Harnessing the outdoors

Poonam Bhide

The idea of sending students to the Hooppya Camp on the bank of the Mulshi reservoir for an outdoor adventure education program was discussed at Vidyaranya High School for Boys and Girls, Hyderabad in early 1995. At the suggestion of the founder Principal, late Mrs. Shanta Rameshwar Rao, the representatives of ROOTS organization for outdoor education from Pune had agreed to modify the seven-day program to fit with the school’s philosophy of no competition. ROOTS, now called Outdoor Mantras, emphasizes on using various aspects of the outdoors to build a sense of personal responsibility, self-reliance and self-respect.

Every year during the second or the third semester, all students in class seven would get away from their home-city by train and would be received by outdoor adventure trainers at the Pune railway station. Every batch of our students would be accompanied by two or three teachers and one or two members of the staff. I accompanied the first group and a couple others in later years. Students with special needs would be attended to by their regular caretakers, as was done during normal days at school. The next seven days, these trainers with a passion for the outdoors would gently help our students experience the outdoors on a deeper and personal level. They would help our students understand the importance of communication, leadership, teamwork, planning and delegation.

From the time we arrived at the Pune railway station and boarded the train back, our students were completely in the charge of the young trainers. Even the not so young Vidyaranya staff would join voluntarily in the activities. In the early years, it was a challenge for the trainers to not make comparisons between our students during the sessions and also to keep out the elements of competition in their daily routine. But the enthusiastic participation of the students enthused the trainers to continue to conduct activities in the agreed manner. Vidyaranya had also broken many a practice of regimentation that are usually part of school discipline in India. Students were not required to remain in lines but could be brought to attention quickly with one or two calls. As soon as the trainers understood this unique discipline of our group they could easily garner students’ cooperation for activities such as the early morning warm-up PT drill. The trainers would inform our students about the need to walk in single file and always wait for their turn on treks and other activities in order to maintain physical safety of all participants on narrow hill paths, and their suggestions were always complied with.

Preparation to attend the Hooppya camp began months before the actual date of departure. Railway group ticket booking for school students and staff was a slow process before computerization happened. We always travelled in three tier non-AC compartments of Indian Railway trains. We would have a mix of students, at the two extreme, there would be some who had never travelled long distance, others who had only known air travel. As food from outside was not allowed at the camp, our students carried just enough food to last them for dinner time. Knick-knacks including wrist watches, video games, deodorizers, bubble gum, mobile phones, cameras were to be left at home so that students would find technology-free ways to keep themselves and their fellow travellers entertained during the to and fro journeys.

For every registered student, ROOTS would send a printed list of clothing, footwear, toiletries, etc., to be fitted into a single backpack. Change of clothes and a full body wash were allowed only twice during the week. For the first bath, students had to carry water in buckets from a water source and wash themselves in bathrooms with rudimentary cover, the second time was at the end of the rafting activity along the river, a day before the camp ended.

During the initial years, we teachers realized that not all girls in our group knew about the menstrual cycle. One or two would see their first cycle during the week and panic; others would hesitate to join if their period was expected during the days of the camp. In the first three years I would speak to them before registration on how to prepare for the eventuality and impressed upon them to not miss the camp and the activities thereof. We discouraged the pill way to keep the period out. Trainers would help the girls dispose all sanitary napkins in a pit dug for the purpose. All students were shown the right way to use dry toilets at the campsite.

Everyone at the camp had to finish everything that was served as the first helping at any meal time, and there was no restriction on the number of helpings. The first helping would consist of measured quantities of well cooked rice, roti, dal and subji, a fried savory item, and a large helping of salad in the form of Maharashtrian style koshimbir. That quantity of balanced diet ensured that even the poor eaters did not experience exhaustion during the physically demanding day-long outdoor activities. Birthdays of students would be occasions to celebrate with a sweet or two cooked at the campsite. The kitchen and dining area were made of brick and mud walls and thatched roof. Drinking water was carried to the camp site from a distance.

During the first session at the camp, students would be divided into groups of seven to ten members to fit into a single canvas tent along with their assigned trainer. Students had to learn to secure their luggage and at the same time keep creepers and crawlers outside of their tent. Shoes and bags were kept well organized to make enough place for all tent occupants to sleep. A deep sense of care, gratitude, understanding and bonding grew between occupants of each tent during this week-long stay. School staff stayed in a single independent tent right at the camp site.

During each day the group and its trainer went out of the campsite for any one of the following activities: trekking, mountaineering, bird watching, rock-climbing, rappelling and river rafting. After returning to the campsite, the activity would be reviewed by the group. Such reflection sessions lead to change in attitudes and behaviours and to a sense of growth and fulfillment.

The last day of the camp was reserved for the powerfully engaging activity of treasure hunt; each group as usual was led by their trainer. The task was to find the treasure hidden by the organizer of the game; in order to locate the treasure players had to follow the instructions and clues written separately for each group. The game involved the application of orienteering skills, mainly the use of the magnetic compass, first-aid training, team work, etc., and included all the outdoor activities that the students had experienced during the camp.

Thank you to Amogh Rudra, Director, Outdoor Mantras, Pune for providing short write-ups.

The author is Director Nirmiti Learning Techniques and Technologies LLP. She can be reached at bhidepoonamd@yahoo.com.

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