I’M PRETTY SURE THAT IF YOU ASKED most 13-14-year-olds what they thought about spending four weeks away from home (and school!) while enjoying adventures in the outdoors with their friends, most would say, “Where do I sign?!” But if you then added that they’d also be responsible for cooking their meals, doing their washing, keeping their rooms spotless, and being in bed each night by 9pm … and there would be no contact with the ‘outside world’ – except for letter writing – well, I imagine that some of their initial excitement would fade.
And then (just to increase the challenge) try adding that there’d also be no devices: no phones, no computers, no TV … which means (gulp!) … no social media! For four weeks!
Well, that’s exactly what happened to the year 10s at Whangamata- Area School – a public school situated on the southeast coast of the Coromandel Peninsula …
Now in its third year, Tōku Ara (My Pathway) is an innovative, four-week residential programme based at the Wharekawa Lodge in the small coastal community of Ōpoutere – 15 minutes north of Whangamatā. Specifically designed for students from Whangamatā Area School, its mission is to: “set students on a path of personal growth and support them to discover and develop their potential through challenging experiences within our local environment.”
And it’s having a huge impact on the lives of the kids that attend.
Tōku Ara is unique amongst public schools in New Zealand. There are other private schools running residential outdoor curriculums – most notably St Paul’s Collegiate School and their 18-week outdoor programme at Tihoi, near Taupo. But the amount of effort involved to get something like this off the ground – resources, staff, expertise, cost (to name a few!) – makes it a challenging prospect. And I know this from personal experience!
In 2017, I was lucky to be a part of an amazing team – made up of school principals, local business owners, educators, and a couple of movers and shakers – who had the opportunity to take over a youth hostel in Ōpoutere. The dream? To use it as an educational facility and provide authentic, adventure-based learning opportunities for the young people in our region. I won’t bore you with the details (which involved lots of meetings, generous donations, working bees and an incredible amount of work by our recently appointed general manager), but here we are in 2023 with part of the dream realised: Tōku Ara!
My youngest daughter was one of Tōku Ara’s foundational students back in 2021. And while I had a small role in the boy’s intake that year, running some bushcraft activities, I wasn’t involved with the girls due to my daughter being there … part of the challenge for the kids is not having their parents around! So when the opportunity came to help run the intake for 2023, I somehow managed to juggle my timetable and embark on an eight-week adventure of my own – along with 45 year 10 students, most of whom struggling with withdrawal symptoms, having been separated from their phones!
Even though Whangamatā Area School is co-ed, the boys and girls are separated into different cohorts – the research shows they respond much better in a single-sex environment – fewer distractions! It’s also obvious, after running these programmes, that their needs are different: boys, it turns out, are not the same as girls! And the ability to adjust the curriculum to respond to these differences is vital.
So, what does the Tōku Ara experience actually look like?
When arriving at Tōku Ara, the students are placed into Poutama Groups with up to eight others plus a mentor – and, for four days of the week, they experience community living with each other. They learn to live and work together – taking responsibility for preparing meals, keeping house, attending lessons, and competing in various challenges. Along with these routines, there’s a daily 3km run, plus service projects and leisure activities … including the possibility of a surf!
Community living can be a challenge – particularly in the second week when homesickness is at its highest, and some are coming off addictions to screens, sugar … and vapes! But it creates an amazing opportunity for growth as students begin to grow comfortable with each other and their mentors. They start feeling fitter and healthier, showing compassion for those homesick or anxious, sharing their struggles, and celebrating their wins!
They’re learning that independence is sometimes good, but interdependence is even better!
The other three days are spent in the outdoors with a specialty Outdoor Pursuits team. Here they participate in activities – like kayaking, mountain biking, paddle boarding and tramping. They climb mountains, sleep on islands and discover the many fascinating historical stories of the area. They learn bush survival: how to make a shelter and fire – and then they put it into practice by spending a night out in the bush with no tent, sleeping bag or mat …
Bear Grylls would be proud!
All these outdoor activities culminate in a 24-hour solo challenge during their last week. Deep in the Coromandel bush, it’s a time for each student to reflect, to face fears … and, for some, to scare inquisitive bush rats and possums away from their camp!
During their 24-hour solo, students reflect on their growth and aspirations. Here are some of the gems:
Who do you want to be after Tōku Ara?
- I want to think positively and tell myself, “I can do anything!” I want to be hard working at everything
I do and be as accepting as possible towards others.
- Being here at To-ku Ara has helped me realise that it’s all about how you choose to do things – it’s all about your mindset.
- I want to be the kind of daughter my parents are proud of. A person that people look up to and say, “She is kind, loving, generous and brave.”
- I want to be able to set goals and achieve them. I want to be able to keep in routine and be more organised.
- I want to live my life with no regrets and surround myself with people who support me and help me grow.
What has the outdoors taught you about yourself?
- That I can push myself outside my comfort zone and that I can get back up after failing with no embarrassment.
- That sometimes I doubt myself, but that I’m capable if my mindset is positive.
- That I am stronger and braver than I think I am.
- Nature has taught me to be resilient, to trust my instincts, and to be grateful for the many luxuries I have in my life.
- It taught me to respect my environment and how to keep myself calm in challenging situations.
What else did you learn about yourself while at Tōku Ara?
- That I’m pretty social and that I can be resilient. I’ve also learnt that I’m definitely not as tough as I look.
- I have learnt that I am a leader. I need to use my voice, and if I don’t like something, I need to say it. How is anyone gonna find out otherwise?
- That I shouldn’t throw away opportunities that may come my way, and I shouldn’t give up or leave when things get tough.
- I have learnt that I am enough!
As an outsider looking in, Tōku Ara might seem like any one of many high-school camps taking place all over the country – albeit a really long one! But it’s far more than that. It’s an intentional process based on solid research that provides students with a unique combination of planned and natural challenges. And it’s through these challenges that the students experience growth – growth that has a lasting impact on them, their families and their communities.
Watching these amazing teens discover and develop their potential through the Tōku Ara experience has been quite an eye-opener. And, speaking as a dad, after spending four weeks with them – sensing their lows and celebrating their highs – I feel immensely proud of them all … almost like they’re my own kids!
Thankfully, they’re not. It’s hard enough paying the bills for the four I already have!
TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT TOKU ARA, CHECK OUT WWW.TOKUARA.CO.NZ