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Residential Camps in Australia - what next?

Broadly speaking, outdoor education experiences are delivered via residential camps or journey based (‘expedition’) programs. Sometimes both means are connected as part of a broader outdoor education sequence but frequently, especially where schools struggle with limited resources and budgets, they stand alone.

Academics and researchers sometimes take the view that the only valid or ‘pure’ outdoor education experience that leads to quantifiable outcomes is that offered by a multiple day journey – ideally five days in length or longer. In some cases, they have taken a further stance that outdoor education (OE) can only be delivered by tertiary qualified OE teachers.

So where does this leave residential camping?

If we accept the above position, a residential camp delivered experience – possibly of three days or less - must been seen as inherently limited in its ability to deliver curriculum based outcomes, especially as camp staff are not always tertiary qualified outdoor educators. Camps staff have sometimes been seen as either not skilled or experienced enough to work in 'real ' OE (ie journeys). Indeed, some providers have deliberately used camps as a stepping stone for junior staff to gather experience prior to ‘moving up’ to journey based programming.

Journey based providers have in many cases purchased their own residential camps, and for a range of reasons. Some are simply acquiring property in order to build equity and future borrowing capacity to be used when investing in equipment and infrastructure. For others, owning their own property helps avoid the cost of using third party venues when delivering a sequence and hence keeps more business in house. Camps, with their generally higher ratios and more controlled environments, were also a great way to gain access to schools and groups who couldn’t afford the journey based experience.

Many residential sites have long offered a ‘camp out’ under canvas - either on their property or close by - and have approached this activity in the same way they address any other, such as archery or high ropes, etc. Camp outs can be safely offered as staff are operating in a highly supported way generally close to the site, with easy vehicle access (in fact these campsites are often directly vehicle supported), offer simple road or track based navigation and have reliable communications in the event of an incident.

But all of this has begun to change.

More and more camps are now offering overnight off site journeys as a part of their suite of products. The impetus for this may in part be driven by the desire to work with clients at multiple points but it is also indicative of a growing awareness of sequential delivery, which must by definition include attention to staged outcomes. Of course, camps have been passive participants in sequential programming for decades, in that schools or providers used a camp simply as a venue to deliver a part of their own or their client’s sequence. This new trend shows that camps are now more actively engaged in sequential design on their own terms and are offering programs with direct and explicit links to Ausvels or PDHPE curriculum outcomes.

Camps offer a great opportunity for highly experienced and trained journey staff to keep working ‘9-5’ in the outdoors when family commitments preclude them being away in the field week in week out, or when they simply become physically unable or unwilling to carry a heavy pack or manage a river trip full time. The incidental effect of this is to bring these expedition trained staff into the camp environment, which in turn greatly increases a Camp’s ability to design and deliver effective programming.   

Let’s not forget that there has been a regular influx of highly trained specialist camp staff from the US and from Europe for many years. These folk bring an entirely different approach to what is educationally possible in the camp environment and they continue to contribute to the capacity of the sector in Australia.

At the same time camp clients - especially schools – have become more informed and better able to articulate their own program needs. An outdoor program must be economically sustainable and must meet the educational needs of the school and its students if the expense is to be justified. Camps have therefore raised the educational standard of their offerings both to remain competitive and retain business, and to maintain a point of difference. Specialist camp staff are now highly trained professionals and as such are being recognised less as aspirational journey staff and more as valued experts in their own right. The intellectual focus is shifting towards camps, bringing with it more hybrid residential / journey programming and increasingly curriculum and outcomes driven camp programs.

Add to this the continued cost pressures of journey based programming, ever growing class cohort sizes which limit the range of accessible public land options, dead time spent ‘off task’ travelling to and from often distant venues, increasingly prescriptive licencing conditions, and limited staff capacity (skills / numbers) impacting on availability during periods of peak demand and it is understandable that schools are looking for more resource effective and accessible ways to meet their needs. While there will always be a place for journey based outdoor programs, we believe that increasing demand for outdoor experiences will most likely be met by those camps able to innovate and adapt best to client needs.

As this develops over time, organisations that have based their business solely on journey based programming will need to adapt their operating models if they are to remain viable. Their investments will skew towards camps as, while there will be a continuing commitment to journey based programming, this can only become ever more elitist as a bespoke and costly product.

Does this mean that the Australian camps experience is becoming more ‘Americanised’? Not necessarily, but, with an increasing interest in holiday programs perhaps indicating the first steps towards a ‘Summer camp’ model, and with a constant flow of staff in either direction, we’d be blinkered if we didn’t look to learn from the US experience.

Conclusion

The Australian camps sector is in a strong position to thrive, especially as we improve our ability to align programming with outcomes that address societal concerns such as physical and mental health. Camp staff are becoming ever more skilled (they have always been dedicated!) and are well able to meet ever more sophisticated expectations. Clearly, the demand for a great camping experience is growing across all of society, from seniors to school children to people with disabilities and so on. The Australian Camps Association continues to support both the business capacity of camps and their ability to deliver high quality, meaningful and significant outcomes for all Australians.

Pete Griffiths, CEO,
The Australian Camps Association

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