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Learning to Live PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 15 April 2010

IAN LEWIS FRSA

 

Understanding and learning through the natural environment is, itself, 'at risk'

 

The Campaign for Adventure (CfA) improves understanding of the benefits which stem from an adventurous approach to life. This Campaign builds on the growing awareness that the increasing tendency to protect people from danger and the concern to avoid risk, if carried too far, will stifle creativity and enterprise. The impetus for the Campaign came from the conference, A Question of Balance, held in 2000. This event, chaired by Prince Philip, called for a campaign to help balance the increasing tendency to try to remove all risk from our lives.

 

Although CfA is concerned with all aspects of adventurous living, understanding and learning through the natural environment is, itself, 'at risk'. There are people, some in positions of great influence, who do not understand and are unable to communicate the connection between staying alive on this planet and sustainability in their policy-making and decision-making.

 

Stifling natural creativity and enterprise?

The work of the Campaign has been to lobby for such an understanding on behalf of those who feel that the constant pressure to remove all risk from our lives is deeply damaging. The quality of our lives is being threatened by "stifling natural creativity and enterprise", just two of the important facets of being human in the 21st century.

 

Of course, one of our major thrusts is within the education debate. We support, and we have strong support from, those who value learning by doing; we are therefore part of the Campaign for Real Learning (see Andy Simpson's article in this ECOS issue) where real risks must remain if we are to learn to manage risks well.

 

Risk is given a balanced airing in very few arenas. Risk is not a negative term: it is an opportunity to review the balance of potential outcomes in terms of the positive and negative. Whether to stay in and avoid the dangers of the dark, or to go out and enjoy company? To test ones skills, either succeeding or failing, or to never know? To try the untried and invent something, or to accept what has gone before? Here I must quote my Irish Mother: "The more you do of what you've done the more you'll get of what you've got.

 

Adventure is more than novelty seeking behaviour, more than competence development, more that exploration and more than the sum of all these things. A sad and strange tradition has condemned us to understanding adventure as physical and the outdoors. The intellectual, spiritual, social, aesthetic, scientific, political, philosophical, emotional, educational, commercial, environmental, are suggestions of other important areas. Being fully adventurous in any of these areas (going where humanity could go) is, for the media, a chance to slight or show disapproval of someone trying something different. Of course such agents of change do exist, but usually within enthusiastic social clusters such as clubs, societies, institutions and groups, where support can be offered to the daring. Such areas are included within our educational curriculum, but our education system drives us towards certainty and away from risks. Thus, through our education, we learn our predisposition against risk: that within all our business, industry, art, education, and government, all risk must be removed so that our middle managers can sleep at night.

 

Professor Heinz Wolff, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at Brunel University, TV personality, founder of the Great Egg Race and the Young Scientist of the Year, is supporting CfA. He makes clear his frustration with the risk adverse society. In his recent address to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Risk and Adventure in Society, he stated "There is unanimous support, especially amongst civil servants, for limiting human beings and little support for expanding them".

 

The Healthy and Risk Commission

Professor Wolff talks about many aspects of risk and adventure from the view that its avoidance is verging on the criminal, is seriously bad economics, is scientifically indefensible, educationally extremely damaging, is anti-youth and will seriously damage humanity in years to come. He feels so strongly about these things that he advocates the re-engineering of the 'Health and Safety Commission' to become the 'Healthy and Risk Commission' to ensure the positive side of risk-taking does not continue to be so seriously over-looked with its huge and| inappropriate costs to society. Heinz states that without a sufficiency of 'Vitamin| R' (R=risk) through legitimate social activities, there will be a move toward| substance abuse, violence and other socially unacceptable novelty seeking behaviours. Scientific debate on the existence of a substance existing in the body| which causes 'novelty seeking behaviour' currently focuses on monoamine oxidase (MOA) and the genes DR-D2, D3 & D4 and their interaction with one another. Research in this area would make a lot of sense, rather than ever more prisons and Pupil Referral Units.

 

There is wide and building support for the campaign from all sectors, and many trusts and commercial organisations have offered funding, although the Rank Foundation remains the main sponsor to date. Professor Shirley Alt Khan of the Bulmer Foundation, speaking at the CfA "Consultation on Adventure and Enterprise in Society", in November 2004, in St Georges House, Windsor Castle, stated:

 

"I am particularly interested in the link between adventuring outdoors and sustainable development. My belief is the best place to learn the most fundamental lessons about sustainable development is outdoors. Nature is first hand intelligence. When out in nature we have the opportunity to sense the interconnectedness of things, the value and beauty of diversity and distinctiveness and our place in the grand scheme of things. These lessons, which we learn through the senses, are more profound than those we learn intellectually. Outdoor educators and programme leaders are well placed to provide opportunities for people of all ages to sense and make sense of nature. In the rush for novelty and thrill, these lessons are not being valued in outdoor education".

 

 

Also speaking at the St George's House consultation, Digby Jones, Director General of the CBI, stated:

"The sheer inability of the UK education system to help people to become good managers of risks, rather than avoiding them, causes great losses to our economy. Our entrepreneurs are incapacitated by an over safety-conscious system which fails to facilitate their development and allow them to thrive. They need adventure, and the outdoors is a good place for it."

 

 

There is a terrible duplicity of values in our society. This has been most recently shown when Ellen MacArthur, enjoyed massive support for her courage, tenacity, risk-taking, pioneering, challenging norms, going through barriers - mental, physical, social, emotional, desperate "to look people in the eyes" Ellen spent 77 days at sea and achieved a new solo round the world record. It is very difficult to juxtapose this with the NUS/UWT position advising their members to not involve themselves in out of classroom activities.

 

The campaign is getting very serous. Serious Jungle, Serious Desert and now Serious Arctic, are three BAFTA award winning TV programmes from the BBC, led by Bruce Parry, presenter of the stunning 'Tribes' series, showing how young people develop through exposure to natural environments. These are three further examples of our duplicity in risk-taking, in this instance in our aspirations for young people. Commenting on the effect on her daughter, one parent said: "In those three weeks she had grown up and learnt as much about her own strengths and abilities as she could ever have learned in three years of going to school on the 73 bus." Kate Figes, in her article 'Danger is just what teenagers need'2, quotes a teenager recently back from a rather exceptional adventure: "GCSEs don't seem scary now. If I can survive the Arctic, I can do anything."

 

However, outdoor educationalists have the expertise to manage the level of challenge, awareness, learning and responsibility that can be gained in these shores. Something extra can be found further afield, but we then meet the conflicts of equity and sustainability - and environmental damage through travel, cultural sensitivities, cost, equal access and time are important issues to consider. Kate continues "Teenagers like to push themselves to emotional extremes; at home they might seek out danger and excitement through illicit drink and drug use or by watching horror movies. But by being taken on real adventures, these young people were exposed to exhilarating extremes of emotion every day." As a youth worker, I often have to explain to young people and their parents that it is the job of youth to push boundaries and really find out. There is a greater downside in never knowing about oneself than in finding out and making informed decisions and judgements. Our society would be very different if human boundaries had never been tested.

 

Lancashire Education Authority invests substantial resources in supporting out of school education. It is concerned to ensure three messages get through:

1. That there has been no drop in either support for, or the amount of, out of classroom education in Lancashire. Such a belief could actually reduce teacher and youth worker enthusiasm.

2. That red-tape and paperwork should not increase - it has been stable and satisfactory for some time and with positive results.

3. That when sensible systems, such as they have developed are followed, there will be no problems - for anyone!

Being fully human...

The significance of 'the spirit of adventure', as we meet with those who inspire us, is unquestionable. Who do we respect, who do we admire, who do we hold high?

The spirit of adventure is always present with the visionaries, the determined, the tenacious, the motivators and the achievers. The spirit of adventure is so present in a realised human being it is very difficult to see how an education system for all, in a society which wants itself to evolve, can ignore or leave to chance, the very origins of being fully human.

I conclude with a quotation from Libby Purves:

"Every year it gets harder for those who are not in the aristocracy of adventure sport to test themselves. The countryside is littered with signs prescribing limited "trails", warning signs insult the intelligence at every turn, playgrounds are closed, simple physical challenges reduced. The worst victims are schoolchildren and those with least money and clout (toffs, as we know, will always manage to find ways to tumble off horses, boats and mountains).

 

This is bad. It is not enough to follow Ellen MacArthur's website as if it were a video game, and read the books. As the Campaign for Adventure puts it: "Life is best approached in a spirit of exploration, adventure and enterprise... Chance, unforeseen circumstances and uncertainty are inescapable features of life and absolute safety is unachievable."

 

Ellen MacArthur could confirm that. Whatever happens between my writing this and your reading it lies in that glimmering, frightening, stimulating realm known as uncertainty. It is no bad place to live.

 

 

References and notes

1. Professor Heinz Wolff, Address to APPG, Westminster, February 05

2. Figes, K (2005) The Terrible Teens - What Every Parent Needs to Know. Penguin, London

3. Libby Purves, The Times, Comment, 08.02.05

 

lan Lewis is the coordinator of the Campaign for Adventure and is Clerk to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adventure and Risk in Society, www.campaignforadventure.org

 

 
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