A Journey in the wilderness: Essential milestone in a 21st Century Education?


"And so from the hills we return refreshed in body, mind and spirit, to grapple anew with life's problems. For a while we have lived simply, wisely and happily; we have made good friends; we have adventured well. The hills have taught us to be content in our faith and in the love of God who created them." (Frank Smythe 1)


The next generations of school leavers will have to overcome greater and more complex challenges than those faced by either ourselves or our parents as the world and society are changing at unprecedented rates.  Fundamental skills, values and relationships are precariously strung on an uncertain high-wire, stretched between the depletion of resources on the one hand and the explosion of technology and diminishing adult mentorship on the other. Our children will need strength of character, self-knowledge, self-esteem, excellent interpersonal skills and confidence as well as a passion for Mother Earth to overcome these challenges. All good schools strive to inculcate these characteristics in students, but do conventional classroom and campus programmes adequately meet these needs?

Modern society, in which nature is increasingly delivered through technology, effectively removes adolescents from nature. Technology teaches children that life is easy, fast, simple and can be controlled by pressing a reset key or a button on a remote and that there are no real consequences to disregarding the rules. The virtual opponents and one’s virtual self, who die in a computer game all return to life at the press of a key.


“As soon as children can hit a switch…they can tap into the explicitness of the adult world…children are thus long in knowledge but very short on the experience to handle that knowledge, much of it gathered secondhand from electronic imagery..” (Jackson 2)


The effects of diminished interaction with the natural environment and Nature Deficit Disorder are well described by Richard Louv 3.  He reports the enlarged rates of ADD and other related disorders with increased isolation from nature and thus opportunities to engage with authentic natural environments. Ron Taffel 4, in his studies of adolescent development, lists a number of characteristics of modern western teenagers. These include:


  • The avoidance of rule-driven pursuits which demand tenacity and discipline and mastery to succeed. It takes no discipline to watch TV or play computer games.
  • The loss of an adult mentor. Boys in particular lose their trusted male role models.
  • The loss of spirituality.


We are told that the only certainty about the future is change, yet our wealthy western lives and schools are geared to stability:

  • daily routines seldom change;
  • the refrigerator always contains food
  • electricity flows at the flick of a switch (if Eskom is functioning!);
  • shelter, water and activities are provided,  
  • abundant money provides our wants and needs.

So how do we prepare children for the changes they will face in this constant, stable environment in which risk-taking is discouraged in the interests of health and safety?


The Benefits of Outdoor Education


The benefits of spending time in nature are well documented. Baylor Johnson5 describes various spiritual benefits of wilderness. He found that activities which involve risk and challenge, near the limit, but within the participants’ ability provide swift and unambiguous information about their success. Failure in the wilderness provides opportunities for improvement. Success at pitching a tent, lighting a fire or summiting a hill depend on competence, not competition.



Johnson goes on to say that the grandeur of nature (mountains, oceans, dramatic weather patterns, wide-open spaces) induces an awareness of our insignificance in the universe, but that this feeling of insignificance is comforting. This is very different from feelings of insignificance in a crowd, which are painful. Deprivation, challenge and danger in the wilderness bring spiritual joy and peace and feelings of being fully alive. The enduring nature of wilderness, that is unchanging over the span of a normal lifetime, reflects both eternity and God.


While the wilderness may be enduring and stable, it provides immediate and short-term challenges which teach us that life is really slow, hard and complex (Barry 6) Distances which must be covered to reach camp, sudden changes in weather, possible shortages of food or water, accidents and minor injury are daily concerns. These challenges cannot be avoided by pressing a switch. They provide first hand experiences and opportunities to take risks, discover one’s competencies, interact meaningfully with team-mates and to grow in self knowledge and self esteem.

Kellert and Durr7 report that the majority of adolescents participating in wilderness experiences found these experiences to be extremely important in their lives with positive benefits for personality and character development. Specific benefits included self-confidence, self-concept, self-esteem, autonomy, and capacity to cope. There was a clear carryover of effects from wilderness to urban settings. Kellert8 found that

 “cognitive, affective, and moral development is impacted significantly and positively by direct contact with nature. …. with wild nature unmediated by significant human manipulation or influenced by technology”.

The wilderness exposes our true selves. A sustained physical challenge away from familiar comforts allows our real personality and character to show. These experiences allow the, often introverted, child who does not excel at usual school pursuits to out-perform the conventionally popular, often more charismatic individuals.


“However much we succeed in hiding the ugly wedges of our character, the handicaps and our wickedness under the veil of sophistication and politeness, our true and authentic being will come out when we are in the wilderness.”

 (Vasudevan  and Venugopal9)



 Schools offering such outdoor expeditions as part of their programmes use terms such as ‘Uhambo’, ‘Epic’, ‘Trek’,  ‘Journey’. These expeditions range from 10 to 28 days in length and comprise different activities, including hiking, cycling, pony trekking, paddling, relay-running and solitude. Some also include a variety of action-based adventures such as zip-lines, abseiling, sailing, water ski-ing and rock climbing.   Many also have a religious emphasis, starting and/or ending in the school chapel and some include community service. The participants are most often grade 9 or 10 students who are between 14 and 16 years old.



Surveying Participant Responses


This article reports on the results of a survey of adolescents who have participated in one of these expeditions and their responses about what the Journey means for them.  The students who responded to the survey have participated in the expedition organised by their school. The activities common to these expeditions were hiking, paddling, cycling and camping. Most included a period of solitude and some involved horse-riding, abseiling, sailing and most.


Are the benefits of wilderness experiences reported by these and other psychologists referred to in this study consistent with the perceptions of current South African children?   Teachers who accompany adolescents on their Journey report very strong anecdotal evidence of improved relationships, personal growth of individuals and new awareness of their hidden strengths and character. They are also often surprised by positive behaviour and performance of pupils from whom this was least expected.


In an attempt to find out what adolescents gain from their wilderness experiences, an electronic survey was conducted among pupils who had participated in one of these Journeys. Eight schools participated in the survey and responses from 758 pupils, 483 boys and 275 girls are summarized here. The interval between the respondents’ Journey and their completing the survey ranged from a few weeks to three years. There is no clear evidence that the responses made immediately after completing the Journey are significantly different from those made a few years later.

Participants found the Journey experience very positive. They did not miss technology and they very definitely want their schools to continue the Journey for future generations. Figure 1 indicates that participants were generally well prepared, had adequate equipment and supplies. Figure 2 shows that the Journey is a significant time of self-discovery and personal growth. The low average response to the question “ The Journey was a time of spiritual growth for me” is perhaps indicative of a poor understanding of meaning of ‘spirituality’. I suspect many equated spirituality with religion.  Many respondents (particularly girls) reported that getting on with others, living in close confines and having to be patient with team members was a challenging aspect of the Journey.

Table 1:  Literal responses to survey questions



Most common responses in order of frequency of use:

Name one skill which you learned as a result of the Journey makes you a better person

Teamwork, Communication, Tolerance, Patience, Positive Outlook

Name one item which you appreciate since the Journey

Family, Water, Food, Shower, Friends, Bed

What was the most challenging activity on the Journey ?

Cycling, Weather, Hiking, Climbing, Tolerance, Homesickness (girls)

What was the most exhilarating activity on your Journey?

Paddling, Downhill Cycling, Summiting,  Natural Environment

What was the most fearful activity on your Journey ?

Nothing, Snakes, Solitude,  Abseiling, Homesickness (girls)

What was the most enjoyable activity on your Journey ?

Paddling, Receiving Letters, Solitude

How did you feel before your Journey ?

Excited (Boys), Nervous (girls)

How did you feel after your Journey ?

Proud, Accomplished, Confident, Strong

Describe the Adult leaders in your group.

Amazing, Awesome, Supportive

Describe one thing you learned on your Journey.

Appreciate others

Appreciate life,

Never take things for granted

There is always someone worse off then you.

What did you learn about yourself as a result of your Journey ?

I am stronger that I thought

I can do anything if I put my mind to it

I am capable

What advice would you give next year’s group about their Journey.

Appreciate it while it lasts

Stay positive

Pack fewer items



The above responses provided by boys and girls indicate the many positive and personal benefits of the Journey in their lives.


Appreciation of family, peers and familiar comforts were reported by all.  It is of interest that many respondents included environment, animals, illness and injury, solitude as the most fearful, exhilarating and challenging aspects of their Journey. These items featured as prominently in their minds as the physical activities, even though comment on ‘activities’ as requested.  In many instances the fear of injury and illness related to their potential to prevent the respondents from completing their Journey, rather than the personal danger they posed to an individual’s health.


The responses also show that

  • strong relationships are forged and between staff and participants and amongst team members;
  • positive self-esteem is developed through self-discovery and achievement
  • and an appreciation for life, home comforts and friends is generated.
  • Tolerance for others and teamwork are also learned rapidly through the intense experiences on the Journey. 


Girls expressed greater levels of apprehension than boys prior to their Journey and a more keen determination to complete the expedition. They seemed more conscious of the intrinsic benefits of the experience than boys, even while the Journey was underway. Discussions with a group of Grade 10 boys and girls during their Journey revealed that girls:


  • appreciate motivational letters written by older girls and they cherish the hand-me-down bangles and trinkets carried by others on previous journeys.
  • intended writing similar letters and handing on their trinkets to future Journey participants.
  • were diligent about making journal entries each day. Many boys had lost theirs or used them as kindling for fires.


Both boys and girls valued the relationships which they had forged with staff leaders to the extent that they were determined not disappoint these mentors by misbehaving and possibly being removed from the journey. They also made many new platonic friendships during the expedition.



Receiving letters was a special event, rated as one of the most enjoyable activities. In many cases parents were asked to write letters of affirmation to their children completing the Journey.  The atmosphere in our group changed as soon as the letters arrived. Noisy anticipation quickly dissipated and silence fell over the camp as boys moved off to find isolated spots in which to read their messages.  These letters reduced many adolescent boys to tears, even some strapping rugby players!  Some commented that they had no idea that their parents cared for and loved them so deeply.



The Inconvenient Truth                 

Massive environmental degradation will challenge the survival of the next generations on the planet. Current and future students will have to find means of curbing this destruction in order to secure the natural resources essential for their survival. The will and means to do this will come only with a passion for the environment.  Richard Louv2 puts this very well:


 “...while knowledge of nature is vital, passion is the long-distance fuel for the struggle to save what is left of our natural heritage ...passion does not arrive on a videotape or a CD. Passion is lifted from the earth by the muddy hands of the young, it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart”.


It is encouraging to see that the majority of respondents will undertake future journeys and appear to have developed some passion for the environment; the natural environment featured strongly as an exhilarating aspect of the Journey.



It is of interest that, while most respondents reported that they had adequate water, they also expressed a new appreciation for this resource in every form: Drinking water, flowing water, clean water.  Given the water crises that the planet will face in the coming years, this awareness of water will be vital for its conservation and wise use.



Solitude featured as both a fearful and enjoyable part of the Journey. Spending extended time in isolation, resting, reflecting and in some cases fasting is recognized as a significant rite of passage in many cultures.  Riley and Hendee10 report that some benefits of solitude were greater connections to self, self-empowerment, and connections to others, and the spiritual idea of connection to all things. Respondents in their study were emphatic that wilderness naturalness and solitude were essential to gaining their benefits. This is supported by the comments made by children in this study.


Finally, Bjorn Opper11, consultant psychologist at St Albans College, in research for a PhD degree found significant improvements in four of five measurable facets of EI (Emotional Intelligence) after pupils had completed their Journey. Interestingly only the score for interpersonal skills reverted to pre-journey levels after three months. Perhaps this reflects respondents returning to their chosen social groups rather than having to cope with team members who they would not normally choose as friends.


Leadership Development

While no questions were asked about leadership development, it is safe to assume that the prominence of teamwork as a learned process indicates that leadership skills are learned on the Journey. If real leadership is servant leadership then the compassion, communication, patience, tolerance and the positive outlook intrinsic to effective teamwork show that leadership skills are effectively developed as a result of the Journey.


Perhaps the following comments, made by two Grade 9 students after their Journey say it all:

The Journey has taught me a lot.   I have learned to think of others and to put myself in their shoes.   I have also been able to understand myself better and to work out my strengths and weaknesses and where I want to go in life.  I have also learned to be grateful for what I have.   I could have been someone who lives under a black plastic sheet for my whole life, as we did for a day, and I have seen how fussy people are about their food when there are people out there who have nothing.  I have learnt that one must not be critical all the time and one must look at the better side of others and try to understand their reasoning.”



“At first, I hated every moment of this torture and all I asked myself was why I had been sent on this one-way trip to my worst nightmare.   “I would never do this at home!”    Those were my favourite words.  It was only on day four that I realised what this journey was all about.    My eyes filled with tears and it dawned on me that I was the problem!  At home I took everything and everyone for granted.  After that day, as if by magic, everything got better and I wouldn’t have gone home if you had offered to drive me there.   My greatest experience has been discovering myself.”





My Biology classes over the past 28 years have failed dismally to elicit this level of personal growth !




A journey is one of the most memorable and significant experiences in the lives of modern western children. The journey instills appreciation for life, self, friends and the environment. It develops self-knowledge and confidence and cements respectful relationships between participants and staff.  In short, it is a life-changing experience, which is vital for healthy development of children and for their participation in conserving the earth, its open spaces and resources for future generations.  It is clear that benefits of the Journey are also enduring and affect behavior and outlook long after the adventure is over. It is very difficult for any conventional classroom to match the intensity of the experiences gained during a Journey in the wilderness. Young People definitely do need a journey, one that is long enough for them to learn more about themselves. An extended journey should be included in the high school curriculum offered to our children.


What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” (Crowfoot, 1890 in Stumpf 12)


Paul Fleischack


Balgowan. KZN

South Africa





























1      Smythe, F. (1950). The spirit of the hills (2nd ed). London, England: Hodder and Stoughton.


2      Jackson, D.T. (2000). Personal, Societal, and Ecological Values of Wilderness: Sixth World wilderness Congress Proceedings on Research management, and Allocation, Volume II. US Department of Agriculture


3      Louv, R (2005).  Last Child in the Woods. Thomas Allen and Sons Limited.


4      Taffel, R (1998).  Getting through to Difficult Parents. Family Therapy Networker Conference


5      Johnson, B (2002)  On the Spiritual Benefits of Wilderness.  International Journal of Wilderness. Volume 8 No 3


6      T A Barry 2012 pers comm.


7      Kellert, S. & Derr, V. (1998). National study of outdoor wilderness experience.  Washington, DC: Island Press.


8      Kellert, Stephen R. (2002). Experiencing Nature: Affective, Cognitive, and Evaluative Development, in Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


9      Vasudevan, A.S. and  Venugopal, P. (2000). Outward Bound Learning: A Pilgrimage for Personal Effectiveness (Indian Experience). Sixth World wilderness Congress Proceedings on Research management, and Allocation, Volume II. US Department of Agriculture


10   Riley, F.M and Hendee, J.C. (2000). Wilderness Vision Quest Clients: Motivations and Reported Benefits from an Urban-Based Program 1988 to 1997. Sixth World wilderness Congress Proceedings on Research management, and Allocation, Volume II. US Department of Agriculture



11   Opper, B. (2012). Pers Comm


12   Stumpff, L.M             2000. In Wilderness There is Life: An American Indian Perspective on Theory and Action for Wildlands. Sixth World wilderness Congress Proceedings on Research management, and Allocation, Volume II. US Department of Agriculture.



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