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Outdoor programmes

Peter Slingsby

Why is this process, this reversal of the suppression of awareness that is so much a feature of the lives of troubled children, so apparently successful in an outdoor programme? I think the answer is twofold. The outdoor environment presents a situation where all the usual awareness-suppressing stresses of the child's normal situation are absent. The formal constraints of buildings and streets and rooms are absent. The human constraints of nagging parents or authoritarian teachers, or simply the crowds of people, are absent. The things that you have to have with you to serve human needs have a basic simplicity that a child can easily understand; a tent, blankets, the food, the fire, the cooking pots. The rules are not necessarily made by the adult world to suit adult needs, the rules are made by what you have with you and the place you are in. If you don't put up your tent, you won't have a roof. You must collect firewood, both to cook your food and to keep you warm. I think that the second part of the answer is that the outdoor environment presents so much that is unfamiliar to the child, yet so much that is naturally fascinating to him. It is stimulating, unpredictable, outwardly disorderly and certainly not created by adults. In your children's home you can make a rule that each child's clothes must be packed away in the cupboard before bedtime. The child might well reason, Why shouldn't I pack my stuff away in the morning before I go to school? You could have many good reasons for your rule but none of them need necessarily make sense to the child. Your rule could be part of disempowerment, because it is your rule that you impose. On a camp, however, you might point out that it might rain in the night, so the children had best make sure that all their things are in the tent. The child can and will understand that. You haven't made a rule you've given some guidance. Nature made the rule.

Using the outdoors

If you use the outdoors, you can use it in two ways. You can either import all the disempowering, awareness-suppressing structures that the child may suffer back home; don't get dirty; here, let me open that can, you might cut your fingers; jump when I blow the whistle; etc. etc. Or you can use the outdoors as a most exciting, creative tool for empowerment, for building self-confidence and self-esteem. In older children that might involve a level of physical challenge  – 'show yourself that you can make it'. In all children it must involve the maximum use of the do-ityourself principle. Not because I, the adult, am laying down the law and saying you must, rather because here we are with what we have, and to survive certain obvious things need to be done. The adult can be a guide indeed, the adult will need to be a guide, but a guide who points the way and does not impose. Don't open the tin of beans, show the child how to use the tin-opener. You, the guide, will also find yourself empowered by this process. You will learn all sorts of things about the capabilities of your children that you never knew before.

Slingsby, P. (1994). Outdoor Programmes for Children. Gannon, B. (Ed.)
Children and Youth at Risk: HIV/AIDS issues, residential care and community perspectives.  Cape Town. NACCW. pp.127-128. 

 

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