CYC-Online 53 JUNE 2003
ListenListen to this

outdoor and experiential programs

Justin Jowell

I – When going out is also going in

Over the last six years Educo Africa has worked extensively with various Child and Youth Care agencies in South Africa. In the process we realised that the transformative potential of wilderness developmental programmes provides a valuable resource for working with young people in need. However, the youth wilderness courses, though effective in and of themselves, struggle to ensure lasting transformation in the young person's life without proper support and understanding when they return. With these factors in mind, Educo began its intensive capacity building project in 2002 through partnerships with three institutions.

After a needs analysis and visioning process with each institution, a plan for the year was drawn up. For each agency the aims were different – the desire to build a “ropes" challenge course on site through which lessons about leadership and community can be learnt; to use the wilderness programme to supplement and improve residential care and resources for the development of the young people; to create a Life Centre for Adolescents at Risk that uses the wilderness for healing and to teach life skills.

Even though each plan was different, a basic framework was necessary to properly embed skills and knowledge. An introductory experience for the child care workers themselves was one of the essential ingredients. These five-day initial wilderness programmes run by Educo were designed to give the child care workers an experience of the multitude of activities and processes possible on a wilderness programme, to provide them with a foundation on which to later build their skills.

Experiencing the programme as a developmental tool that had impacted on them personally would allow them to see the value it has for young people. Increasing their understanding of the experience would assist them in supporting the continued development and reintegration of the young person who has gone through a programme. Experiential education through games and activities, hiking, camping out, solo time, art and crafts, circle discussions and more were all included as part of the experience.

These were powerful and special days. In each province, a group of 12 child and youth care workers from various institutions were brought together and through the experience creating a deep and lasting connection. The games and activities provided opportunities to learn about themselves and about creating community. Constantly in the debriefing of activities, the discussion would be brought back to the young people. “How can these earnings assist in making us more effective and more understanding of the people we work with?" was a question often asked. It provided space for rich, often enlightening conversations and led Goodwill to say that “[these activities] have given me a key to unlock the potential of the young people" (KZN 2002). As child care workers we often have our own problems and traumas too, and yet there is frequently no time or space in our lives to deal with these. And so time and activities were also provided for personal reflection. Each course had an extended time of solitude in the wilderness that allowed people to really focus on their lives and reconnect with their purpose. One participant said of the experience: “It is scary being out there on your own – solo time – scary, not because of the different aspects and wonderful things in nature that we look at. It is scary getting into yourself and discovering who am I and what do I want to do differently? What impact do I want to make in the work that I do? It is as scary as putting aside the old way of doing things and trying a new way – but is it really the old way – or is it the forgotten way that we are trying to bring forth – and almost a rebirth starts to happen?" Another child care worker from the Eastern Cape spoke of the fact that “Nature is all around us – let’s give it an opportunity to heal us, by observing its ways of surviving and providing."

A particularly moving part of the programme was the reflective time spent on the last day individually working with our personal Circle of Courage and how it had changed and developed over the five days. Everyone spoke of how inspiring the time had been. Wilderness programmes are particularly powerful in building a sense of belonging and this was true of these adult programmes too. As another participant pointed out, this belonging was with the group but also “I felt that I was a part of a people that had walked these mountains and valleys thousands of years ago. It made me feel part of the humanity of man."

* * *

II – The developmental approach flourishes in the wilds

Nature as Teacher
It was cold and dark, a freezing wind was blowing off the Drakensberg, and it was difficult to get out of my warm sleeping bag, but today was the third day of our course, and we had planned an early morning Solo. Some hot coffee and rusks and we were all walking out onto the grasslands – a group of dedicated, inspiring Child and Youth Care Workers on their way to sit alone for some time in the wild and contemplate their work. As we walked out the sun peeked over the horizon and everyone stopped in silence to watch it inflame the new day. The moment was profound; no one wanted it to end, but slowly everyone wandered off to find their own place of solitary reflection. It was only a couple of hours – precious time for people who have so little time and space for self – and yet the stories they returned with were richer than books. As we sat in council that afternoon and listened to everyone’s tales, a theme emerged – the theme of Nature as Teacher – especially the sun as metaphor. Jabulani likened the dark mountains to the darkness that the young people live with and how as child care workers we can be the sun that brings light and warmth. Melusi spoke of the strength of the sun which, even when the clouds are thick, still shines its light through – lighting and warming peoples lives. Others spoke of the path of the sun – how it remains consistent. The theme seemed universal and so it wasn’t surprising that our next group of child care workers, in the Eastern Cape, also spoke of the opportunity nature gives to heal us, by observing its ways of surviving and providing.

Sunshine in dark places
We sailed into a dark storm that when we returned to run the Youth Wilderness course. We met a group of beautiful young women but in so much pain. Unable to look back at their lives and see any good, they floated adrift and without anchors. One mornings solo, with the rising of the sun, they were sent out to reflect on the good memories of their past.

Many returned sadder than before, unable to see anything but the darkness. So we began to create the happy memories, first by bringing one symbol from the bush of this time together, with which we built a shrine under a tree in our camp. From that day we focused the group on finding the good experiences – small things like walks on the beach or swimming in the big, muddy brown river. One by one they began to emerge from their sorrow and connect with each other and the wildness around them. They began to sing in the evenings, be still on the rocks, cry when they needed to. It culminated on the last day when we spent a long, long time in a women's sewing circle – sitting together under jungle foliage talking and creating. We sewed pouches which became the bags in which we were to carry our medicine to heal and strengthen us. That afternoon as the day was ending, we walked out onto the land, to think about that medicine – what were we taking back for ourselves from this time.

This feature from: Jowell, J. (2003). When going out is also going in. Child and Youth Care. 21, (2). pp 10-11; and Jowell, J. (2003). The developmental approach flourishes in the wilds. Child and Youth Care. 21, (3). pp 9 -10

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