Wild NZ: Adventure Education

Wild NZ: Adventure Education

Ask any of the teachers (and the research backs this up): students’ engagement in lessons is much higher when those lessons happen outside. And it doesn’t just have an impact on these ‘soft skills’. EOTC has a positive effect on students’ academic results as well.

Learning outside the classroom

by Mike Cooney

It was the culmination of the year – the grand finale, after more than three terms’ worth of adventure learning. For these year 7-8s, the hours spent hiking through bush, learning about native flora and fauna ... the sore bums from sitting in kayaks, learning how to paddle, fall-out, and get back in ... the sessions checking out topographical maps, learning about contour lines and how to use a compass ... these things, and more, were about to be put to the test in their end-of-year EXPEDITION!

Opoutere School, nestled between the rugged Coromandel Ranges and the surf-rich coastline, proudly claims to be one of the first ‘adventure learning’ schools in the country. With the beautiful Wharekawa Harbour and Opoutere Beach up the road, and pristine native bush and rivers behind them, they’re in the perfect location to utilise their surroundings for learning. From their annual interschool adventure race, to their Green-Gold Enviroschool status, Opoutere is fast becoming known as a school that does things a little differently …

Okay, before I get too far ahead of myself, I have a confession to make: my four kids go to this school. Or at least they used to. Three of them have moved on to high school, leaving … one. (Now that’s using maths in the real world!) The other confession I have is that I’m on the school board, and have been for seven looong years! 

Those of you who know me, or have been lucky (?) enough to follow my writing over the past decade, will realise that I have somewhat of a bias for the outdoors. In my not-so-humble opinion, there are few environments that can impact our character development like time spent in the wilderness – especially if it’s intentional. And as an ex-teacher, I know it can have a profound influence in the education of our kids … if it’s done right.

Education outside the classroom (or EOTC as it’s known in edu-speak) has always been a big part of Opoutere School, but in the last few years we’ve been deliberate in making it an integral part of the school curriculum – not just an ‘add-on’ for a Friday afternoon. And here’s one of the reasons why:

Many years ago, when I was just a young, naïve teacher, one of the big focusses in education was improving the learning outcomes for boys … particularly Māori boys. Many years later, one of the big focusses in education is still about improving the learning outcomes for boys … particularly Māori boys. Little has changed. And as the old maxim goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

So, as a school with plenty of boys, and a roll of approximately 50% Māori (including my kids), we decided to do something different. Enter ‘Adventure Learning’ …

So what exactly (do I hear you ask) is adventure learning? Well, according to principal Jethro Dyer, it’s more than just education outside the classroom. “For us here at Opoutere” he says, “it’s about firstly engaging learners in our pristine environment, and then helping them develop competencies in their learning which will benefit them both inside and outside the classroom.”

Those competencies, according to the New Zealand Curriculum, are the capabilities people have, and need to develop, to live and learn today and in the future. In fact, the Ministry of Education has identified five key competencies vital in helping young people become confident, connected and actively involved lifelong learners. And it just so happens that these ‘key competencies’ can develop nicely in a well-designed adventure learning programme. They are:

• Thinking
• Relating to others
• Using language, symbols, and texts
• Managing self
• Participating and contributing

Pick any one of the above, and it’s easy to see how these skills are developed in an outdoor setting. For example ... Thinking: deciding which route to take in an adventure race. Relating to others: working together in a team to construct a bivouac. Using language, symbols, and texts: utilising a map and compass. Managing self: controlling emotions during a difficult or scary activity. Participating and contributing: offering your knowledge or skills to complete a task.

Ask any of the teachers (and the research backs this up): students’ engagement in lessons is much higher when those lessons happen outside. And it doesn’t just have an impact on these ‘soft skills’. EOTC has a positive effect on students’ academic results as well. Studies of adventure education programmes show that, on average, kids who participate in these interventions make an additional four months progress in their learning. The improvements are even greater for ‘at-risk’ students, longer programmes, and those run in a wilderness setting.

It’s also suggested that those soft skills, like resilience and perseverance, have a follow-on impact in students’ academic achievement.

Resilience and perseverance ... 

I was digging deep for these two skills as I paddled into a strong headwind, against the tide, on my way up the Otahu Estuary. I shared a double kayak with Max – and my youngest son Hunter, along with his mate Kiharoa, were hot on our tail in theirs. We were part way through the Opoutere Expedition, and we’d just finished hiking four hours up and down the Wharekirauponga track for a swim. 

Somehow, I’d once again been roped in as the designated ‘adult’ of the group – but as it was my son’s last year at Opoutere, I was more than happy to suffer for the cause!

It was a five-kilometre kayak. And, with the amount of testosterone floating on that river, there was always going to be a race – even though we were all on the same team! The paddle was brutal (did I mention the headwind and tide?) and the transition couldn’t come soon enough! We finally swapped our paddles for shoes and walked another five kilometres along the beaches of Whangamata, looking for our mountain bikes, and the last leg of our journey.

It was a bluebird day, it was December, and it was hot. With the sun scorching down, we couldn’t wait to get off the searing tarmac and into the shade of the forest trails. The boys had planned a route through the extensive network of mountain-bike tracks that would take us to Onemana – a small coastal village between Whangamata and Opoutere, and the final destination of our expedition. Apart from an impressive over-the-handlebars fall by one of the boys, we made it to the Onemana turn-off and the final stretch.

This, unfortunately, included a one kilometre, near-vertical climb on our bikes – which, in the blazing sun, proved to be the hardest challenge of the journey so far. Although I was dying on the inside, I still had enough of my faculties intact to witness what a test of character this had been for the boys. It had been a gruelling 40-something kilometres, but they never looked like giving up. Instead, they kept an eye out for each other, and showed a resilience beyond their 12 years. 

These boys had come a long way – and not just over the last eight hours! – and I was incredibly proud of them.

Okay, I know I said I was biased towards the outdoors. But, to be honest, this approach to education has revolutionised our school. Kids are engaged … they experience success … and they want to come to school! And to prove this isn’t based on flawed ideology, there’s a growing mountain of research (summarised below) that supports what we’re doing. From play-based education to full-on adventure learning expeditions, it simply works.

Benefits of Adventure Learning (according to the experts):
• Improved confidence, social skills, communication, motivation, and concentration
• Improved physical stamina, fine and gross motor skills
• Positive identity formation for individuals and communities
• Environmentally sustainable behaviours and ecological literacy
• Increased knowledge of environment
• Healthy and safe risk-taking
• Improved creativity and resilience
• Improved academic achievement and self-management
• Reduced stress and increased patience, self-discipline, capacity for attention, and recovery from mental fatigue
• Improved higher level cognitive skills

I don’t know about you, but it sounds pretty good to me!