Enabling children to thrive in outdoor adventure

Top tips for enabling children to thrive through schools-based Outdoor Adventure Education - Dr. John Allan

Resilience or the ability to adapt our behaviours in uncertainty, has been suggested as ranging from surviving to thriving (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2004). For people with limited experiences to draw upon, threatening situations evoke survival responses - heightening negative emotion leading to difficulties in overcoming stress. This may also occur within activities which fail to stimulate interest, restrict autonomy and limit personalised meaning. In contrast, thriving-related activities invigorate our emotions, deliver clearer thinking, allow access to existing memories and create new ones. Activities which promote thriving, such as those delivered within Outdoor Adventure Education (OAE) are relatively open-ended, promote choice and offer personal support. It is this adaptive quality which allows young people who learn in multi-sensory environments to perform better across a range of physical and cognitive tasks than those in uni-sensory settings (Mayer, 2001).

Resilience has long been recognised in school-based education as an effective policy for developing students’ well-being and academic success (e.g. Bryan, 2005; Esquivel, Doll & Oades-Sese, 2011). Following the pandemic, returning to school offered youngsters a safe place to mend, move and meet people. However, only so much re-conditioning can be achieved in the context of the classroom where routines and consistency are rigorously applied. OAE provides meaningful, thriving-related experiences where learners are challenged to build a repertoire of transferable behaviours through facing uncertainty. These include physical skills, social competencies, and wider attentional focus which can be called upon when difficult situations demands it. But, how is resilience built through OAE which can positively impact other avenues of learning? 

The following ten tips, which collectively spell the word resilience, provide evidence-based practices to make OAE effective for building the adaptive capabilities of learners within natural spaces close to or within the grounds of primary schools. 

R – Rebound and Re-invent. We constantly hear that children are naturally resilient and bounce-back from adversity. However, this capability needs to be learned through taking risks and being free to fail. Framing a child’s setback as a lesson to learn and not a failure to endure signifies that achievement comes as a result of stretching oneself by applying continued effort. This allows young people to self-correct and adjust their responses to produce gains from losses. Productive OAE, therefore, will only take place when youngsters are not given the answers to problems, but rather empowered to organise, execute and review naturally emerging experiences, even when things do not go to plan. As a result, learners will attribute their learning to themselves, and take pride in their achievements.  

E – Energise.  OAE helps youngsters to create a resilient growth mindset, where a fixed, perspective of ‘can’t do’ is replaced by flexible, task-focused ‘can-do’ persistence. This process of mastery learning is strengthened by facilitators providing immediate and accurate feedback on the effort and strategies employed by individuals and groups and not so much on the outcome or to the comparative abilities of others. It is important not to wait to the end of an activity to provide feedback if children require the momentum to feed-forward to their next challenge. Also emphasise the importance of taking small risks in new situations and not predicting negative outcomes. 

S – Share. Uncertainty in adventure programmes necessitate that groups develop regard for each other’s well-being. Such mutual reliance require that group members learn to balance the needs of the group with their own. Resilience and OAE literature stresses the importance of developing peer relationships for learning about sharing, taking turns, patience, empathy, and the confidence to ask for help. Providing opportunities for children to share positive resilience experiences through OAE maybe a first step in them realising this will help it to grow in others. 

I – Inquisitiveness. By their very nature, adventures include elements of uncertainty. This is created by combining unfamiliar environments with unknown outcomes. This provides an ideal breeding ground for children to develop the fundamental skills of questioning how, what, who, when and why. These questions are a demonstration of curiosity and inquisitiveness that enables children to adapt to the world around them. In a society of mounting complexity, nurturing the ability of children to ask thoughtful questions is of paramount importance for them to come up with effective solutions. 

L - Life-enhancing.  Experiential learning is the cornerstone of OAE, whereby first-hand experiences are combined with reflective practice to consolidate children’s learning. 

To connect these experiences to their everyday life, we must teach OAE with ‘transfer in mind’. Neuroscience tells us that our brain (and therefore our behaviour) becomes resilient by actively resisting meaningless (boring) information, preferring to search for new, interesting experiences which can be integrated into existing neural structures (Allan, et al, 2014). OAE, therefore, needs to balance novelty – which supports inquisitiveness - with the child’s known experiences - to make it worth learning. To promote lasting impact and relevance for other curriculum subjects, varied events of short deliberately spaced cycles, which are responsive to enquiring minds and that use relevant emotional stimuli to trigger emotions, such as laughter, incredulity and even mild apprehension, often generate learning that can be recalled and reflected upon later through the use of diaries, or creative writing. 

I – Inclusion. Adventure is relative. Activities which provoke unwanted risk for one child may be seen as an opportunity to grow in another. Due to individual differences, it is difficult for outdoor facilitators to create an environment where all learners feel able to move beyond what they want to know. However, resilience is the common element in OAE that underpins achievement across different levels of ability. Supporting learners to make personalised judgements of risk-taking based upon their perception of their abilities enables the growth of self-directed behaviour. This process can be facilitated through differentiated tasks, progressive risk-taking and the use of buddy systems –i.e. pairing beginners with be more able peers who benefit from seeing how their actions affect others. 

E – Environment. Just five minutes of exercise undertaken in an urban green space may be sufficient enough to boost a child’s physical and mental well-being. Natural places also delver unique qualities enabling children to re-adjust their behaviours, relax and gain a broader perspective on their life. Indeed, in natural settings youngsters with attention deficit hyper-activity disorder (ADHD) display fewer symptoms and behavioural problems and are better able to focus on a particular task (Lehrer, 2009). Therefore, a combination of active and restorative OAE (e.g. mindfulness exercises, forest bathing) meet health and well-being needs not able to be provided by similar activities (for example traditional sports) and become even more powerful when deliberately designed for such purposes.

N – Natural. The authenticity of OAE offers realistic consequences for success and failure. For example, failing to follow a map correctly or not wearing the correct clothing may incur longer distances to travel and lead to becoming wet and cold. Being immersed in natural settings give young people a dose of reality and respect for the environment – seeing the situation clearly and conferring with others when dealing with the significance of their choices. Allowing learners’ to own their responses to unfolding circumstances, helps them to see the bigger picture, take stock of facts, and acknowledge others’ perspectives in becoming prepared for whatever challenges come along.

C- Control. When children realise that they have control over their decisions and actions, they are more likely to know how to make choices and respond positively to challenges. Giving children choices and the autonomy to play and explore in a natural space is a primary mechanism through which they become freely acquainted with their environment, develop natural mapping skills and learn how to distinguish between themselves and others.  

E – Emotional. The theory of constructed emotion (Feldman Barret, 2017) suggests our emotional intelligence, which is a distinct feature of resilience, is learned through direct exposure to environmental stimuli. OAE which offer a blend of negative emotion, such as feeling unstable in the moment, counterbalanced by positive emotions underpins a ‘steeling effect’. This helps to inoculate young people to handle more significant risks in the future. Negative emotions resonate more strongly than positive feelings in situations perceived as threatening because they provide a memorable, surge of energy to help us to deal with stressors. Positive processes impact more significantly on longer-term outcomes and demonstrate durable cognitive and social benefits. The potency of negative emotion suggests that each negative emotional experience must be countered by at least three positive emotional experiences to optimise human functioning. Although not a definitive rule, taking account of this ratio may influence how facilitators frame an activity and give feedback to children. Such guidance may help them to control their feelings and avoid a negative bias of their capability by looking for opportunities to broaden positive emotions in difficult situations.  

OAE is not a magic bullet to fix young people. Like any educational practice or pedagogical tool, it requires practice to implement effectively to acquire the desired outcomes. However, robust research shows, if appropriately delivered, OAE generates meaningful educational outcomes in natural settings which shifts young people along the resilience highway from surviving to thriving. At a point in time where children have faced unprecedented upheaval and threats to their well-being it has never been more important to create daily opportunities for them to build their adaptive capacity and emotional competence to deal with uncertainties. The ten tips outlined in this paper underpin the effective delivery of OAE in primary school settings which enable them to make healthy transitions of growth to progressive, higher levels of stability. 


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