Outdoor education in India is generally not spoken of much or given importance. Between the preparation for IIT, Medical or being a CA, the real need for kids to spend time in the outdoors, learn from it, and grow with it is almost nil. This is why we at Beyond The Wall have started a whole new branch called Outdoor Education where we want to take kids into the outdoors through camps and other activities, ensuring all-round growth for the kids.
Good old mountain days:
We go back to December 2003, when Himanshu Thapa, the man behind the development of the outdoor education program was a kid himself.
He says, "It was somewhere close to Christmas when my uncle decided to take me and my cousins on a hike. I was 9 and it’s hard to remember an 18-year-old memory and write it down especially when you are not good at it. Still, I do remember the day in bits and pieces. It was a 15 km hike on the outskirts of Dehradun."
As a young kid who was venturing into the wild for the first time, he was supercharged and during the initial kilometers, he kept running ahead of everyone. "The best part was that nobody asked me to be with the group or follow someone. I used to stop to look back and see if I was on the correct trail. I strongly remember the image of my uncle waving at me in a gesture of acknowledging the trail, which encouraged me to keep at it."
The trail was full of surprises. "I remember the point when we were going through the forest and it seemed like I was a part of a Harry Potter plot." After a solid two hours of trekking, the next thing he remembers is eating fruits close to a river near some houses in a village on the trail.
As they continued on the trail, with the unmatched enthusiasm and energy of four kids, the team soon found themselves next to a river. This was unexpected and none of them had carried spare clothes or towels. Need we even write about what happened next? Even though they were not prepared, when Himanshu looked at his uncle to ask him if they could still somehow jump into the water, the expression on the uncle's face was encouraging. And that was all that this group of kids needed. "The next thing I remember was that my cousins and I were all soaked and splashing water at each other. Uncle had to ask us, for the first time during the hike, to stop it and continue the hike since we still had a lot to cover."
As they continued the hike, Himanshu experienced what most of us feel during a hike - the worst uphill ascent. "I kept asking when it will end, why I am here climbing a mountain, and of course that I was hungry. Uncle, however simply kept laughing and didn’t say a word."
After reaching the peak, our young Himanshu experienced a happiness he had never felt before. Heading back downhill was a joy where he felt like a superhuman who could run very fast. And to end it, eating chow mien at a small Dhaba was the icing on the cake.
What was most memorable was how every day after the hike, these kids kept talking about it. "The conversation went on for days and became one of the most important conversations we all had during our new year's eve." And the itch had just begun, "My only question was when are we going next? Since then it became our ritual to hike or explore the outskirts of Dehradun every year."
It was only recently that he found out that all those hikes were unplanned and even his uncle was doing it for the first time. "It never felt like that. It always seemed like he had been on these trails before. As if he was from those small villages we went through on all our hikes." And that was how the need for being an outdoor instructor, the guide for those children who are keen, who need to know, to get out but never find the opportunity, came up.
And as luck would have it, Himanshu got an opportunity, twice in fact, to work as an outdoor instructor at a summer camp in the USA where he learnt a great deal about working with kids.
Colorado, as an outdoor instructor:
In the summer of 2019, Himanshu was in Colorado leading a batch of kids for Sanborn Western camp.
"I was leading a backpacking trip as a lead trip leader and a medical lead. A 13-year-old kid named Malte from Sweden was a part of the group, experiencing the great outdoors for the first time. Malte was going through homesickness and it was evident through his body language and involvement with the group. To make him more comfortable, I started talking to him regularly and he shared his feeling and desire of going back home. I guess the reason he trusted me was simple - I wasn’t from the States as well. Every day especially in the morning he used to feel low and wanted to go home".
Sanborn has a philosophy of not letting the kids use technology for a month, the only way to communicate with your friends and family was by writing letters, unlike the instant replies we are used to, this sort of communication takes time.
"In our initial conversations, we talked about how we both were from different parts of the world and even as an instructor I missed my home and my people. He always seemed to be fine after talking to me, for the rest of the day. On the last day of the trip when we were going back to the camp, he knew he still had 3 weeks of summer left at the camp and was trying to find peace with it.
While going back on the trail he told me about different Swedish chocolates and kept on wishing he could have them. I told him to ask his parents to send it in his next letter. Unfortunately, he hadn't received any letter from his parents until then so he was a bit skeptical about it".
"The moment we reached camp Malte forgot about the letter and rushed to have lunch. But I ran as fast as I could to meet the director Mark who was also my friend at Camp to ask if Malte got letters from home. He knew it was an important case of homesickness and he was hoping for it to be different but showed disappointment. I didn’t say a word and started walking back as if I had lost a battle. He stopped me when I reached the door and with a giggle took the bundle of letters from the drawer. He said I am sorry, Malte has received bundles of letters from his loved ones. I did the same act with Malte and though he felt bad, his expression was worth seeing when he saw the letters in my hand."
The rest of the summer flew by. "My last conversation with Malte was something this article is all about. He says he really loved being in the summer camp and outdoors. Wilderness Backpacking was his favourite outdoor activity which he said he would continue doing in Sweden with his friends and family. However, the best was yet to come from a 13-year-old teenager - he said I really like the concept of not using our phones for a month and writing down letters to our family."
Himanshu adds, "That night I was sitting after saying the last goodbyes to the campers. I thought of the last conversation with Malte, of all the conversations I had with other campers throughout the summer camp. I could see the change and growth in them. The realization of outdoor education at this age and our role as outdoor education instructors and leaders, I could feel the importance of it. I don’t remember if I was crying or was taken over by emotions so much - I wished I had experienced outdoor education during my childhood. I was happy and proud to be an outdoor education instructor and leader. I guess all those hikes around Dehradun with my uncle were meant to be. I felt like I had a mentor at that age who showed me a different perspective of life through the outdoors."
Benefits of Outdoor Education
Outdoor education has a huge role in shaping a kid into an adult who is self-aware and is empathic towards their surrounding. Outdoor education is a catalyst for making them self-sufficient, strong, positive adults ready to face the competitive world out there.
As the name suggests outdoor education is full of outdoor activities like wilderness backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, etc. Naturally, the development of physical fitness is a byproduct of it. The powerful combination of experiences and direct contact with nature has instant benefits for children’s physical fitness.
Being outdoors helps kids not to discriminate according to their physical build or strength and start appreciating each other's differences.
Challenge by choice - ever thought of that?
Freedom to make decisions is something we should provide our kids. To let them decide their own goals and how much they want to challenge themselves. Outdoor education provides an environment where they can face their greatest fear and setback. Natural settings help them to find their rhythm.
Reading about climate and weather vs. experiencing it by being outdoors.
Reading about the environment, and its issues vs. actually seeing the environment and being involved in making it better.
Such a simple difference makes a huge impact. Through outdoor education, we can always cover important parts of the academic curriculum and teach and learn through fun
One of the experiments in California focused on 255 schoolchildren over four primary schools. One group of children were given an outdoor education routine, with a control group for comparison. The study found:
Children who attended outdoor school raised their test scores by 27%
Students who attended the program received significantly higher ratings than children who did not participate for: self-esteem, conflict resolution, relationship with peers, problem-solving, motivation to learn, and behaviour in class.
Social development is one of the most important areas for every kid - to be given opportunities for growth, understanding and creating the space to be with self.
Through outdoor education, kids learn better ways to communicate, learn to express their emotions openly, and understand the importance of vulnerability.
The most common understanding of social growth is to be together and help each other since a single person can’t do everything. Outdoor education helps in creating that opportunity for kids.
Boarding schools do miss out the social growth because they lack meeting people outside the campus and mostly move around on the school premises. Outdoor education in such schools helps the social growth of kids by providing a different environment.
Why outdoor education in India:
Himanshu says, "It takes me back to my childhood when I use to crave outdoor education. I didn’t know the term outdoor education then but I used to hope for a different way of learning. I feel education should be dynamic since every other kid is different in their own way so why not in learning too?"
Outdoor Education not just brings you closer to nature but also creates a creative way of teaching and learning for kids. In a country like India which is geographically so blessed - we have the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean, wide rivers, deltas, and peninsulas, a place that people around the world want to come and explore. Why can't we, as Indians get to it first? Why can't we get our kids to learn the benefits of being outdoors, of learning by being present, especially in this world where technology and phone have taken over? Let us use this whole different environment that teaches you to learn from one another and every living being.