Why should a dip in a cold lake help prepare us for GCSEs?
Fair question – and one which naturally got aired by some members of U4 as they battled uphill, soaked to the skin, at the end of the ‘jog and dip’ at Outward Bound in Ullswater recently. I was too wet and out of breath myself at the time to answer the question properly, so here is a fuller explanation.
In the first place, experts agree that encounters with the Great Outdoors are very good for you but the Great Outdoors has become the Great Unknown for most young people. According to a study commissioned by the National Trust six years ago, in the past generation, the ‘radius of play’ for children outside has declined by c.90% while the percentage using their local patch of nature for play has gone down from over a half to under a quarter.
Evidence of the detrimental effects of this ‘move indoors’ on their physical and mental health is stacking up alarmingly. The cardio-respiratory fitness of children has, for example, declined by about 10% in a decade while the increase in mental health problems among 5-16 year olds (to a current incidence of about 10%) has provoked calls to action from across the caring professions. Fresh air, the aesthetic balm of interacting with greenery and the emotional impact of connecting with wildlife, by contrast, help to build physical and mental strength.
More specifically, outdoor education is especially good for you. Just a week before we travelled to Ullswater, an important piece of research, based on the outdoor-orientated curriculum at Gordonstoun, was published. It showed that outdoor experiences, such as hiking and wild camping, have an ‘overwhelmingly positive influence’ on students’ personal growth and development as well as on academic attainment. There are many reasons for this – foremost being the emphasis on self-reliance coupled with team-work, the strengthening of resilience through physical challenge and the development of healthy attitudes towards risk-taking.
Outward Bound was founded by Kurt Hahn, who also founded Gordonstoun. It is a programme backed by a serious philosophy as well as 77 years of research into the field. This meant that key elements of the U4 course were tailor-made as an induction to GCSEs and beyond.
Allocating groups randomly for rooming and working, while posing some challenges (though none that proved unsurmountable), gave enormous scope for building teamwork and resilience under pressure when tempers were fraying and roles not meshing seamlessly. This is the bread and butter of leadership training and will pay dividends when things aren’t going to plan on the biology or geography field trip or during drama practical rehearsals.
The digital detox element, though daunting for many, provided a vital opportunity for every participant to assess how far her phone served her rather than the other way around. After getting through the ‘pain barrier’ of separation, the reality that life without the digital ghost limb was possible and might even (in small quantities) be desirable could be calmly considered.
The expedition – calibrated to take everyone to the edge of their comfort zone – offered the kind of rite of passage that psychologists say is important in every journey from childhood into young adulthood. Some of the experiences were, in the immortal phrase of one of the instructors, ‘type 2 fun’ (where ‘type 1 fun’ is when something is fun at the time) but, taken together, they built a memory that will be treasured and shared for years to come.
Finally, the ‘solos’ – short intervals of solitary contemplation built into the day’s activities – threw us back upon our own mental resources. The benefits of periods of solitary thought – even day-dreaming – to our cognitive and emotional development are only just beginning to be widely appreciated but, once sampled, they are palpable.
They also opened our senses to awe and wonder in the face of nature’s immensity. In those moments we learn that nature is impersonal (just think of the weather). It cannot be negotiated with, no matter how much we wish it. In a similar way, many aspects of the public world which young people are preparing to enter are impersonal and won’t bow to our preferences – including the public exam system and the employment market.
Outward Bound proves to us that preparation, practice and perseverance will help us to meet nature’s challenges. And much more. It teaches us that those same skills and qualities will bring us safely through the rough terrain and heavy weather of life as well. As U4 start to look forward to ‘taking the plunge’ into the GCSE years, their experiences in Ullswater will arm them with an array of precious memories – and so much more.