The wild blue yonder

ISASA schools gather for first outdoor education conference

By Steve Carter

A bright new day dawns; splendid as it dips its fingers of light deep down into the beautiful kloofs, and casting its warmth over multiple species who call this part of our country home.

Humankind, at one point in its evolutionary history, called this place home, too. Now we seem to live in opposition to the earth, imposing our own will on its future. You only have to look at the plight of our rhinos to see too well what man’s greed can cause. And yet there are pockets of concern slowly growing around the globe, as understanding dawns and brings with it change. It is here that we find the vision of outdoor education.

What is outdoor education?

Outdoor education has its roots in the experiential side of learning – in which formation, not ‘information’, is a key value. It is a way of rescuing learning from dark and dusty places and reawakening within students wonder – wonder at themselves, others and the natural environment. This awe can enliven their empathy towards planet earth and give them time to reflect on the harmful things people do to each other and this world. Wonder at themselves will awaken in them their own sense of agency and their ability to act for the common good.

Groundbreaking outdoor education conference

With all this in mind, it was a privilege to attend the first outdoor education conference in South Africa, hosted by Somerset College in the Western Cape in March 2012. The conference was supported by more than 40 schools of diverse backgrounds from around the country, with some 70 delegates in attendance. Speakers from Somerset College, St Alban’s College, Stanford Lake College, Bishops College, St Andrew’s College and the Diocesan School for Girls Grahamstown, Treverton, St Stithian’s College, St John’s College, St Mary’s School, Applewood Preparatory, St John’s Preparatory School, Woodridge Preparatory School and Hillcrest Christian Academy offered reflections on the philosophical bases for their existing programmes, and shared personal stories relating to challenges or triumphs they had experienced.

Schools who are exploring setting up an outdoor education programmes were given valuable advice as Alex Junod reflected on the Maretlwane Bush School. In two other sessions, delegates were offered the opportunity to discuss pertinent issues such as legal risk, the length of outdoor education programmes, the transferral of knowledge from outdoor education to school life, leadership training; and continuing outdoor education programmes through primary and secondary school. There were also presentations from the Mountain Development Trust (MDT); and The African Paddling Association (APA)- both organisations worth contacting for their expertise and training opportunities.

When I returned home after the conference, there was much on which to reflect. I’d like to share some of these reflections with you.

Outdoor education much more than camping out

First, schools must be willing to ‘rescue’ outdoor education from the traditional idea of ‘just camping out’ and place it within the framework of a holistic approach to educating young people.

Authentic outdoor education allows teachers the opportunity to consider these questions: Is a certificate stamped with six ‘A’ symbols at the end of matric all we want to offer school leavers as they move out into the world? Which ‘alternative’ aspects of schooling can reinforce character development? What about the benefits that come from pairing adults with young people in offcampus experiences?

Second, there is much work to be done to integrate outdoor education into schools’ curricula. There is training to be done of educators and of outdoor education destination personnel, and there are programmes that need to be developed. Most importantly, a relationship based on trust, hard work and a vision to serve our young people must be forged between outdoor education organisations and traditional education systems. This relationship should ideally foreground the development of an active South African outdoor education association.

I hope I have made a relevant contribution to the growing conversation around outdoor education. Our earth is fragile and our children are fragile, and those two futures are inescapably intertwined.

Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2012

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