Ms Kate Child, Outdoor Education Teacher
There really is nothing quite like packing your bags and heading into nature for an adventure and a reprieve from modern day life. At some point in our lives, each of us have experienced the serenity, beauty and feeling that results from quality time spent immersed in nature with others. As Richard Louv states in his book, Last Child in the Woods, ‘no one among us wants to be a member of the last generation to pass on to our children the joy of playing outside in nature.’ At Marrapatta, this ideal is more than realised; the joy and value of connecting with nature and its endless benefits is a paradigm enacted.
Enveloping yourself in nature is good for the soul. Once we step away from our overwhelming and relentless schedules, traffic noise and numerous other artificial features of modern city living, we allow ourselves to become part of the natural landscape (Levitin, 2015). The natural rhythm allows us to discover our authentic self and realise what really matters to each of us. What do I mean by this? In his book, The Nature Principal, Richard Louv states ‘natural environments…encourage introspection and may provide a psychologically safe haven from the man-made pressures of society’ (2012, p. 112). Schedules and co-curricular commitments aside, adolescent students can tap into what makes them who they are, surrounded by a natural environment that accepts them for their true selves. Our days in nature, removed from mirrors and advertisements presenting an unattainable and false beauty, allow students to begin looking outwards. When we step into nature, we allow ourselves to become calm, reflect and appreciate not only our authentic self, but also others too.
Empathy is a profound learning that strengthens in the natural setting. With nature as our vehicle to learning, almost every aspect of life on expedition takes effort. Breakfast requires the campout team to carry food on the journey and prepare it in the early mornings. Moving camp requires pack-down and set-up with each new day. Canoeing on a lake with high winds requires a unified response. Students realise just how much each person contributes to the group’s success, because each person has a defined and integral role. Hence, every small action is at once shared and appreciated. Empathy, and its ability to connect us more closely with others, is fostered in—and hopefully transcends—the expedition setting.
Our programs are interlaced with mindfulness opportunities. I recall a moment during a Year 9 expedition where we sat under a spectacularly large fig tree, with a creek running under its roots. The group had ridden bikes for few hours, navigating some wild terrain to find it. We sat in silence under its encompassing canopy, admiring its strength and the sanctuary it provided for so many busy birds. It was a humbling experience, and it provided a connection to the School’s Spring Hill fig that stands proudly in front of the Research Learning Centre. Mr Dan Larkin, Humanities Teacher, reflected with the students that this moment could be saved in his memory to recall and revisit during times of stress. The students listened with maturity, as they comprehended how they too could capture a moment from the surrounds of Marrapatta, to induce mindfulness in their day-to-day lives.
Consciously stepping away from technology kindles care, compassion and curiosity for the physical world around us and allows space to develop and strengthen relationships. Marrapatta offers a particularly unique technology-free environment, allowing the benefits of its absence to emerge. While staff carry appropriate technology for emergencies, the ability to access social media is removed. In nature, we look out and observe natural happenings, feelings of connectedness and sharing joy with others. Refreshingly, our students engage willingly with this technology-free space, and are able—after a brief period of detox—to acknowledge the opportunity it presents to strengthen relationships with others.
While taking a break from building rafts down by Yabba Creek, I was able to draw the Year 7s’ attention to a developing natural story. The birds had been chasing one another away, fighting for the crumbs dropped by students when the inter-species fighting halted abruptly. I asked the girls to consider why the honeyeaters, the kookaburras and many other species were chattering agitatedly in unison, no longer chasing one another. The girls then noticed that a sizeable female lace monitor had entered the campsite. The birds instead worked cohesively to dive on and chatter angrily at the monitor, driving it away from their food. The shared humorous experience acted as a bonding mechanism for the group, and fostered a new feeling of comfort and connectedness with the natural world. Moments away from technology remind us of the inherent worth of remaining connected to nature and the lessons it can offer.
Marrapatta offers a refuge, not in the colloquial sense, but in a socio-ecological sense. After having hiked through the mountains to arrive at our campsite, Year 8 students were met with a challenge: a creek crossing. The water only met the students’ knees, but there was the difficulty in the rocky and slippery footing. As Outdoor Education teachers, we pose questions rather than always offering solutions. We ask the students, ‘How can we cross in a way that ensures each team member’s hiking bag remain dry for tonight’s campout?’ Ideally, the students turn to one another, stand in a circle, and share conversations that are considerate, caring, creative and action-focused. They decide on a plan, walk in pairs and assist others once the other side of the creek is reached. The success of a dry landing morphs into playing and laughing in the creek. These experiences act as a refuge of trust and companionship, promoting social skills, exploration and teamwork.
I have merely brushed the surface here of a topic supported by ‘a growing body of theoretical, anecdotal, and empirical research that describes the restorative power of nature’ (Louv, 2012). Returning to a natural place like Marrapatta has the power to influence a student’s life for many years to come. I hope that, like me, they are thankful that visiting this place of natural beauty, to disconnect from city life and re-connect with nature, is part of every Grammar girl’s education.
Levitin, D. (2015, January 18). Why the modern world is bad for your brain. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/18/modern-world-bad-for-brain-daniel-j-levitin-organized-mind-information-overload
Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Louv, R. (2012). The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life ina Virtual Age. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.