Personal Development

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!