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Adventurous learning

Adventure-based education establishes skills and serves a strong developmental purpose

Dr Ian Galbraith

In 2002 I joined Lilyfontein, a small school situated in the rolling farmlands on the eastern seaboard of East London. My brief was to expand the almost 100-year old primary school into a high school and to introduce adventure-based education into the already successful school curriculum.

Over the past 14 years Lilyfontein has grown into a school that today has more than 600 learners from grades 0 to 12, and with an adventure programme that is fully integrated into the curriculum across all grades.

Adventure-based learning holds extraordinary benefits for learners, not only within the school context, but also in terms of how it prepares young people for a life beyond the school gates.


Lilyfontein’s experiential-learning curriculum is built on extensive research I completed for my PhD thesis, combined with years of experience in the field. It is designed to integrate the cognitive side of learning (about natural science, numbers, space, geometry, geography, etcetera) with the meta-cognitive side of learning (self-reflection, self-monitoring, self- evaluation, self-correction) through adventure-based experiential activities.

These could involve activities such as abseiling, canoeing, rock climbing, parachuting, horse riding, cycling, high wire activities, high and low rope courses, group dynamic and team building activities, raft building, bridge building, survival camps and adventure racing.

At Lilyfontein, these programmes are compulsory and are run as part of the everyday Life Orientation Learning Programmes.

Learners are placed in challenging real life situations where there are real, tangible consequences and are required to engage with peers, educators and leaders to work towards a specific goal. A learner engaged in an adventure-based activity is required to act reflectively, to consider the best approach to a situation, analyse and evaluate his/her action and then make the most effective decision in order to carry out the next step. This real life (as opposed to simulated or classroom) situation and the high-risk nature of adventure-based activities serve a strong developmental purpose, as both conscious and subconscious mental processes are employed.

Take abseiling as an example of an individual, adventure-based learning activity. In doing this, a learner must decide to lean into the safety gear at the edge of the cliff and assume the correct position for abseiling. They must overcome the fear and uncertainty of this unnatural position and decide to make the first move to start the abseil. They must plan and execute a safe route down the cliff face alone while controlling the anxiety caused by doing so, and, at the bottom, must demonstrate self-discipline to keep control of their elation until all the safety procedures have been observed and completed.

The programme consists of these individual learning activities and group dynamic activities that involve placing learners in a situation where a specific outcome has to be accomplished, but within a group context.

By repeatedly putting learners into these types of situations, adventure-based education enables them to internalise the techniques required for successful achievement of their goals.

My master’s and PhD research conducted at Lilyfontein School shows that adventure-based activities equip learners with strategies that help build confidence, enhance problem solving skills and produce independent thinkers who are able to not only cope better with decision-making but also with emotional phenomena such as fear, anxiety and conflict. Our 100% matric pass rate since 2008 is testimony to the success of the programme.

The next step is to grow our Adventure Department to be able to offer our curriculum to other schools and businesses and to add a post-matriculation year of adventure-based experience with a focused mathematics component. Unfortunately, I will not be the one to take this project forward as I retire later this year, but I am confident that the Adventure Programme I leave behind and the highly skilled team that runs it will ensure the success of this next phase of growth for Lilyfontein School.

Dr Galbraith is principal of Lilyfontein School, Eastern Cape. For more information please contact office@lilyfontein.co.za or call 043 737 4258




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