We humans have a tendency towards gratuitous violence which is largely absent in the other species with which we share the planet. Take, for example, the ‘gangs of drug and alcohol crazed knife-wielding hoodies‘ who, if we are to believe the media reports, have come to terrorise our streets nowadays. But what of the violence we do by the moralistic way in which our culture can label and demonise our young?
The Guardian recently reported that the most common word used in the press to describe teenage males is ‘yobs’, followed closely by ‘thugs’, ‘sick’ and ‘feral’. A survey commissioned by the newspaper found that 60% of newspaper reports about teenage boys concerned crime and 90% “showed them in a bad light”. To test the validity of this negative reporting, the researchers interviewed a sample of 1000 teenage boys from a range of backgrounds across the UK and found a very different picture, demonstrating the great majority to be ambitious, career minded, home-loving and generally happy with life. That somehow accords better with what instinct and experience tells me about a troubled and alienated minority who dominate our attention.
But in the West – and especially here in Britain – we have an unhappy leaning towards expressions of moral outrage that close down rational thought and debate. The reactionary newspapers and both main political parties regularly speak of the need to ‘crack down hard’ on youth crime and anti-social behaviour. This despite the fact that the UK already incarcerates more teenagers than any other European country. And many of these young people, instead of being diverted from offending, find themselves confirmed in a criminal identity and on the road to becoming the ‘old lags of the future’.
So why is it that we project such fear and loathing onto our young? Would we not do better to question the psychological dysfunctions of the culture we have created for them to grow up in? Born to mothers who are often unable or unwilling to naturally feed them; their emotional needs increasingly unmet by families who, if they remain intact, are too busy with careers or simply making ends meet to nurture them; regimented, uniformed, tested, assessed and schooled to conformity from tender years; and then, from early adolescence, exploited as another consumer market. Of course, this paints as irrationally bleak a picture of 21st Century family life as does the biased media reporting of feral teen behaviour. But, nevertheless, it does seem that many aspects of our modern lifestyles undermine our ability to adequately nurture our young and to offer them any meaningful rites of passage.
For 15 years I ran a charity, the Basecamp Trust, which I founded to provide alternatives to custody for young people in difficulty with their lives. The Trust closed in 1996 in a difficult funding climate owing to the preferred punitive measures of the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and following the much too early death of our staunch supporter and active trustee, the remarkable Maggie Keswick Jencks.
Our basic premise was the ‘therapeutic’ benefits to be gained from experiencing the natural world, far removed from a young person’s everyday life and – usually urban – influences, in which they could look afresh at their problematic behaviour and relationships. Home for a few weeks became our remote residential centre surrounded by forest and without electricity or telephone and water collected from a spring. Or else out on expedition in the hills, mountains, rivers and coast of Scotland.
Outdoor education in the UK grew up around the ‘romantic’ tradition combined with ideas of service, leadership and outdoor challenge as pioneered by Baden-Powell’s ‘Scouting for Boys’ and, later, Kurt Hahn and the Outward Bound movement. So, in our British culture, adventure ‘training’ assumed authoritarian overtones and middle-class notions of service, achievement and endeavour that did not always seem appropriate to the disturbed lives of the young people with whom we worked – and to which they tended to react with hostility.
Our approach was to allow the weather and the challenging natural environment to be the teacher, the provider and the task-master, setting the disciplines and parameters within which young people could experiment anew with socialisation in settings where the physical consequences were immediate and not easily manipulated. For instance, at our centre we kept pigs (who were consistently affectionate with and never judgmental of their young carers); we prepared for forays into the hills from scratch (with shelter-building and ‘flint and steel’ fire-lighting skills), and we worked to reduce any Rambo-esque conceptions of outdoor survival in an ethos of co-operation, collaboration and community.
Sometimes we could observe successes with young people. At other times the mountain of a lifetime’s emotional damage proved insurmountable given the limitations of our involvement. But over the years we pioneered collaborative programmes with residential homes, secure units, diversion-from-custody schemes, drugs projects and the Prison Service, always involving care staff and community ‘mentors’ to enable developmental work to continue back in the home environment. We also pioneered the training of staff and volunteers because recruiting individuals who were competent both in the ‘directive’ instructional skills of outdoor activities and in the ‘facilitative’ groupwork approach that underpinned our use of these activities was always challenging.
Basecamp closed in 1997. It is a sad fact that since then the number of 15 to 20 year olds in custody in the UK has doubled and punitive responses continue to hold sway over developmental interventions and alternatives to custody. But I was fortunate to be able to undertake some commissioned research on adventure as a developmental medium before I left youth social work. I include details of the published research below because I believe they are as relevant today as when they were first published.
The Role and Value of Outdoor Adventure in Young People’s Personal and Social Development
A Review of Research by Jon Barrett and Dr. Roger Greenaway
Commissioned by the Foundation for Outdoor Adventure
Publisher: Foundation for Outdoor Adventure Date: 1995 ISBN: 1 900 170000
The Institute for Outdoor Learning is currently (2011) preparing a reprint with a new preface. To pre-order a copy email firstname.lastname@example.org . For overview of contents and references go to Roger Greenaway’s site at http://reviewing.co.uk/wad.htm
ADVENTURE-BASED INTERVENTIONS WITH YOUNG PEOPLE IN TROUBLE AND AT RISK
NAOE/Basecamp Trust Conference Proceedings
Edited by Jon Barrett
With a foreword by the late Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine KG., CBE., DSO.
Publisher: Basecamp Trust Date: 1994 ISBN: 0 952424304
(Some Adventure Therapy links follow the Gallery below)
ADVENTURE THERAPY LINKS
British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy – http://www.bacp.co.uk/5iatc/finding_out_more.php
Association for Experiential Education – http://www.aee.org/
Institute for Outdoor Learning (UK) – http://www.outdoor-learning.org/index.htm
Help to Heal – http://www.helptoheal.co.uk/adventure-therapy.html
Adventure Therapy & Wilderness/Nature Therapy – http://wilderdom.com/adventuretherapy.html