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Outdoor education: a changing philosophy

| November 17, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Courtney Watson

Most schools have an outdoor education programme, be it a camp or some sort of a leadership experience away from their usual four-walled classroom spaces.

We all know about our beautiful South African environment and the opportunities it provides, and most teachers have done at least some reading about experiential learning. Unfortunately, though, our students and their experiences in the outdoors tend to be curtailed by paperwork, academia and more testing.

The problem with much of what happens in schools is that it is too learner-centred. The students benefit from their knowledge personally, and it allows them to qualify with a matric certificate, but schooling should be more than preparation for a set of examination results. It should be the chance to make a real difference in the environment and the community.

Our wild places are under constant pressure and, with a population that is nearing eight billion, we continue to encroach on these spaces and, unfortunately, everything that lives in them. Those who try to preserve our natural heritage do their job with the best intentions and should be lauded. However, they cannot do it on their own. They need numbers on the ground.

Current outdoor camp trends

This is where my embryonic idea of an outdoor education programme comes into it, and it differs slightly from what many of us do at the moment in schools when it comes to immersing students in the environment.

The current trend in providing experiences outside the classroom for students is predominantly founded on the principles of resilience. We send boys, in particular, out on camps where they are able to test themselves and find their limitations. They might experience discomfort, but the trade-off is self-discovery – and this premise is vitally important. Particularly for boys. The problem, though, is that some students begin to associate the outdoors with hardship, and in later life, a hike as a way to escape, to rejuvenate or to enjoy, is probably not their first option.

So, some schools bring an element of fun into their outdoor programme. They interweave challenges with activities like archery, rock climbing and river rafting. Hopefully these detours provide a break from the trials and tests and enable to students to realise that being outdoors is not just about testing yourself. It is a place to enjoy, recharge and renew.

Schoolchildren as nature’s foot soldiers

There is a third tier, though, which few camps ever consider. It is seldom that outdoor programmes resonate with an underlying understanding of preservation, ecology and conservation. For students, most of these words are covered in the syllabus and, as such, are considered deathly dull. These words create screensaver eyes, and students add them to the list of all of the responsibilities that we as adults tend to give them to shoulder. But being outside in a wilderness environment provides a scope for making a real difference, not just talking about it. And that is where my ideas come in.

As I mentioned earlier, dedicated conservationists do their bit to sustain the environment, but imagine if they had help from schoolchildren. Imagine if we were able to take students into an environment that has all the hallmarks of a threatened wild Africa. Most of our school camps find themselves immersed in some sort of socio-economic-environmental battle anyway, so why not allow the students to join the foot soldiers? What difference could they make if they studied the ecology of a given area, in collaboration with students from other schools, building up a research base of long-term information to aid conservation? The possibilities of studying ecosystems – micro and macro – with relationships between species and individuals and the impact that they have on one another, is an exciting prospect.

Technological input

All of this is made even more feasible with technology: camera traps, Google Earth and communal websites make achieving such goals more than “pie in the sky”. Trophic balances reflect the quality of the environment, and studying something as small as a dung beetle could have far-reaching effects. More than that, it is all do-able in something that has more scope that a single individual’s efforts. If we deal in the practical ecology of an area in a manner that is hands-on and experiential, the students will appreciate the affects that we have on nature. Obviously, they will need to be guided by game rangers and other specialist teachers, and in doing so, I think that the effects of their conclusions could be significant. Why not build an activity like this into all of our camps, and provide a forum for the findings to be shared with other schools?

A collective initiative

We can also bring in the community because a project like this is not just about the students who can afford it making a small difference, it is about all of us. Understanding how to care for our natural world is about understanding how to empower people to realise that it is their own individual responsibility. Sharing the knowledge with local community might be the beginning of further involvement and collaborative ideas.

A project like this is about every single one of us doing our bit, instead of expecting others to make a difference on our behalf. Humanity may have a right to clean water, for instance, but if we do not exercise accountability and responsibility in sustaining the water we have, that right will no longer be realistically achievable. Nature has a marvellous Godly ability to heal herself, as long as the onslaught that we produce is not continuous. If we are able to understand the wild by inculcating an ethical responsibility towards it among our students and indeed the greater community, maybe the world will have a fighting chance.

Preserving the poetry in nature

Take a look at the countries with the most developed education systems, such as Finland and Denmark.1 It is no coincidence that they have a steadily declining population growth.2 The reason is because the citizens of these nations have realised that more people require more resources and are therefore not sustainable. Much can be read into this, but maybe the most profound epiphany (which most of us already know) is that education done correctly promotes responsibility. Maybe, if we look at our environmental impact, education will have the power to create a global ethical consciousness towards our environment.

Unfortunately there is a chasm between the impoverished – who cannot afford this sparkling education – and the affluent – who can, but often don’t do the right thing. Perhaps including opportunities like this in our camps will bridge that gap within the parameters of understanding each other and the impact that we have on our world.

There is a poetry in nature that we need to preserve, and we can only make a difference by balancing self-discovery with enjoyment with environmentalism. The youth are able to produce inspiring solutions to problems, but we need to plant the seed within them to create teenage conservation soldiers. Maybe then our students will become something like warrior poets: boys and girls who are able to halt our wanton pressure on nature through their empathy and understanding.


1. See, for example:
2. See, for example:

Category: Summer 2016

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