We talk to Mark Gamble about the impact of the wilderness encounter approach in work with young people at risk
Educo Africa has a soaring eagle in its logo, appropriate for its mission of helping youngsters to fly free of their past with wider vision. The organisation gives groups of young people at risk a period in the wilderness to facilitate their self-discovery and development through action learning. Courses include such experiences as rock climbing. abseiling, hiking, arts and crafts, discussion groups, specific team building and leadership challenges, and solitary time for reflection.
Youth at risk
The special programmes run for troubled youth have a number of important extra elements. Firstly, the Educo staff involved in these programmes include professional child and youth care workers, who understand and base their work upon ecological and developmental principles.
Secondly, to help with continuity and on-going application of course gains in their lives, the youngsters” own child care staff accompany them on the courses.
Educo has entered into partnerships with a number of existing child care organisations, so that its contribution is integrated into their own work instead of competing philosophies, a degree of synergy is achieved through shared programmes. The partnerships are with children's homes, a reform school and a street children's project.
The child and youth care link makes available to the staff team a range of theory and practice models that are familiar to those working with the young people in the longer term. One model which has proved useful is the Circle of Courage (Brendtro et al) which promotes self-esteem along the four continua of belonging (through significant relationships, mastery (through growing competence), generosity (through building values) and independence (through giving opportunities for self-reliance and responsibility).
One of the concerns of the Educo staff is that the learning done by youngsters on the wilderness experience can be carried over into their own lives back home. This is often accomplished through the insights and skills which are gained on a course. A youth may return to life circumstances which are unchanged but the youth with improved self-esteem, trust and competence is certainly not the same.
Another way to "export" the gains of the course is to set about defining the working concepts of wilderness encounter so that these can be passed on to colleagues in the child and youth care field. What exactly makes this experience effective? What are the specific goals and methods used in this type of learning?
Some valuable insights are emerging from this enquiry, which can be presented to the wider field.
Some of the methods currently used include:
Building team and trust: the activities encourage people to take a risk and find new levels of confidence in trusting and working with others. This includes communication, problem solving and group skills.
Conflict resolution: Teaching skills in finding common ground with others while maintaining one’s own sense of integrity.
Wilderness skills: Basic training includes fire-building, low impact bushveld travel, hazards, and navigation.
Environment: Attuning the senses to the diversity and mystery of the natural world rekindling our oneness with and our responsibility for the earth.
Community building. Empowering individuals to discover their own value and ability who then contribute naturally to others around them. Group skills and listening skills are included.
Personal presentation: The ability to present oneself with confidence before others.
Service project: Contribution to others through a sound work ethic draws on the youths” teamwork, co-operation, selflessness and discipline.
Mountain backpacking: The hiking trip is the heart of the encounter, an integration for each individual of risk, teamwork, responsibility and effort.
Mission statements: Individuals are helped to translate the Educo experience into future goals and planning for their own lives.
Story-telling: An almost lost art which is effective in conveying timeless messages to people and also to encourage personal story-telling in a safe and nurturing human environment.
Graduation: A “rite of passage” to end the course, when each participant is acknowledged and honoured by the staff.
Why does it work?
Any practice research exercise will want to discover why a particular approach works. This helps us to build a conceptual framework for what we are doing and also allows for our work to be replicated by others in analogous situations.
A number of hypotheses have been proposed for success in this work. Having to function in an unknown environment is an important aspect. On a wilderness course, participants leave behind many of their routines, habits and support systems “including, for example, a possibly negative peer support group “and must rediscover their personal resources and responsibilities.
They also leave at home their established roles and find themselves relating to others in different relationships. The experience of community is consciously built in a number of ways: while at first interdependence is demonstrated, personal skills are developed so that the individual acquires an ability to contribute and so is valued accordingly.
Appropriate challenge and risk have always been central to the wilderness encounter, Its early proponents tried to change the “Do I have to do this?” of the bored and disinclined youth to the more positive question “Can I do this?” And this transformation takes place in a positive and supportive human context which conveys belief in the individual while offering the opportunity to relate to positive adult role models.
There is a lot here for all of us to learn as we go through the current process of developing new and valid models in the transformation of the child and youth care system in South Africa.
This feature: Gamble, Mark. (1997). Rethinking life choices, Child and Youth Care, Vol.15 No.11 pp 11-12.