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.
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!
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.
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.