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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 46 NOVEMBER 2002 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

practice

The challenge of outdoor activities

Tyn-y-Pwll (the House in the Hollow), a 300-year-old stone farmhouse in the mountains of North Wales, was used for a time as a short-term (ten-week) treatment centre for troubled youth from downtown Liverpool. Here a staff member remembers some of the thinking and practice of this unique program. 

As Tyn-y-Pwll was set in the valley which lies just to the west of Snowdon and was less than four miles from the sea, surrounded by lakes suitable for canoeing and crags suitable for climbing, it would have been surprising if outdoor activities had paid no part in the life of the residents. They did not, however, play the major part however, as was the case in many of the educational activity centres.

At Tyn-y-Pwll the main emphasis was on the group living experience. Certainly all the young people got an opportunity to go canoeing, and for most of them it proved to be a pleasurable pastime. They were introduced gently to rock climbing and they spent quite a lot of time walking the hills and camping. One of the favourite places for this activity was down by the coast, in what was referred to as the deserted village. This was a very interesting little village which had been built in the middle of the 19th century and had only been inhabited for something like 50 years whilst the quarries, which had caused its creation, were being worked economically. At the same time of the project, the village was still totally uninhabited but it has recently become the subject of some development. The young people loved camping in places such as the deserted village and the camping expeditions inevitably produced all kinds of play and fantasy, some of which was referred to in Chapter 10 and some of which was re-interpreted at the indoor drama sessions.

The challenge of outdoor activities was always carefully limited to that which could be experienced in groups and that which was within the abilities of each individual young person. Many young people who came to Tyn-y-Pwll would, in the early days, express a fear of water or heights or just at being lost on the hills and the staff made every effort to ensure that nobody was pushed beyond their limits or frightened by their experiences in the outdoor activities.

Direction-finding across the hills and camping in less civilised areas was always done in the company of members of staff. There were a few occasions when, at their own request, more adventurous groups did go out unaccompanied but this was with a maximum of group control and checkpoints. It was interesting that the general expectation seemed to be that boys would enjoy activities of this kind much more than girls. In practice, however, it was the so-called weaker sex who often complained much less about physical discomfort. In order to live up to this macho image the boys usually placed outdoor activities at the top of their list of priorities in their experience at Tyn-y-Pwll. The girls, however, usually put the outdoor activities in about fourth place behind living together, creative activities and visits of observation.

For the sort of work that was being done at Tyn-y-Pwll, outdoor activities were seen as a means of enjoyment and of arousing interest without pretentions to developing expertise. If particular youngsters wanted to try a little more advanced rock climbing or canoeing this was usually arranged separately and not at the expense of those youngsters who were not interested. If properly introduced, outdoor activities can develop the ability to share and care without undue competition or unnecessary hardship.

It was the outdoor activities which usually produced the most hair-raising stories for the children to take back to their home environments and, although most of them were embroidered and grew in the telling, they nevertheless did provide a degree of excitement. The staff often recalled with amusement the occasion when eight boys camping in Cwmsilyn spent the night huddled together in a two-man tent because, as they put it, they had ‘heard a woman being murdered.’ Upon investigation, what they had almost certainly heard was the cry of a vixen.

The staff themselves took their preparation for teaching outdoor activities very seriously. They went, in their free time, climbing in various parts of North Wales, the Peak District, the Lake District and Scotland some of them went further afield, mountaineering in the Alps or even the Himalayas. On one occasion the whole staff group went as far as Turkey on a climbing expedition and this all contributed to the spirit of togetherness which was such an important part of the work at Tyn-y-Pwll. It was usually clear to the children that the staff group cared for each other very much and it was therefore easier for them to understand that the same staff group would care more readily for them.

Although the outdoor activities were not considered as one of the most important aspects of the work at Tyn-y-Pwll, they nevertheless contributed to the growth and individual development of many of the young people who came on the courses. Some of the activities such as camping in the mountains, rock climbing and canoeing could be very strenuous. On the other hand, walking on the beaches or playing in the quarries would also come under this general heading.

The aim was to find the level at which any particular young person was happy to operate and the staff were always very careful to ensure that the physical activities did not make unreasonable demands on the participants. It is clear that every young person who came on the course varied, to some extent, in their physical abilities and, on the first day, attempts were made to try to discover which of the young people felt that they were able and interested in which activities.

In consequence, a typical course would be divided into four groups of three, based, to some extent, on this early assessment. First the very boisterous and active girls would be placed in Jenny’s group for she herself liked nothing better than charging around in the quarries or romping on the beach. The more academically inclined girls would be placed in Lynne’s group. The girls who showed some interest in animals would be placed in Janet’s group and those girls who seemed withdrawn and very unsure of themselves would be placed with Angela. These groups would function together for about a week and then, perhaps, could be changed around, subject to discussion and agreement by all the parties concerned.

It was the belief of the staff that, whilst the activities should not be too demanding, there were occasions when a degree of effort was not only desirable but proved to be beneficial. Some of the young people who had professed a fear of water would derive tremendous satisfaction from discovering they could paddle a canoe gently on a calm lake.

If one pressed Edward he would undoubtedly say that one of the most therapeutic of the outdoor activities at Tyn-y-Pwll was rock climbing and abseiling, and although this may well have been a biased statement because it was his own particular interest, there was, nevertheless, a fair amount of evidence to support this particular belief. Anybody who has seen a young person standing nervously at the foot of the rock face, waiting to climb, and then see them take their first few faltering moves up the face, only to stand apparently immobilised, will understand the pressure that can be involved. However, the reassurance of the rope around the waist and the words of encouragement which came, both from the climbing leader above and supporting second below, would almost invariably get them on the move again. To see the same youngster’s look of relief when they arrived at the top and then to watch the look of relief turn to a smile of satisfaction, is indeed a reward in itself, but there is not doubt that this particular activity could make heavy demands upon the staff who were involved. This was especially so on cold wet days when, to be standing at the top of a rock face, wet and shivering, and yet nevertheless to be finding words of encouragement for a young person who seemed to be stuck interminably half way up the same rock face, did make great demands upon one’s tolerance and patience.

Similarly, abseiling proved to be a great source of satisfaction to many of the more timid children. Very often they would stand poised at the top of the rock and look down over their shoulder to see where they were going, and freeze. It then took words of encouragement and support in order to get them moving, but again, when they eventually arrived at the bottom, their satisfaction was great.

There were a few occasions when particular girls or boys felt unable to continue and the staff always found some way to justify their refusal. There was always some member of staff who would very quickly say, ‘Oh, I don’t blame you for that. The first time I was going to abseil I changed my mind. Perhaps next time you come, you’ll find it more acceptable.’ The important thing, as far as the staff were concerned, was to try to ensure that no youngster ever lost face as a result of not participating in any particular activity and, equally important, to find activities in which every child felt they had achieved a measure of success.

It must be quite obvious that, as with all the activities at Tyn-y-Pwll, it is impossible to separate the outdoor activities and the relationships. This was even more so in the case of girls. They were certainly not prepared to climb mountains merely because ‘they were there’ but were willing to do so in the company of adults with whom they could relate and respect. Some of the girls who came to Tyn-y-Pwll proved to be extremely capable in outdoor activities and Edward often amused the staff by recalling the occasion when climbing with a group of girls on Stanage Edge in Derbyshire, he clearly met his match. Most of the group were more than happy to climb up to difficult or just very difficult standard but one particularly small and dainty girl discovered that rock climbing really was her forte. She pressed for harder and harder climbs, saying at the top of each one "well that weren’t too bad, but could we try something a bit harder?" until eventually Edward had reached his limits and persuaded the girl that enough was enough.

Many of the girls who came to Tyn-y-Pwll proved to be thoroughly capable not only at outdoor activities but with considerable athletic powers and, in one or two cases, were confident footballers or cricketers.

Tessa proved to be one such all-rounder. She was what used to be described as a tomboy and loved every kind of physical challenge. A lot of the girls, when at home, were soccer supporters and would argue the merits of Birmingham City versus Aston Villa or Arsenal versus Spurs just as fiercely as the boys did on their courses. Tessa was an ardent supporter of Tottenham Hotspurs and often tended to bring sport into a discussion. She had no father and lived with her mother with whom she had a protective love, and an elder brother whom she thought part identification model and part rival. She was convinced that girls were able to compete on equal terms with boys and there is no doubt that, as an individual, she was a formidable competitor. The discussion on sport often demonstrated the girls’ grasp of the need for teamwork and effective leadership and, because the vast majority of young people who visited Tyn-y-Pwll were interested in sport, it can be clearly seen that sportsmen and women have a unique opportunity to set examples as sound identification models for young people to copy. Unfortunately, the need to win often defeats the demonstration of good sportsmanship and good manners, and sometimes only examples of negative behaviour are seen among some of the top tennis players and some of the antics which take place on the soccer field.

Tessa was one of the few members of the group who attended Tyn-yPwll on an entirely voluntary basis. She was on a supervision order with an intermediate treatment requirement and, having heard about Tyn-yPwll, she persuaded her social worker to let her attend. Once she arrived she threw herself into all the activities with great enthusiasm and was a good example to the more faint hearted or anxious members of the group. On one occasion, she initiated a discussion about football and made very knowledgeable references to the 1966 World Cup and the leadership demonstrated by Alf Ramsey, although she could not have been much more than seven or eight years old at that time. It was her theory that, although they were not a particularly outstanding collection of footballers, the team spirit had been so good and the example shown by such individuals such as Bobby Charlton were so effective, that there was never any doubt that England would win this particular cup. She also had very strong views about the skills of football management and cited examples such as Malcolm Allison or Tommy Docherty as people whom she considered had egos much greater than their ability. On the other hand, she was very quick to praise people such as Matt Busby or Bill Shankly, usually adding that, of course, they were managing the wrong teams.

Tessa firmly believed that sport was a very important part of the working man’s life, whether he watched or participated and there is no doubt that the statistics would support this belief. Having said this, it is true to say, of course, that she would even quarrel with the last statement because, as stated earlier, she firmly believed in the equality of men and women in anything related to sport.

She returned to Tyn-y-Pwll on at least three occasions and when, on one of these occasions, she was a member of a group of both boys and girls, she gave many of the boys a very hard time in the physical activities.

Tessa is now serving in Her Majesty’s Forces and members of staff hear from her regularly, and when Janet saw her a very short while ago, she seemed to be enjoying life to the full.

The activities, whether outdoors or indoors often provided opportunities for both girls and boys to relate their performances to their behaviour back in their home environment.

Although opportunities for individual counselling were made available when appropriate, it was the group which was the starting point for the discussion of problems. Because of the flexibility of the programme of activities it was usually not difficult to create an atmosphere in which children were prepared to participate in the discussions. For example, the group might have attempted a strenuous physical activity which needed more than just physical capabilities. The ascent of Snowdon, which every course attempted fell into this category and to complete the climb successfully determination and perseverance were just as important as strong muscles. After a struggle of this kind almost all the children felt a sense of achievement and, as it is stressed that the achievement reflected the qualities of the group as a whole, there was usually a relaxed warm feeling in the group. This could be used to bring out the themes of achievement, group work, and physical and mental determination as they relate to other areas of the child’s life.

Another activity, already discussed, which can be used in a similar, very successful way, is drama. Just as some of the young people felt that they were not physically capable of climbing Snowdon and therefore felt very satisfied when they reached the top, so some youngster were very nervous about acting and experienced just as strong a sense of achievement after contributing to a twenty minute improvised play.

It was after these kind of activities the young people, without any prompting at all, would talk about themselves quite openly to the whole group, secure in the knowledge that they would find just as much support as had been given in the rest of the group activities.

Although the physical activities of the course may have been modified according to the weather, they were never modified because it was a girls’ group instead of a boys group, or a mixed group, and there was very little difference in the standards achieved by either sex. It was often a source of amazement to passers-by to see a game of soccer taking place on the beach and to realise that of the dozen or so participants, only two or three were male. In the summer months the evenings during the girls’ courses were just as likely to be spent playing cricket as rounders and with equal enthusiasm and enjoyment. In fact, given the opportunity, the girls usually proved to be just as tough and competitive as the boys. Because of years of experience, the staff accepted this as a fact and the girls were not invited to participate in boys’ activities to see how well they could do, but were expected to perform just a capably as the boys, which they invariably did. The male members of staff derived just as much enjoyment, if rather more bruises, in a game of soccer with a team of girls. It is also true to say that many of the boys enjoyed participating in activities which had hitherto been seen as traditionally feminine. Most of the boys participated in the cooking and seemed to particularly enjoy baking and cake-making. They could also be seen on winter evenings sitting by the fire, knitting, sewing and doing embroidery, all without any obvious signs of embarrassment.

This feature is an extract from Donohue, E. (ed.) (1985) Echoes in the Hills: Tyn-y-Pwll. Social Care Association, Surrey.