My home in Zambia has a stunning view across mixed Miombo woodlands and grassland towards a dam several hundred meters away with wooded hills in the distance. It’s a stunning location for a home and I can see why it was positioned where it is.
However, it’s built on the edge of a ‘dambo’, a Zambian term for a seasonally waterlogged grassland area. This year the rain season has been exceptionally heavy, and my house has literally been in the middle of the dambo since the beginning of the year. Imagine building a double story house in an area where you know it’s going to be in mud for at least a quarter of the year!!
To get the best of the location the builders had to design an extra deep foundation and wide footing to stop the house shifting or sinking. It’s a win – win situation even though we can’t braai on our front garden without gumboots for part of the year….
What does this have to do with Outdoor Education and Experiential Learning?
It’s a metaphor for making sure you have a good foundation to run a successful programme and achieve the desired outcomes.
In experiential learning language we would call it ‘Sequencing’. Sequencing is like building – it involves making sure one has the correct and appropriate ’foundation’ before moving on to the ‘structure and roof’. A well sequenced programme ensures that what is built in a participant’s life during a programme can survive the ‘dambo when the rains come’ because it has a solid foundation.
Why are Initiatives activities important to an experiential learning programme?
Creating an effective team prepared to support each other through perceived higher risk challenges involves intentionally building trust, communication, and relational skills amongst the individuals of that team.
There are a variety of methods to achieve this. It should start before the group arrives, with good communications and sufficient information during the booking phase.
It should show in the appearance and quality of the venue and attitude of the team when the group arrives and settles in.
It happens intentionally with the welcome, ice breakers and group games to introduce the programme. These are the ‘digging the foundation’ part of the programme.
The ‘pouring of the cement’ for the actual foundation happens during next phase – the Initiatives part of the programme.
An Initiative is defined as the first in a series of actions. It is the start of something with the hope that it will continue. In experiential learning, initiatives are the part of the programme where the participants are provided with a hands-on and interactive way of learning and developing new skills in a safe and supportive environment. These new skills include problem solving, collaboration, communication, teamwork, leadership, and decision making amongst others. By engaging in these activities, participants can see the results of their actions and learn from their mistakes before moving on to the higher-level activities.
If you get it right, it makes a world of difference to the participants and achieving the programme outcomes. If you get it wrong the higher-level activities may become unachievable with the result that the group dynamic collapses and the planned outcomes unmet.
What are the benefits of Initiative activities?
There are several valuable benefits to spending significant time prioritising initiative activities in your programme before moving on to the ‘next level’.
The following are amongst them:
Improved connection and understanding: Initiative activities require participants to connect and understand each other effectively to solve problems and complete tasks.
Enhanced problem-solving skills: Initiative activities are designed to be challenging, and often require creative thinking and problem-solving skills to complete.
Building trust: Initiative activities can help build trust and strengthen relationships among team members.
Promoting active learning: Initiative activities require participants to actively engage in the learning process by working together to solve problems, make decisions, and achieve a common goal.
Encouraging critical thinking: Initiative activities require participants to think critically and creatively to solve problems and complete tasks.
Building teamwork and communication skills: Initiative activities encourage participants to work together and communicate effectively to achieve a common goal, which can help build trust and improve teamwork skills.
Fostering personal growth and self-awareness: Initiative activities can help participants develop self-awareness by allowing them to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, and how they contribute to the success of the group.
Developing leadership skills: Initiative activities can provide participants with opportunities to practice leadership skills by taking on different roles within the group and making decisions that affect the outcome of the activity.
Providing a safe and supportive environment: Initiative activities are designed to be challenging, but they are also designed to be completed in a safe and supportive environment, which can help participants feel more comfortable taking risks and trying new things.
I’ve seen several programmes where the initiative activities are seen as a means to an end before getting to the exciting stuff by the staff.
It is important for staff to know that the purpose and benefits of initiative activities and that the success or failure of the initiative section of a programme is largely dependent on their role as the facilitator or instructor.
The facilitator plays a critical role in creating a positive, emotionally safe, and impactful learning environment in which they encourage cooperation, perseverance, open communication, fairness, inclusivity, and support while establishing expectations and guidelines for the group. Using facilitated reflection, they should be able to help the participants identify the key learnings and relevant takeaways from the activity.
The facilitator/instructor sets the tone for these activities and in doing so also sets the foundation for the success of the programme. If the facilitator sees initiative activities as boring, unexciting, or pointless this will reflect in their involvement, attitude, and body language, which in turn will influence the participants investment in the activity and vice versa.
It is important to train your team well on the use of initiatives if you’re going to expect your programme outcomes to be successful. An instructors training, mindset and engagement on any activity is important, but it is even more so in the influence of the outcome of the initiative activities.
Think of the activities you enjoy doing most on a programme. How does your enjoyment influence your role as an instructor on that activity and the outcome of that activity?
The adage: “attitude determines your altitude” is very relevant to any activity you’re running.
Choosing the right activity and adapting it the group
Choosing appropriate activities for the group is essential to ensure that the initiative activities are engaging, relevant, and effective.
Here are some things to bear in mind:
Consider the group's demographics: Consider the group's demographics, including their age, gender, cultural background, and interests. Choose activities that are suitable for the group's characteristics and avoid activities that may be uncomfortable or offensive to some participants.
Identify the group's goals and objectives: Identify the group's goals and objectives and choose activities that align with these objectives. For example, if the objective is to improve communication skills, choose activities that focus on communication and teamwork. Communicate these objectives to the participants within the appropriate framing. This will help ensure that everyone understands the goals of the session and can work towards achieving them.
Consider the group's size: Consider the size of the group when selecting activities. Some activities may not be suitable for larger groups, while others may not work well for smaller groups.
Choose activities with varying levels of difficulty: Choose activities with varying levels of difficulty to cater to participants with different skill levels. This will help ensure that everyone is engaged and challenged during the activities.
Select activities with different learning styles in mind: Select activities that cater to different learning styles, such as visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learning. This will help ensure that participants with different learning preferences are engaged and able to learn effectively.
Consider the time available: Consider the time available for the session when selecting activities. Choose activities that can be completed within the allotted time and allow sufficient time for debriefing and discussion.
Adapt the activity or rules to the group's skill level: If the group is finding the activity too challenging or too easy, consider adapting the activity to the group's skill level. This could involve adjusting the difficulty level, changing the rules, or providing additional guidance or support.
Accommodate participants with disabilities or special needs: If there are participants with disabilities or special needs, consider adapting the activity to accommodate their needs. This could involve providing additional equipment or support, modifying the rules or instructions, or providing alternative activities.
Allow for flexibility: Allow for flexibility in the activity to cater to the group's needs. This could involve allowing participants to choose their roles, adjusting the time limit, or scoring system, or modifying the activity based on feedback from the group.
Consider cultural sensitivity: Consider cultural sensitivity when modifying activities. Ensure that the activity is appropriate and respectful to all participants and avoid activities that may be offensive or uncomfortable for some participants.
Test the activities beforehand: Test the activities beforehand to ensure that they are suitable for the group and align with the programme’s objectives. This will help identify any issues or challenges with the activities before the actual session.
Connect the activity to the learning objective: Connect each activity to the learning objective by explaining how the activity relates to the objective. For example, if the learning objective is to improve teamwork skills, explain how the activity requires teamwork and how the skills developed during the activity can be applied in real-life situations. (Reflect on the real-life applications during the debriefing)
Facilitate discussion and debriefing: Facilitate discussion and debriefing after each activity to allow participants to reflect on the activity and connect it to the learning objectives. Ask open-ended questions that encourage participants to think critically and relate the activity to the learning objectives.
The Same but Different
Facilitators often refer to the Comfort Zone model as one of the theories behind experiential activities. If we can think of the model as one dimensional it gives us a better but limited understanding of the role of safe places, growth zones and danger zones. But when we consider that each person is made up of a social, physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dynamic and each of these dynamics has its own safe, growth, and danger zone it adds a multi-dimensional understanding to the activity and the participants’ role in it.
Bearing this in mind, it is possible to adapt the same activity to the strengths or weaknesses of an individual or group to make it more relevant or bring out different outcomes.
A person who is physically strong, may find themselves well out of their comfort zone when faced with an emotional aspect where of the activity.
A participant who is intellectually strong may be challenged to grow by encouraging an aspect of social involvement in the activity and so on.
A person who is socially strong may be using the social strength to overcome a physical weakness.
A practical example of this would be giving one or more participants a physical limitation at the start or during the activity by blindfolding a person or instructing them they can no longer use their dominant hand. Or telling the socially strong person they must keep quiet during the activity to give others a chance.
With a bit of creativity is becomes possible to adapt the initiative so that the outcomes are focused on a combination of social, physical, intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual outcomes.
Minor adaptations can easily make significant differences to the activity and the relevance and impact it has on the participants.
Building a solid foundation.
A good facilitator should be able to draw the best out of the group using various initiative activities at the beginning of a programme to develop the necessary skills to equip the participants for the next stage of the programme.
They should also at any time be go back to a relevant initiative activity at any point during the programme if the group is not functioning at the higher level yet. For example, if your group is struggling to follow instructions on the climbing tower, stop take time out for a listening or communication-based initiative, debrief it, apply it and go back to the tower. It may make all the difference to the success of the main activity by checking on your foundation.
It's important to remember that initiative activities can take many forms and be effectively used at any point during a programme.
Initiative activities are not just the foundation upon which to build the rest of the programme, they are also a core part of the sequencing of the programme and vital in achieving its outcomes.
Initiative activities can be tailored to fit the specific needs and goals of the group and can be used to address a wide range of topics, from leadership and communication to conflict resolution and decision-making at the beginning and during a programme. They are relevant and applicable at all levels.
How the facilitator uses and applies the initiative activities is fundamental to the success of the programme.
Don’t glance over them on your way to ‘higher level activities.’ If you do, you will struggle to achieve the intended outcomes. If you’re intentional about using initiative activities in your programme and understand the importance of them, it will make your work much more enjoyable and the desired outcomes of the programme and the benefits of it so much easier to achieve.
If you do the small things well, the big things will take care of themselves.
Go ahead, use your initiative, use it well and see the difference it makes in the big things later. Get the foundation right and you can have all the benefits that go along with it.
About the Author:
Alan Champkins is the Head of Ndubaluba Outdoor Centre in Zambia. He brings with him decades of experience in working with people in the outdoors, both as a tour guide and then for the last 18 years as a leader in Christian Camping and the running of Outdoor Adventure Based Learning Programmes.