Like the wind or the ocean, the nature of outdoor education can often be unpredictable. Although we prepare as best we can, sometimes nature has other plans. If the upheaval of COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is to remain flexible and responsive. As educators, when we encounter barriers to delivering a program, it doesn't result in us packing our kits and returning home. Rather, we adapt, adjust and overcome by working together with the school to reframe the program, ensuring we deliver a program meeting the needs of the students we work with.
Just a few months ago, during what was meant to be a brief respite in the torrential conditions on the NSW East Coast, we hosted Frensham School's Outdoor Education Week in the Southern Highlands, NSW. Despite the extreme weather NSW has been battling, Outdoor Education Week was a success, though we were met with many challenges met along the way. Nonetheless, the week ended in smiling faces and teachable moments.
As part of their annual sequential suite, Frensham School's Year 8, 9 and 10 students were expecting to explore the coastline of Murramarang National Park. Instead, the Year 8 students found themselves at Bush Camp Biloela due to escalating weather conditions.
Likewise, the Year 9 students experienced a sudden venue change only a day prior to the program's commencement. After preparing for a journey through the Kangaroo Valley, the program moved to Camp Wombaroo due to closures in the area.
Frensham's year 10s were packing their bags for their Duke of Edinburgh program at Bush Camp Biloela. Two days prior to their departure, adjustments to the program's outline were needed due to increasing river levels obstructing access to river crossings.
Behind the scenes, The Outdoor Group's team responded by creating new outlines, new briefing notes, maps, logistic plans, Hazard Identification and Risk Assessments, skillset checks, rostering and changes to operations orders. It was a cross-departmental effort and required the whole team to adapt and adjust.
Just when we thought we had all our ducks in a row, the predicted rain rolled in early, disrupting the already adjusted programs.
Late afternoon of Day 1, it was decided we would bushwalk the Year 8 and 10s out of Bush Camp Biloela first thing the following morning. After consultation with the school, the plan was not to return to the classroom but to continue with an alternate program. The Year 10 cohort headed off to Camp Wombaroo to continue their experience alongside the Year 9s. It was decided, the Year 8 cohort would return to school but not to the classroom; we would deliver their program on school grounds and camp overnight in the gym.
From the start of the programs to the afternoon of Day 2, we received nearly 100mm of rain in an already saturated landscape. By 2 pm, we were discussing plans with the school Executive team when several of us received messages announcing the students' school was closing early due to local conditions.
Although all the students were now high and dry (well, mostly dry), arrangements were made to bring the Year 9 and 10s back to campus.
During the upheaval, we were amazed at the school Executives' wholehearted belief that, even if the students weren't participating in their (re)programmed activities, there was value to be had in the experience overall. Like us, the team at Frensham was committed to delivering teachable moments, despite the constant challenges.
The Year 8 program continued in the school gym, led by our Outdoor Educators, Activity Support people and Course Coordinators, who facilitated 14 hours' worth of activities!
Although some students were understandably disappointed, the overall feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Sometimes, stepping outside of our plans requires extending ourselves and allows us to exercise resilience and teamwork at unpredictable turns.
The students said of the programs they experienced, "Our Group Leaders were really amazing and continued to involve us in conversations that we could relate to. Our whole group was really supportive and lifted the atmosphere, even in the extremely difficult conditions. Even with the change of plans with campsites and sleeping in cabins, it was a really fun experience."
"I think that even though it was raining it kind of added to the whole experience of camping and how plans change. It was very memorable and our group leader made the experience one to remember. The food was very good and filling and the forest was hard to get through but beautiful."
"It was challenging in a positive way and allowed me to get closer to people I normally wouldn't talk to."
These comments are a testament to the hard work and adaptability of those who overcame the challenges presented during Frensham's Outdoor Education Week.
While the students, the school and our team had just about all odds against us, we adapted and adjusted to ensure the students had a comparable experience to the one anticipated. The students exercised immense resilience and camaraderie throughout and leaned into a meaningful experience despite how unpredictable it was. We were in awe of the courageous and spirited students from Frensham School!