POS ED AND THE 'WILDERNESS EXPERIENCE' 

Cat Lamb

“I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.”
- Kurt Hahn

The positive effect of nature on the mental state is well known and researched by people like Dr. Roger S. Ulrich. Spending time in the outdoors, whether on school camp or just in places that are surrounded by trees or rivers or beaches, has significant benefits on someone’s positive emotions. Studies have shown gains relating to creativity in problem-solving, self-awareness, calmness and introspection. Exercising in pleasant environments, particularly in natural bush environments, has a greater effect on your mood and positive self-efficacy or self-belief than does exercising alone.  A recent study undertaken by researchers at Stanford University has shown that a walk in nature, as opposed to an urban setting, decreases anxiety, rumination (a key indicator of depression), negative emotions, while also increasing positive emotions. 

Outdoor education experiences like those offered at the Geelong Grammar School Timbertop campus create excellent opportunities to host conversations about risk and challenge, and how young people view and respond to these. Carol Dweck has conducted and collated significant research into how a person’s mindset affects their ability to approach a challenge, finding that people can have a fixed or growth mindset. The fixed mindset is seen in the classic “I can’t, it’s too hard” student. They believe that intelligence and skill are pre-determined, and there is nothing they can do to change their own abilities. When faced with a challenge, say a rock climb, they tend to give up before applying themselves, both to save face and because of an ingrained belief that they should be able to do something without effort. This student doesn’t tend to have an understanding of the amount of effort, application and even failure that goes into success, and of how skills can be obtained and developed. The growth mindset is seen in the student who says “I don’t know, but I’ll give it a go”, believing that effort adds to their abilities to complete a task or overcome a challenge, and see challenges as an opportunity to learn. For these students, each new experience is another resource in their ‘bag of tricks’ that they can call on at a later date or in another situation. 

When students are made aware of the benefits of growth mindsets compared to fixed, they can learn to change the way they approach challenges. In the UK, Kate O’Brien conducted a study into mindsets on an Outward Bound course. She found that teaching students about fixed and growth mindsets helped instil in the students the idea that, with effort, challenge can be overcome. Risks in controlled environments can create amazing opportunities for growth and transformation in our students, and giving students the language of growth mindsets helps to support confident and safe risk-taking.

On school camps, as at Timbertop, students are surrounded by trees, rivers, beaches and mountains, as opposed to walls, computers and phones. We know that this kind of environment creates a fertile ground for the mind to engage in introspection and self-awareness. If students are also explicitly taught about fixed and growth mindsets while in these environment, practicing the skills of overcoming challenges through a combination of hard work, adaptability and relying on those around them for support and advice, then the opportunity to transfer this learning back to a classroom environment relies strongly on the staff who attend these camps being part of this process. 

Imagine the benefits of drawing on stories from shared challenges in the outdoors when teaching maths or history, or indeed any other subject. The authenticity that comes from sharing in challenges and successes whilst on camp can greatly add not only to pastoral relationships, but also to each student’s understanding of how they learn and the teacher’s understanding of how students see themselves. 

The strength of the Timbertop Program is one which can be transferred to many different leaning environments. Its success is largely due to the strong staff-student relationships, and the heightened understanding of the positive outcomes that can come from just continuing to put one foot in front of the other as we all walk towards our goals together.


Cat Lamb
Cat Lamb


Cat is a Trainer and Content Developer for the Institute of Positive Education. She has worked with adolescents in outdoor education in Australia and overseas for over 10 years. Most recently, she lived and worked as an Outdoor Educator and Teacher at Geelong Grammar School’s Timbertop Campus, and lectured in Outdoor Education at Federation University.