Five ways school camps create life-changing experiences

Five ways school camps create life-changing experiences

There's more to school camps than staying up late and swinging from a rope. For young people it can be one of the most significant experiences of their life.

Monash outdoor education expert and experienced adventurer Dr Beau Miles breaks down some of the research for teachers.

1. Screen and parent detox

Helicopter parents and screen life are a common part of life for young people. Camp gives them a rapid dose of autonomy, a place where they can opt in and opt out of activities.

Birdsong replaces earbuds full of music. Screens are swapped for firelight or the view of a mountain, retraining young eyes to look beyond 60cm.

Young people need to think for themselves, and make decisions in new environments, with new consequences and new rewards.

Significant Life Experience research reveals formative experiences – such as a school camp – shape a person’s world-view, influence their vocation, where they choose to eventually live and how they raise their own children.

A group of young people hiking in the wide open space

2. The benefit of resourceful grubbiness

I remember a 12 year-old kid called Gavin, who had only brought two blue-green T-shirts for a month-long camp. A true polymath, Gavin would make giant vases in pottery in the morning, ride a horse all afternoon and write short plays in the evening.

It turns out that his two T-shirts were actually one, turned inside out on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Gavin’s T-shirt ran deep with dirt, but his actions ran deeper with curiosity and creativity.

According to microbial-health research, his one shirt likely made him stronger, even more resilient. (For the record, we cottoned onto Gavin’s scheme, and he washed his shirt during lunch on Wednesdays.)

3. Being cut off from the world helps students reconnect with the world

Camp experiences are designed to foster a student’s ability to make informed decisions about their complex social, environmental and cultural worlds.

But the camp is all-consuming, a world in and of itself. Days of the week, hunger, thirst and outside worries tend to vanish. Students become immersed in the present and in a space where their outside world – at least for a while – ceases to exist.

The strength of this, and the irony, is that being immersed in a new day-to-day presents immediate and plentiful opportunities for students to see the results of their actions. The intent is to lead a student towards more connected and reflexive decision-making when they return home.

Among researchers, the idea of this camp-home transfer is contentious. But what we do know – via the research and personal experience – is what camp produces in spades is an engaged, meaningful and constructed community.

And that this community can be replicated at home and beyond.

A boy and a girl in a dingy on a river

4. Nature restores our minds

Time in bushland, by babbling creeks or in treetops is time well-spent for mental health. Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have found exposure to these kinds of natural environments restores our sense of attention and alleviates mental fatigue.

They called their ground-breaking work Attention Restoration Theory. The two researchers found that for environments to be restorative, they need to have a number of characteristics:

  • Fascination – the place generates involuntary awe
  • Being away – positive new distractions allow the mind to let go of everyday worries
  • Extension – building layers of knowledge about the natural place
  • Compatibility – finding an environment that feels good, and where goals can be met

Camps are often set in beautiful places, and this subliminal exposure to nature helps students and teachers refresh their minds.

And with that, people learn to treat themselves as a ‘resource’ with a limited, yet restorative amount of attention. It can result in searching out natural places in order to renew our day-to-day and use nature as medicine.

5. Conflict and risk at school camps help students tap into their basic human abilities

In an evolutionary sense, the human body is fundamentally animalistic, yet we’re rapidly losing our ability to use many of our innate abilities. Being able to identify conflict and assess risk are a part of this loss.

Perceived risk vs real risk has long been employed in outdoor and adventure education, and Hollywood has the story arc of conflict vs resolution down pat.

During a typical five-day camp experience, perceived risk and conflict are both to be expected and something we plan and hope for. Risk can be orchestrated in a safe and inclusive way, perhaps via a magical web of high-rope activities. And conflict occurs, for example, when a girl you fancy repeatedly sits next to your nemesis.

High-ropes activity

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, D. (2013). The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease. Allen Lane: London.

Sibthorp, J., Furman, N., Paisley, K., Gookin, J., Schumann, S. (2011). Mechanisms of learning Transfer in Adventure Education: Qualitative results from the NOLS transfer study, Journal of Experiential Education, 34 (2) 109-126.