Outdoor Adventure in Australian Outdoor Education: Is It a Case of Roast for Christmas Dinner?

Article excerpt

Abstract

Outdoor adventure activities, typically originating from other countries, form the basis of most Australian outdoor education programs. Research on adventure-based outdoor education in Australia and elsewhere has tended to focus on determining the benefits of participating in such programs. Less attention has been paid to a critical examination of the educational rationale for the use of adventure activities in outdoor education contexts. This paper draws on contemporary outdoor education literature, particularly socially and culturally critical perspectives, to highlight educational issues and questions about the nature and role of adventure activities in outdoor education. It draws particular attention to issues related to social justice and environmental education objectives and suggests a need for further scrutiny of the congruence between theory and practice.

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I recall many Christmases in Victoria, Australia, where, on hot, 30+C days, our family sat down to a large roast dinner followed by plum pudding. By the time we had finished eating all this hot food we could hardly move and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting around digesting it. This always seemed a strange practice to me and on questioning my mother about it I usually received the explanation that it was tradition, or that this is what we do at Christmas. She wasn't at all enthused about my suggestion that we change this tradition to eat lighter, 'summer' foods for Christmas dinner. I always wondered why we persisted with a practice that seemed so inappropriate in the Australian context, and why it was so difficult to change something as simple as the lunch menu?

I have similar questions about some outdoor education practice. Why, for example, do we structure many of our programs around activities that involve driving for hours to access particular environments? Why do we do cross-country skiing or whitewater paddling in the flattest, driest continent (apart from Antarctica) in the world? Why do we seek out cliffs for abseiling or climbing? What are people learning from these experiences? Why doesn't more outdoor education occur in or near the areas where we live? Why are most of our programs shaped around particular adventure activities rather than other outdoor activities? Are Australian outdoor education programs shaped mainly by British and northern hemisphere 'traditions', like Christmas dinner, or are there more robust educational rationales for conducting such activities?

These are the kinds of questions explored in this paper. The intention is to consider educational issues relating to the use of outdoor adventure activities in Australian outdoor education by drawing on literature that critiques such practice. The paper does not attempt to examine literature relating to adventure education outcomes or to the use of outdoor adventure for recreational, developmental or therapeutic purposes. This paper poses questions rather than answers in the hope that it will engender further discussion, and perhaps research, on this topic.

Outdoor adventure in outdoor education

   To adventure in the natural
   environment is consciously to take up
   a challenge that will demand the best
   of our capabilities--physically,
   mentally and emotionally. It is a state
   of mind that will initially accept
   unpleasant feelings of fear,
   uncertainty and discomfort, and the
   need for luck, because we
   instinctively know that if we are
   successful, these will be
   counterbalanced by opposite feelings
   of exhilaration and joy (Mortlock,
   1987, p. 19).

Aspects of Mortlock's definition of adventure may be questionable. For example, does outdoor adventure necessarily demand the best of our capabilities and, to what degree is luck necessary or desirable? However, this definition resonates with others such as Priest's (1999a) where the common elements are uncertainty due to some level of risk and the challenge of applying one's competence to overcome the risk and uncertainty. …