Annette Cockburn recently brought a group of street children to our facility. These were not Shelter kids, they were literally from the streets and would be returned directly to the streets after the weekend. They arrived nervous, fractious, fighting, stealing and clearly disorientated by the lack of streets, cars, people – and (dare I say it?) thinners. They were clearly amazed that the small group of very young Kleinmond children who joined them handled all their own cooking, etc. (This was a group aged 5 to 11 awaiting placement in our local children's home, and for whom, as for many before them, any opportunity not to be at home on a Friday or Saturday night simply had to be taken.) The street children expressed no interest at all in the natural environment around them, and at first sulked, demanded, and co-operated but little in the necessary procedures of the camp.
After 48 hours they were different people. They were behaving like any other group of children that we have ever had at our camp. They were setting to, helping with the food, the cleanups, the firewood, making few demands of us. They tasted empowerment, taking charge, and they liked it. When the time came to leave several resisted strongly and one even burst into tears. In those 48 hours they became children again, and the act of leaving meant going back to the streets and leaving their childhood behind.
Why does it work?
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.
Slingsby, P. (1994) Outdoor programmes for children. In Gannon, B. (ed.) Children and youth at risk: HIV/AIDS issues, residential care and community perspectives. Cape Town: NACCW. pp.127-128