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The Importance of Outdoor Education

More than 20 years ago, Somerset College learners undertook the school’s first Trek. The advantages observed highlighted the importance of outdoor learning and the school, based in Somerset West, now offers dedicated experiences for all age groups from Grade 1 to Grade 11.

Why Outdoor Education?

A number of studies over the years have documented improved performance when children are exposed to outdoor education. The demonstrated results of learning in and about nature include higher scores in standardised tests, enhanced attitude about school, improved in-school behaviour, better attendance records and overall enhanced student achievement. Outdoor education draws on and develops a greater range of intelligence and many researchers attribute improvements shown in performance in in-classroom work to the relevance and hands-on experience of learning outdoors.

Quentin du Toit, Head of Outdoor at Somerset College’s preparatory school explains that outdoor education can be defined as experiential learning in, for or about the outdoors. “The term ‘outdoor education’ describes a range of organised activities delivered in a variety of ways, mostly outdoors. It has always been important, but it is a critical offering in this digital age. At Somerset College we focus on experiential learning through carefully designed activities specific to the various age groups.”

Outdoor education is not a new concept. Most schools understand its importance and implement it in a number of ways. Methods and resources vary but range from activities like germinating seeds to planting a vegetable garden, day outings to school camps.

“There are a number of schools in South Africa that offer an extensive outdoor education focus, but others struggle to implement an effective programme,” says Alwyn Brink, Head of Outdoor Education at Somerset College high school.

“It requires a whole-school buy-in and the support of parents, teachers and the board. Unfortunately, what so often happens is that the school offers a once-off experience for the students. Although it’s fun and a great team-building exercise, schools are missing out on the real impact a well-designed, comprehensive programme can have on students.

“Outdoor education can support emotional, behavioural and intellectual development,” he continues. “Studies have shown that students who learn outdoors develop a sense of self, independence, confidence, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving skills, empathy towards others, motor skills, self-discipline and initiative. All of these benefits are visible in the programmes we offer from grade 1 to 11.”

The outdoor component of the offering at Somerset College has been carefully designed to incorporate progression and each phase builds on the previous outcomes set for every age group. Students are exposed to different learning activities at sites across the Western Cape, from close to home, to Sedgefield on the Garden route and the Cederberg. “The focus is the development of knowledge and life skills but it’s also wonderful to watch over the years a growth in our learners’ true appreciation for the fauna and flora of our region,” says Du Toit.

There are many highlights, like the grade 7 experience, the grade 10 Cederberg camp and the leadership camp in grade 11. But the experience that everyone talks about is the Grade 9 Trek.

Why Grade 9? “At 15, kids are starting to ask questions about themselves,” Brink explains. “Very often Grade 9s are referred to as rebellious, as they are testing a lot of things at school and at home. Trek gives them time to think, learn, discover and, powerfully, to confront their true selves. Over the years we have seen how it enhances critical thinking skills and encourages personal growth and life-building skills, but the real gains are in confidence, autonomy, and leadership.”

What is the Trek?

Somerset College is 25 years old in 2022 and its outdoor Education programme began in the school’s second year of existence. Then-headmaster Dave Wynne attended a conference in Australia that included a lecture on observations from a five-week expedition undertaken by a girls school. When Wynne returned to Somerset West, he started investigating the merits of a similar excursion and a school-wide outdoor programme for learners at his own school. In 1998, the first groups walked sections of the current route. The first Trek took place in 1999, and has since become a full four-week learning and “stretching” experience.

“Trek is actually a mental activity experienced as a physical exercise, as are all our programmes,” Brink notes. Trek is about self-discovery and overcoming challenges. Those intentionally included in the programme vary from physical to mental challenges, and from individual to group activities. Unplanned setbacks can appear when there is conflict within the group or the weather turns bad and groups need to make an alternative plan.

What about students who are already dealing with physical challenges? “We have had many students with physical difficulties who could not walk or cycle on the Trek. Special arrangements were made for them and they too had a journey of discovery,” Brink confirms.

The route is secret but what we do know is that it is 360km long, starts from the school, ends on the beach in the De Hoop Nature Reserve and includes walking, cycling and paddling. The Grade 9s are away from home for 27 days, without their phones. (Written correspondence between the kids and their parents is facilitated once a week, there is one phone call home during the period, and the students may take a book with them.)

Trek also includes a 34-hour solo, where each teen constructs their own shelter and spends time alone. It might surprise parents to learn that this time of contemplation is the highlight for many of the kids. Brink acknowledges that it might sound daunting but says that having run Trek for so long, they have the experience to ensure that it is difficult enough just to stretch the kids. “It is a true rite of passage, but it is carefully planned with incredible attention to safety issues. It’s actually more difficult for the parents,” he notes.

The Grade 9s wear their Trek boots for the month before Trek and are taught how to ride bicycles, fix punctures, waterproof their belongings and operate a storm cooker, as well as basic first aid and map reading.

Then they are divided into eight groups of 14 to 16 teens and head off over the Helderberg. Each group is assigned two adults and there is further support available, including a doctor on call for the duration. But the learners have to find the way themselves by reading a map for directions.

Each group carries their clothes, tents, cooking equipment and wash basins. They have a box of dry goods daily and fresh food is delivered to drop-off points. Accommodation is in tents they erect themselves on farms and in reserves. Ablution facilities are provided at campsites and on private land, but invariably they return happy, exhausted and filthy.

“When the tales of their exciting adventures have been told, what remains is the incredible range of emotions they go through, the mental, spiritual and physical growth, and the deep knowledge they have received about themselves, working with others and their place in the world. You can’t really say a school has a ‘unique selling point’, but if I had to choose one, it would be this. Trek is a very powerful programme. These lessons and life skills could never be taught in a classroom,” says Brink.

About Somerset College

Somerset College is an independent, co-educational school situated on a beautiful estate in the Winelands of the Western Cape. The College offers schooling from Grade 000 (age 4) to Matric, as well as Cambridge A-levels. Boarding is available for students in the Senior School.

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