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What is outdoor education?: The benefits of learning beyond the classroom are many

Gareth Barlow, Former Outdoor Education Coordinator, UWCSEA

“There is more in us than we know if we could be made to see it; perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”

Grade 9, rainforest expedition, Borneo, Malaysia

Grade 9, rainforest expedition, Borneo, Malaysia

In 2002, I sat in a conference hall in the UK with several hundred other students who would shortly be graduating as teachers from the University of Wales. We were listening to an advisor from one of the main teaching unions, whose unequivocal advice was that as teachers, we should not take students on off-campus trips. The risk was simply too great.

Fast forward 12 years and I now find myself in the fortunate position of working for UWCSEA’s Outdoor Education Department, organising over 25 overseas trips. I find myself wondering why it is that while a national system is backing away from the idea of risk, UWCSEA (and, to be fair, many other schools internationally) are embracing it?

The benefits of outdoor education (which could be defined as the notion of learning beyond the classroom) are many: developing self-esteem; promotion of independence; enhancing cooperation and perseverance; respect and appreciation for the environment. Having witnessed first-hand the benefits of taking adolescents into the outdoors and exposing (some of these students would argue the verb here should be  subjecting) them to challenging situations, I find truth in them all. It was Kurt Hahn founder of the UWC and Outward Bound movements and the Duke of Edinburgh Award who made the connection with the particular benefits of impelling young people into experiences that summarises the value of Outdoor Education and how it can expand personal horizons: “There is more in us than we know if we could be made to see it; perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”

Grade 9, Leeuwin Tall Ships Adventure, Australia

Grade 9, Leeuwin Tall Ships Adventure, Australia

Here at UWCSEA, where Outdoor Education is one of the five elements of the learning programme (alongside Academics, Activities, Personal and Social Education and Service), we offer an incremental progression of experiences to students across the K–12 curriculum.

Grade 1 students spend a night at the school, and this is often be the first time they have spent a night apart from their parents. As they progress through school, the time spent away on these ‘school camps’ increases and the trips become more adventurous, with an increased focus on expedition-style journeys in Grades 7, 8 and 9. 

Participation on the grade-level Outdoor Education expeditions is a requirement for all students at the College and, up until the end of Middle School, these experiences take place during term time and students travel in their class or tutor groups. However, in Grade 9 the pattern changes, as students are offered the chance to select at least one challenging expedition that they must complete during one of the holiday breaks. Students from both campuses are mixed together on these trips and often students have not met many of their travel companions before.

Grade 9, multi-activity trip (rafting), Taiwan

Last year UWCSEA offered 23 options for Grade 9 students (14 and 15 year olds), ranging from one week to 18 days and in price from $600- $4,000. This breadth caters to differing levels of fitness and different interests of students. In some cases these trips also allow students to fulfil requirements for the National Youth Achievement Award (NYAA, the Singapore name for the  Duke of Edinburgh Award).

The options include trekking, climbing, kayaking, rafting, tall-ship sailing, scuba diving, sustainability camps, horse riding, mountain biking, biodiversity research programmes, and multi-activity journeys. Many expeditions entail our students preparing their own food as they face up to the constant challenges posed by such trips. There is an emphasis on personal responsibility, interpersonal skills, and the notion of developing resilience through enduring hardships usually not encountered at school or in students’ daily lives. In fact, this is something that we are always striving to accentuate from year to year.

While we have a staff of nine experienced Outdoor Education professionals on staff at UWCSEA, we work closely with a number of professional third party providers to enable us to offer such a diverse range of experiences to our students each year. These providers have in many instances been working with the College for a number of years, although there is a review process to ensure they continue to meet the high standards we require for our programme. 

Grade 9, mountain biking, Thailand

Grade 9, mountain biking, Thailand

However, close scrutiny of providers is only one aspect of a bigger picture when we balance risk assessments with the provision of an authentic experience. The Outdoor Education team devote countless hours to managing these risks by collating information in the schools custom-designed trip management system (called iPAL - Passport to Adventurous learning). iPal’s database links directly to International SOS, whose staff are on-hand to provide support and guidance while staff and students are on expedition. We also work extremely closely with an independent Technical Advisor and our safety procedures are regularly audited, updated and reviewed. Working with a Technical Advisor allows us to draw on best practice from around the world, understand what other schools (both in the region and further afield) are delivering in an Outdoor Education capacity, and also means that we are accountable to someone else and not just ourselves. 

Although there is a break from Outdoor Education expeditions in Grades 10 and 12 due to busy exam periods, our Grade 11 students embark on a fairly unique experience which, for many students, represents the pinnacle of their time at UWCSEA: Project Week. Working to a limited individual budget, students are required to form small groups and travel unaccompanied overseas for a minimum of five days, in order to complete a trip that involves elements of Creativity, Action, and Service. Students are responsible for every aspect of their trip (overseen by a school member of staff as their ‘sponsor’), from booking transport and accommodation, to liaising with service or activity providers and establishing a suitable itinerary. 

The benefits to students of going on these trips resonate long after they return. While sometimes not immediately discernable in the excitement of a successfully completed trip with their school friends, the impact becomes apparent in the weeks and months after the expedition. The positive impact on their relationships and ability to collaborate in the classroom is obvious to teachers, and the opportunity for them to view one another in a new light is enormously beneficial for those students who may not find themselves a natural leader in the classroom setting. Most importantly, students have a new understanding of themselves, which they can bring to their learning in other areas of the learning programme.

Pictured top: Grade 9, Annapurna Base Camp expedition