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Intentional outdoor adventure experiences

Adventure is more than just climbing mountains or rowing rivers; it’s a state of mind. We engage in adventurous experiences every day, whether we realise it or not. Stepping outside of our comfort zones and taking risks is a crucial part of life, and being able to calculate risk is a critical life skill.

Outdoor and adventurous experiential learning develops physical fitness and health, promotes mental well-being, encourages teamwork and social skills, fosters leadership and problem-solving skills, and promotes environmental awareness and conservation. Outdoor adventure education can be a great way for all people to develop important life skills, build confidence and boost self-esteem.

According to recent research by Snyman (2020), adventure learning experiences in South Africa are often not properly programmed. This means that the principles of true adventurous learning experiences are often neglected. Without a well-designed programme or process, experiences may cause more trauma than learning.

Experience programming is not only found in the domain of the adventure educator, it should also be part of the operating procedures of the adventure recreationist or the adventure guide. A tendency exists where too much emphasis is put on physical factors (physical experience) and too little on emotional and psychological factors (emotional and psychological experience) of an adventurous event, trip or camp.

Outdoor practitioners should be mindful of the different ways that people react to, for example, stress. Telling a participant to "get over it" when they are feeling stressed can be invalidating and can undermine the educational, developmental or therapeutic value of the experience.

The truth is that this insensitive behaviour manifests during programmes more often than we would like to acknowledge. All too often we are just not trained or sensitive enough to notice it. In such cases, the programme design is most probably not developmentally appropriate and something in the design is not ideal. The reality is that learning takes place whether intended or not. If the programme triggered such a reaction, the question should be: How could it have been prevented?

Optimal learning experiences (which can be as basic as a recreational guiding experience or as complex as an outdoor therapy programme) comprise multiple factors necessary to ensure effective learning (memory or behaviour modification).

These include some questions that you must ask with the commencement of an experience:

  • Do you have a willing participant or are they coerced or pressured to participate? (They will still internalise/learn from the experience, but not in a positive way.)

  • Is the prescribed social environment (the group they are with) showing signs of group pressure and judgement?

  • What is the group culture?

  • How conducive is the group atmosphere?

  • Is the activity appropriate for the participant’s emotional and physical condition?

  • Does the guide/facilitator have the skills to intervene if trauma is demonstrated?

Although adventure is known for challenging and intimidating environments, it should not be forced onto participants. Consider activities (experiences) that are physically, emotionally and socially appropriate. If these factors are neglected, the programme runs the risk of exposing participants to unintended trauma and negative learning.

Unfortunately, outdoor and adventure programmes meant for recreation, education and development – and even therapeutic interventions – are sometimes the reason for new trauma or retraumatisation. This means a stressful scenario could resemble a previous traumatic experience which triggers feelings and responses associated with the initial trauma. This result is the opposite outcome of what these programmes are intended to accomplish. Physical, emotional and psychological safety are of the utmost importance to ensure optimal learning.

Intentional outdoor and adventure experience facilitation is the only way programmes can be presented in a safe and truly educational way which results in positive thinking and behaviour change.

About the Author:

Dr. Pieter Snyman is a founding Director of the SA Adventure Industry Association, a director of the Adventure Institute and an outdoor Centre Head at Extreme Life (UCSA) . Other than managing academic processes at the Adventure Institute, he is also a lecturer at Tshwane University of Technology. His context with the industry is sustained via his role at an outdoor learning site (Extreme Life). His Masters thesis was on Challenge Education as a Leadership Model for tertiary Students and his Doctoral thesis was directed at Adventure Related Experiential Learning where he set out to establish a best-practice model for campsites, facilitators and schools.

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