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A Lesson From China

Why parents should not participate in experiential education programs with their kids.

By Steff Lohrmann

Experience is the greatest teacher of all time, it's depth is unmeasurable and infinite. Most of what we are taught from the day we are born is from our family, friends and educators. Our personalities, habits and communication abilities are shaped by the people who surround and influence us. Ultimately, we become a result of our environment and the experiences we have had in it. Some affect us positively while others may have a negative influence, either way we learn.

The most basic definition of experiential education is “learning by doing”. It's about creating platforms for those experiences and an opportunity for students to reflect on their physical, mental and emotional state of being. Regardless of whether students attend outdoor education programs or not they may learn these through other activities in an indirect way, such as with sports clubs or after school programs. The important thing to note is that outdoor education should be focused on getting the best out of each students and making time for students to discuss the outcomes and how they can do better next time.

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Parents also have the ability to create these experiences for their children and they play a critical role in the development of their children. They teach their child what is right and wrong, what is safe and dangerous and how to cope with certain situations with friends, family or school. However, there is a point where too much involvement in a particular experience may stunt a child’s ability to push themselves to their limit, try to figure it out on their own, or even try it at all.

Working with students from all over the world and specifically in China, this becomes very prevalent as parents are very much involved in the learning process. Whether it is with school or activities, parent involvement has been a very common theme in China, which is very different from the West where parents want children to be more independent, able to take care of themselves and not be afraid to go outside of the ordinary. Although most parents may see their involvement in a particular experience as a positive influence for their child, in the case of outdoor education parent involvement in activities can be detrimental to the learning process of the student. Experiential learning is all about going through a prolonged activity where students can learn from each-other without their parents being present. They can talk freely about their opinions without being afraid to say the wrong thing in front of their parents. This ultimately effects the outcome of the program itself.

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Naturally, parents have a habit of wanting to get involved when their child faces a difficult situation. It's instinct and something most mothers and fathers do without thinking. In my experience, this is especially true in China, where if they see their child struggling, they will either do one of two things, try their best to help and in turn the child still doesn’t figure it out on their own, or get angry at their child because they were unable to overcome the difficulty. Sometimes it is best not to do anything at all and let them try on their own. If parents are present then a child’s natural instinct is to turn to them for help, but if they are alone with other students then they have no choice but to work it out amongst themselves. Another thing I realized after living, studying and working in China for more than 10 years is that in the Chinese culture failure is seen as an extremely bad thing. But we do not learn without failing, failure is a key aspect of becoming a better student, better teacher and overall better person. It teaches us how to be more resilient through a situation and learn to stand up and try again.

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Students fail to reach their objectives in our programs all the time but that’s okay! Because we learn how to be better next time round and the great thing about doing it outside the classroom is there is no grade given to you on these programs, everyone has something to contribute in their own way. It’s a team effort, just like in the real world, we work with people, we have to communicate well, learn how to resolve conflicts and become the best we can be.

There is time-tested framework for experiential learning, called the experiential learning cycle. It should be at the core of any outdoor education program or curriculum. Games and activities are central to this type of learning and are the platform which schools and outdoor companies such as Insight Adventures uses to illuminate conflicts and achievements that arise in groups.

Each activity in a program should have a goal or an outcome, once the activity is complete and students sit in a circle regardless of whether the goal is reached or not, they need to consider the following questions:

  1. What? (What happened during the activity, what did we see, hear and feel?)
  2. So What? (What does it mean? How did I influence the outcome?)
  3. Now What? (What are we going to do with this new understanding, and how can we apply it outside of this experience?) 
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The experiential learning cycle outlines what we need to do to constantly get better at anything in life whether it is sport, school, relationships it doesn’t matter as long as you strive to keep learning. Regardless of how old the student is, whether they are 7 or 70 these question are at the core of any experiential education program and when done well have profound outcomes for everyone involved.

Ultimately, I would like to emphasize that outdoor experiential learning programs have enormous benefits for children. But due to the educational or cultural dynamics in China, students have become increasingly dependent on their teachers, parents and/or grand parents for the answers. The important thing for parents to understand is that children have the ability to think critically on their own and work through a difficult situation without needing help, it is a delicate process and requires guidance from facilitators trained in experiential education. Hence, we believe that if you want your child to get the full experience from their outdoor education program, it is best to have minimal involvement in the experience as it will ultimately effect the outcome.

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We believe in the power of young people and the experiences they create on their own.

Insight Adventures - Lifelong learning without boundaries.