The importance of residential experiences

During the February break I was privileged to lead a group of 32 pupils and 3 staff on a trip of a life time to South West USA. Our 10 day trip began in San Francisco and finished in Los Angeles and in between we visited Death Valley, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. A dream trip for any Geographer! For everyone on the trip there were highs and lows but what was astonishing was the amount of discreet learning that took place. Many of my colleagues jested about the trip being a holiday and I readily responded with the standard answer that it is an educational excursion and not a holiday. As a Geographer I was well aware of the educational value of the trip but what did the pupils gain from it?

Regardless of the Geographical context of the trip the biggest thing the pupils gained was independence and responsibility. All too often we wrap young people in cotton wool to protect them from our own or their parents’ insecurities / concerns regarding their ability to make sound judgement calls and act responsibly in relation to their own safety and that of others. Of course they make mistakes and need some redirection at times, don’t we all. In general they coped well with new situations and the need to make quick appropriate decisions. With the exception of one misplaced boarding pass no one lost their passport, money, travel documents or got themselves in a situation that was deemed unsafe. For one pupil this was their highlight as they could tell their parents they did it – the often insignificant things we dismiss definitely matter.

One thing that I don’t think we do enough is taking time out to listen to and observe the young people we work with. On the ferry back from Alcatraz, as staff we did just that. One girl was sat on the deck reading a book written by a former prisoner who she met in the gift shop and who had signed the copy she was reading. So engrossed in the book she had totally switched off to everything around her. Behind us were three pupils interpreting the tourist map of the island showing the route they took and what they saw at each point on the audio tour. Others were stood chatting about how it would have felt to be incarcerated in Alcatraz and how those who did escape would never have made it across the waterway they were currently travelling on. Of course some were more engrossed in eating hotdogs and crisps and wondering what was on the dinner menu at Hard Rock Café that evening, but the engagement of those students was equally as important in relation to their social development.

It would be very easy to find hundreds of examples of the educational value of the trip to convince the most sceptical. Educational excursions however are unfortunately on the decline in schools for many reasons. In my own experience the top reasons are time, paperwork and inexperience. This really should not be the case and I am confident that in every school there are staff members with a wealth of experience of running trips, visits and residential experiences and that they are more than happy to support others to do the same. I would also advocate the use of schools travel companies as the support they can provide is exceptional with regard to safety management, guidance on trip leadership and their knowledge of places to visit that comes from organising trips for hundreds/thousands of schools.

All too often we are told of the importance to take risks and allow our pupils to do the same. After all the greatest way we learn is by succeeding and making mistakes. Educational excursions are all about managing risk and giving pupils opportunities to stretch themselves and often prove themselves. Residential experiences are much more than a holiday! Outdoor learning is a valuable tool and should be embraced.

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