with you, so you’ve got one injured and one bored. Secondly the wait… there’s no such thing as a fast track in emergency unless you’re not breathing although arguably by this point you're probably beyond the services available in the emergency ward. Thirdly have you ever been able to get a decent coffee in a hospital?
The trip to hospital all starts when an injury is more serious than your staff can manage. I've had all sorts of visits with students, from fractures, to cuts, to unknown issues each visit if often a unique experience...
My longest wait was 8 hours and this gave me the opportunity to talk about all sorts of things with the student. It's amazing what you find out about life the universe and just about everything when chatting!
However, my weirdest experience was when I took one of the kids in with multiple cuts after he took a dive in a bed of oysters. I won't go into the gory details, but he was a mess to say the least. We sat and waited for some time after seeing the triage nurse, who rifled through the stack of papers which were suppose to be a medical 'summary'. When the nurse finally brought us in to the examination room, she took one look at him and proceeded to fill a tub with warm water and a dash of disinfectant. She then said to me 'here you go, take this into the waiting room and clean him up'. I looked at her for a moment wondering if she was serious... Yes she was!
I looked back at her and said 'can I at least have a pair of gloves'. She half indignantly grabbed me a pair of glove and off we went. I sat there apologising profusely to the couple sitting next to us as I cleaned out the painfully deep wounds and collected a pile of tiny oyster shells as I did. I've heard of cut backs but seriously do I get a discount on my Medicare levy for do it yourself work in hospital?
Anyway, we were there about another hour and a half and the boy ended up with stitches in his hand and bandages everywhere.
To be honest I still try and avoid the hospital trip (mainly because of the bad coffee), but at the end of the day when you're responsible for the kids welfare and safety, prompt action and quick decision making to get them to hospital can mean the difference between an injury becoming an extremely bad injury. So really it's always better to err on the side of caution and take them in to be sure, rather than risk it just to avoid a long wait. At the end of the day, you can always get a coffee on the way home!
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.