Experiential Education

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.

The Idea Of Risk And Education

Risk Photo

Why is everyone so afraid of the word risk? To be honest talking about risk is a risky topic in itself, because whenever people think of risk, it conjures up visions of dangerous risk and is usually associated with money grubbing lawyers, soulless insurance companies and drawn out court cases, all of which should be avoided, like the plague or romantic candle lit dinners with Kim Jong Un.
 
Unfortunately, people become blinkered to anything else, especially when dating a dictator who desperately needs to find a new hairdresser. Seriously though, regardless whether risk is dangerous or not, it fills people with a sense of fear. Not knowing how to deal with one’s fear, leads to a perception that all risk is bad and therefore all risk must be avoided at all cost.
 
However, every part of our lives involves some form of risk. Whether it be trying a new dish off a menu for the first time, deciding what to do on the weekend or planning to leave your current job in pursuit of a new career. All these things involve risk. However, most of this risk stems from people’s inbuilt fears rather than serious risk of harm. Consequently, not all risk is dangerous risk, but it does make us feel uncomfortable, or even fearful because the outcome is unknown. Often people will delay making decisions, or avoid them entirely, because they want to avoid the risk of making the ‘wrong’ decision.
 
Education is all about taking risks, yet due to the misconception that risk is just about dangerous risk, there’s a huge disconnect with schools being proactive with their students and educating them how to take measured and reasonable risks to help them develop and grow. Instead, the focus is on ‘playing it safe’ and being totally and utterly risk averse. Once again, the nanny state and its perverse litigious legal system can justify its own existence.
 
It’s drilled into many children from a young age, ‘be safe’, ‘take care’, ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that!’ ‘BE CAREFUL!!!’ It’s fair enough that parents don’t want to put their child in danger. However, I’m not talking about dangerous risks, so if they’re so risk-averse that they’re not even willing to let their kids get dirty playing around in the backyard at a friend’s house, it’s going to cause much, much bigger problems later on.
 
Unfortunately, the current generation of school-aged kids seems to have been brought up by a generation of paranoid, risk averse parents who are desperate to see no ‘harm’ come to their ‘special child!’ Sadly, as a result of this paranoid parenting, it’s actually damaged many a child’s ability to understand what it means to take a risk, and to be able to take measured and informed risks for themselves. The comfort zones of kids are slowly smothering them into inaction and indecision, then often their perception of risk is either totally over the top, or so oblivious they believe they’re impervious to anything.
 
There are only two approaches you can take when dealing with risk. You can either accept and proactively embrace the inherent risks that life brings, or you can try to avoid them completely. By trying to avoid any sort of risk and avoid the risk of ‘failure,’ this can do more damage to children, than letting them explore and experience risk from within in a positive framework.
 
If parents have the ultimate goal of ensuring their child can’t possibly fail at anything in school, they’re missing the point about education and personal development. The reality is that this ‘perfect child,’ ‘perfect world’ approach is disastrously counterproductive and can only lead to a much greater failure in the future. By being over-protective, parents are not giving their children the chance to develop coping mechanisms and the resilience needed to deal with life’s setbacks that will most certainly occur.
 
Instead of wrapping kids in bubble wrap to protect them from everything, it becomes critical to allow them to explore taking risks within a structured framework such as an experiential education program. This allows them to think for themselves, make decisions and risk failure without massive negative consequences.
 
Through experiencing what taking risks feels like and helping students step outside their comfort zones, we can help students learn about taking chances in life, which is what life’s all about. It’s not about ‘playing it safe,’ to the point that you never progress and grow as a person. It’s about pushing the boundaries to make the most of opportunities and to become the best you can. Next time you’re running a program, set up an activity that involves a good amount of perceived risk that’s suitable for the age and maturity of your students. Through this, encourage them to take a chance, try something completely new and push beyond the boundaries that have been unnaturally put in place for them by others.
 
Failing that, there’s always that romantic dinner date…