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The journey

| September 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

An essential milestone in a 21st-century education.

By Paul Fleischack

In an attempt to find out what adolescents gain from wilderness experiences, an electronic survey was conducted among pupils who had participated in one of these experiences.

Eight schools participated in the survey and responses from 758 pupils (483 boys and 275 girls) are summarised here.

Figure 1: Average value of responses to questions about the general organisation of the journey: 1= strongly disagree, 6 = strongly agree

Figure 2: Average value of responses to questions about the participants’ personal benefits from the journey: 1= strongly disagree, 6 = strongly agree

Figure 3: Average value of responses to questions about technology and participants’ perceptions of the journey: 1= strongly disagree, 6 = strongly agree

Data interpretation

Figures 1, 2 and 3 suggest that participants found the journey experience to be positive. Figure 1 indicates that participants were generally well prepared, had adequate equipment and supplies. Figure 2 shows that the journey is a significant time of selfdiscovery and personal growth. Many respondents (particularly girls) reported that getting on with others, living in close confines and having to be patient with team members were challenging aspects of the journey.

Table 1: Literal responses to survey questions

The above responses provided by boys and girls indicate the many positive and personal benefits of the journey in their lives. Appreciation of family, peers and familiar comforts were reported by all. It is of interest that many respondents included environment, animals, illness, injury and solitude as the most fearful, exhilarating and challenging aspects of their journey. The responses also show that on the journey:

  • strong relationships are forged
  • positive self-esteem is developed through self-discovery and achievement
  • an appreciation for life, home comforts and friends is generated
  • tolerance for others and teamwork are also rapidly acquired.

Gendered responses and letters from home Girls expressed greater levels of apprehension than boys prior to their journey and a more keen determination to complete the expedition. They seemed more conscious of the intrinsic benefits of the experience than boys. Discussions with a group of Grade 10 boys and girls during their journey revealed that girls:

  • appreciate motivational letters written by older girls and cherish the hand-me-down bangles and trinkets carried by others on previous journeys
  • intended writing similar letters and handing on their trinkets to future journey participants
  • were diligent about making journal entries each day, whereas many boys had lost theirs or used them as kindling for fires.

Both boys and girls valued the relationships that they had forged with staff leaders, to the extent that they were determined not to disappoint these mentors by misbehaving and possibly being excluded from the journey. In many cases, parents were asked to write letters of affirmation to their children completing the journey, and receiving these letters was rated as one of the most meaningful activities.

Nature and solitude

It is encouraging to see that for the majority of respondents, the natural environment featured strongly as an exhilarating aspect of the journey. They also expressed a new appreciation for water. Given the water crises that the planet will face in the coming years, this awareness and appreciation will be vital.

Solitude featured as both a fearful and enjoyable part of the journey. Spending extended time in isolation, resting, reflecting and, in some cases, fasting is recognised as a significant rite of passage in many cultures.

Solitude may very well assist children to develop emotional intelligence (EI). Bjorn Opper, consultant psychologist at St Alban’s College in Tshwane, in research for a PhD degree, found significant and sustained improvements in four of five measurable facets of EI after pupils at the school had completed their journey.1

Leadership development

If real leadership is servant leadership, then the compassion, communication, patience, tolerance and the positive outlook intrinsic to effective teamwork show that leadership skills can be effectively developed as a result of the journey.

Perhaps the following comment, made by a Grade 9 pupil after the journey, says it best:

At first, I hated every moment of this torture. “I would never do this at home!” Those were my favourite words. It was only on day four that I realised what this journey was all about. My eyes filled with tears and it dawned on me that I was the problem! At home I took everything and everyone for granted. After that day, as if by magic, everything got better and I wouldn’t have gone home [prematurely] if you had offered to drive me there.

It is clear that the benefits of the journey affect behaviour and outlook long after the adventure is over. No conventional classroom can match the intensity of the experiences gained during a journey in the wilderness.


1. Opper, B. (2012) Personal correspondence.

Category: Spring 2012

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