School camp reboot

Issue: Volume 99, Number 12

Posted: 31 July 2020
Reference #: 1HA9NT

School camps are a traditional part of the fabric of school life in Aotearoa, but research and a new resource suggest it might be time for a fresh approach.

Revisioning school camps

"We need to really blow out our thinking in terms of the traditions of camp and what is actually possible and best-suited for each community,” says Sophie Watson from Education Outdoors New Zealand (EONZ).

Education Outside the Classroom in Aotearoa New Zealand: A comprehensive study was conducted by a cross-university team led by Dr Allen Hill from Ara Institute of Canterbury, with funding support from the Ministry of Education and Education Outdoors New Zealand (EONZ).

“The purpose of this study was to gather an up-to-date sense of the nature of the EOTC (Education Outside the Classroom) that’s occurring in schools across Aotearoa New Zealand, the value that schools place upon it and the challenges they have in providing equitable, quality EOTC,” says Allen.

The research identified a number of factors that help EOTC to flourish in schools, including school culture, community and place, EOTC champions, EOTC systems, and professional learning and development.

Learning opportunities

EONZ is the professional organisation supporting education outside the classroom. Executive officer, Catherine Kappelle and Revisioning School Camps project leader Sophie Watson, say a combination of time-poor teachers and school camp tradition has contributed to a disconnect in making the most of the rich learning opportunities school camps can offer.

“School camp is often traditional for a lot of schools and some people have a strong feeling around ‘this is the way it’s always done and it’s a rite of passage for our kids and if it’s not done in that way they’re missing out’,” says Sophie.

“Because of that time-poor factor, it’s easy to just roll camp over like it has been done in the past. I think through that process schools have become a bit divorced from the real learning opportunities that are presented through camp experiences.”

External providers and co-design

A growing trend has been for school camps to be run by external providers, who provide a programme of often adventurous activities. The report notes that in recent years a focus on risk and safety, along with increasing costs, has meant that a number of schools are reluctant to run outdoor activities, or have used external providers.

LEOTC (Learning experiences outside the classroom) providers were talked to as part of the EOTC research. Sophie says some providers wanted to provide ‘awesome’ learning experiences but found that some schools were not engaged in the same way.

“We need to empower teachers to have the knowledge and skills themselves, and also remind and encourage LEOTC providers they are there to support and maximise the experience teachers bring with them.

“There is always going to be a need for external providers to contribute support with expertise and practical knowledge that schools themselves don’t have, but it really needs to be a co-design rather than a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach,” says Sophie.

Catherine says there has been interest from external providers in collaborating to deliver school camps with a range of pedagogical approaches.

“There’s an opportunity to open up that dialogue with external providers and that’s a space that we look forward to exploring as fully as we can. I think it’s really important to bring the providers along, because external provision of camps is not going to go away as a worthwhile option, and it can enrich learning for students,” adds Catherine.

Camp PLD

The EOTC report offers a vision in which camps and EOTC contribute to curriculum enrichment, real world learning, building relationships and connections, along with providing students with new and unique experiences.

EONZ would like to see all students have equitable access to quality learning experiences at camp. Networks of Expertise funding enabled EONZ to develop the resource Revisioning School Camps.(external link)

During the past year, workshops have been held around Aotearoa, involving over 150 teachers from 110 primary, intermediate and secondary schools.

“The professional development started with a one-day workshop and was followed up with 8–10 months of post-workshop support. That’s been pivotal in shifting practice. If you don’t have the ongoing support, it can be difficult to maintain momentum,” says Sophie.

“The feedback we’ve had from the people who attended the PLD is incredibly positive – I think because we haven’t just said, ‘Here are some practical ways you can change your camp’. Instead we’ve dedicated a lot of time to considering what is the purpose of camp? how does it align with your school values? or to your student graduate profile?”

Once schools have established their objectives, the opportunities available in their local areas and the expertise they have on staff, it’s easier for them to rebuild a programme.

“We’ve got into this trap where the expectation of camp or EOTC is that it has to involve ‘crazy, fun’ outdoor pursuits, when with my own students I used to do an ‘extreme stream explore’ where we would literally just walk up a stream, and they LOVED it. It’s how you facilitate that learning and how it connects to everything else,” says Sophie.

“We’ve been very deliberate in the language we use in the PLD. Often when people talk about ‘camp’, their minds return to their own camp experiences. Thinking can become limited to the ‘camp box’, where we go away for ‘x’ number of nights and do these particular activities, but camp experiences can be multiple single-day trips. It’s about shifting thinking to consider the needs of your school and wider community,” she says.

No limitations

The Revisioning School Camps resource(external link) focuses on four key concepts: equity; cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy; place-responsive pedagogy; and integrated curriculum.

Many schools are interested in being more culturally responsive and through the PLD have been reminded how interconnected EOTC is, how it can address and embed inclusive and responsive practices into a school.

“That’s the beauty about EOTC, it’s a way of learning. Literally you can bring anything and everything into it, there are no limitations regarding curriculum design apart from your own thinking,” explains Sophie.

EOTC champions

Well-resourced EOTC champions in schools are critical, says Catherine. “It relates to capability of teachers to design and implement programmes and for schools to have good systems in place.

“If the EOTC coordinator role is really well-supported, that would result in better opportunities for in-staff professional development as a way of ensuring good EOTC management processes were understood and followed, in turn raising the capability to deliver quality programmes.

“That came through in the research: if schools had really supportive school leadership and if the EOTC coordinator was well supported and empowered in that role, then they were really champions of EOTC and school camp experiences.

“It comes down to that kind of resourcing and the perception of how EOTC and school camping can enrich a curriculum, not just as an experience, but as adding to learning that’s already happening in the classroom and elsewhere,” she says.

The National EOTC Coordinator Database ensures good practice information is relayed directly to EOTC coordinators. It also provides access to expertise through one-to-one support. The database initiative is free to all schools. For more information, contact

Camp in own backyard

Mana College in Porirua instigated a three-day locally based camp for Year 9 students called Exploration Days. Students rotated through three significant local environments within eight kilometres of the school: Mana Island, Whitereia Park and the school’s own marae.

Activities included exploring the natural environment, learning about ecology, exploring students’ cultural heritage and identity, learning history and stories of the area from local Iwi and developing a positive group culture.

“The response from the community has been amazing. So much so, that the school is looking at how they can roll it out across other year levels. The students have developed a sense of place and belonging, not just to the school, but to their local place and considered how they can contribute to it. That’s had a huge flow-on effect,” says Sophie.

Student kōrero

Some Year 9 students from Mana College share their impressions of their school’s Exploration Days:

  • Exploration Days were one of a kind; I liked visiting Mana Island... I enjoyed how we learned about a variety of plants I had never been introduced to before. I also enjoyed making the sandcastle, which was an octopus aka ‘Te Wheke’.
  • Exploration Days was a great experience. I got to learn the back stories of Mana Island and the story about the octopus Te Wheke. I mostly loved it because I connected with my classmates and my tuakana [senior mentors].
  • Waves crashed against the boat for 20 minutes of excitement and we are finally there [Mana Island]. Placing my feet on the ground filled me with joy. We all learnt new things.
  • We learnt about the place and Māori traditions, like our marae that welcomes people. We learnt about the history [of Mana] and we made our own Māori rap story.
  • It was interesting learning about the history of Mana Island. I didn’t know whaling went on there.
  • I enjoyed looking at all the old stuff [in the old woolshed] that tied in with Mana Island.
  • The Exploration Days were a few months ago but it still helps me during school. Whaea Awhi told us many stories. It helps me to understand Mana College’s history. One story was about the wheke, which I’m pretty sure was chased to Mana Island by Kupe, who was making sure that the wheke would stay away from their food. But he ended up lost and slayed the beast on the shores of the island. Because of this story, we got the idea of making an octopus (wheke) sandcastle for our competition. We ended up winning free pizza. We were ecstatic and felt as though it would have been better than going on a camping trip.
  • Whitireia Park: In Whitireia we walked and appreciated the view of Porirua. We drew some places that caught our attention and talked about the history of Whitireia. We walked down to the beach and made a sandcastle. We had fun doing kayaking and playing with the water. After that we walked home and we saw the team who went to Mana Island.

Pre-camp games result in happy campers

Year 6 students at Churton Park School are well prepared for school camp because, for the past three years, they have ‘played’ their way through various scenarios before heading off to their camp at Makahika Outdoor Pursuit Centre, outside Levin.

In 2017 teacher Leanne Stubbing designed a gamified pre-camp programme that enables children to unpack pre-camp learning by designing their own games around likely scenarios at the actual camp site.

Leanne had been involved in game design with students for a number of years and participated in NZCER’s research and conference about Games for Learning(external link).

“I thought to myself ‘What if camp was a game?’” she says. “Kids are quite familiar with how a table-top game is played – they are experts at play – and it brings it into their space a little more.

“We use the game design process to explore some of the things they are going to need for camp, but not necessarily thinking about camp while they were doing them,” she explains.

Finding strengths

Students create their own version of a game of camp based on information they are given about what the camp looks like, but they aren’t shown any images.

“We might say ‘the swing bridge goes over the river and takes you to the flying fox’ or ‘the river is in the shape of a fishhook’. Their first task is to come up with their gameboard – from there they come up with scenarios of things that could happen in those places. Then they develop characters with strengths and weaknesses who play this game – the kids use their own strengths and weaknesses to make up characters.

“They play the game in a team where they may get to know children who aren’t their special friends. For example, there might be a scenario where you’re in the cabin or lodge at night and someone is scared of the dark. Who in your team has a strength to counterbalance the fact that that person has a fear of the dark?”

Expressing fears and anxieties

Students also work out best case and worst-case scenarios, and what might actually happen in a situation such as a possum outside their tent.

“You get some great creative writing. The worst case might be: the possum ripped through the tent, took off with your torch and everyone screams and runs out of their tent and no-one gets any sleep. The best case might be that you turn on your torch and the possum runs away.

“Then they write what’s most likely to happen: the possum doesn’t go away but they go outside and make enough noise and it runs away. You might not sleep that well but you just get on with it.”

These activities give children a chance to express some of their fears and anxieties about camp and gives them tools to take to camp. The process of dealing with possible scenarios as a game, and then going into the real-world context, puts the challenges of school camp into perspective.

“It’s so good for mental health because they are actually expressing their needs. So when you go into this camp environment, there’s this relative understanding amongst everyone that not everyone is having the same experience.

“One child might feel they are able to do challenging things, but they realise not everybody feels that way and they need to be more encouraging – that we are a team and we need all have the same sense of success.”

No more homesickness

Leanne says she was surprised that there was no homesickness at the first camp where she had introduced a pre-camp programme. In the second year, a girl was homesick, but by the third night she had got her ‘game plan’ in place and was fine.

Last year a student with high learning support needs spent his first night away from home. He and his classmates had done a lot of preparation and the camp was a success for him.

“He did a kind of parallel pre-camp programme to prepare him mentally. His mum stayed two out of three nights. The one night she wasn’t there, he knew what he had to do. If he woke up at any point – and he did wake up at 2am and got a bit scared – he woke up the person next to him and said ‘I need to go see Miss Stubbing’ and the person brought him down to me. He did exactly what was planned and the kids were so supportive,” says Leanne.

Enriched learning

By being well prepared for camp, children learn skills they can take beyond that environment.

“When we take them to camp, we’re putting them in high-challenge, high-stress situations in terms of their fears: being away from home, trying new challenges. But without realising it, they have mentally prepared themselves. In the first year, I did have a kid say to me, ‘Are we still going to roll the dice every time we do something?’” laughs Leanne.

“We used to give them a programme, but at this camp, things can change and it actually encourages them to live in the moment – and I think that’s a really good life skill to have,” she adds.

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BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:12 am, 31 July 2020

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