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A Pedagogy of Place

Chapter 6

‘That Feeling of Familiarity’:
Developing Place-Responsiveness

~ Mike ~

As a researcher (and teacher) I am very conscious that it is relatively easy to critique and a lot harder to offer a realistic and viable alternative. Merely identifying an issue or problem with current theory and practice too often feels like unfinished business. I will sometimes read an academic article and come to the last paragraph and think ‘so what’? What difference will this make to how a program might be delivered or how students’ learning will be enhanced? In an attempt to ‘walk the talk’ and offer an alternative I have rewritten a paper (a unit of undergraduate study) that I teach and have modified the field work component to better support the theoretical aspects that have been introduced. My hope is that students who take the paper will come away better informed about the potential for outdoor education to enrich the lives of their students and their communities when they teach or lead in the future. This chapter details some of these changes made in the paper, both theoretical and practical, and several students’ perspectives on the field work component.

This case study draws on interview data from students who participated in a short journey as part of a compulsory component in the paper entitled Learning in Outdoor and Adventure Environments in 2009. This is an optional paper offered at second year level in the Sport and Leisure Studies department; the only requirement for entry is successful completion of first year level papers. Thus students can come from a variety of backgrounds and outdoor experiences. It is a popular paper with Sport and Leisure Studies students, Tourism students, and overseas students on exchange programs.

In 2008 I taught this paper for the first time and based the field work component on the model that had been used for several years by previous staff. This journey program began in 2009 and marked a shift from previous outdoor experiences offered to students at the University of Waikato.

Outdoor experiences pre-2009

Prior to my appointment the outdoor experience component was contracted to an outside provider that operated from a residential centre some hours’ drive from the university campus. The format for the program had largely been negotiated by my predecessor(s) and senior staff at the centre. The program consisted of what I would term ‘traditional’ outdoor education activities: goal setting, group initiatives; a series of half-day activities (e.g. abseiling, ropes course); a 36-hour journey including an overnight stay; and a final debriefing session. From an organisational perspective this was an easy way to conduct the program. Transport was booked via a local bus company and the outdoor centre provided consent forms, equipment lists and looked after risk management and all onsite logistics. As the lecturer I was free to ‘roam’ and observe various groups and participate as and when I wished. The program was run professionally and students had an enjoyable experience. However, several aspects of the experience troubled me:

  • We spent most of a whole day travelling to and from the centre which reduced time for participation.
  • I was conscious of the ‘hidden’ messages that were being conveyed to students (e.g. outdoor education requires specialist equipment and personnel).
  • The environmental impact of travelling to the centre was never questioned.
  • Promotion of the belief that outdoor education requires a wilderness environment to be effective.
  • The role of the ‘normal teacher’ (in this case me) was marginalised. The instructor was the expert and it was they who developed relationships with their group rather than the person who would have an ongoing involvement with the student.
  • There seemed to be an implied message that outdoor education is expensive – or certainly not cheap.
  • Outdoor education consists of a series of novel or exciting activities, (e.g. the flying fox across a gorge, or caving).
  • The difference between the location of the centre and the day-to-day lives of the students accentuated the separation of the outdoor experience from ‘real-life’.
  • The ‘consumerist’ approach inherent in this style of outdoor provision. For example, meals were cooked for students (except on their night out) and students could select activities from a list. It felt as if we were on a package tour – you’re met off the bus, exposed to a variety of experiences and then waved goodbye.

While the students generally came back enthused about their experiences many found the field trip to have been a repeat of their school outdoor education program and thus not particularly valuable in the context of this university paper. Some students were clearly ‘over’ this type of outdoor education. They appreciated the opportunity to get to know their classmates better but the activities were similar to, or a repeat of, what they had done as part of secondary school outdoor education or leadership camps.

Listening to the students’ responses, combined with my own experiences, reading around place-based education, and my recent arrival in the Waikato region spurred me to think about exploring the possibilities for a small journey in the local area as a viable field work option.

The development of the journey concept

In the semester that followed I spent some time exploring the local area and developing plans for a three-day journey which would begin and finish at the university campus. The Waikato region was an area I had passed through on many occasions but prior to moving here, it was not an area that I knew particularly well. The activities of kayaking on the river and long cycle rides in the countryside opened up possibilities for a modest, yet potentially interesting journey.

It is interesting settling in a new area. A ‘newcomer’ may look at features of the landscape in a different way to those brought up in the local area. The ordinary or mundane gives rise to questions such as what function did those stone foundations serve, or when was that bridge built and how did they build it? I think that many antipodeans experience a sense of awe when travelling to Europe for the first time – one gets intoxicated by the age and history of buildings when the locals look on in bemused wonder at what all the fuss is about.

The Waikato region is the hub of the dairy industry in New Zealand. Much of the land has been drained from its swampy past. Rural roads crisscross the predominantly flat landscape and serve as a conduit for the passage of milk tankers that make daily pilgrimages from farms to the processing plants. Intensive dairy farming has sculptured the landscape and the paddocks have largely been cleared of trees to facilitate ease of irrigation and stock movement. Small stands of native trees are now noticeable for their uniqueness – a vast change from a century or more ago when these lowland areas would have been covered in Kahikatea (a podocarp). It is through this large fertile basin that the Waikato River cuts its path; a path that has changed dramatically over time. The river itself has been ‘harnessed’ for hydroelectric power generation, the last dam being at Lake Karapiro, about 8kms upstream from where we begin paddling.

On the edges of this large basin lie a number of notable ‘mountains’. They are named mountains, and do stand out in an otherwise flat landscape, but it is a somewhat grandiose title given what are classified as mountains in the South Island. Several of these peaks are hilly and rugged enough to have either not have been cleared in the first place, or have proven uneconomic as farms and have been allowed to regenerate. One of the ‘mountains’ Maungatautari has become the centre of a much lauded and successful project to provide native flora and fauna with a chance to regenerate. It is interesting that one of the earliest and most intensely farmed areas in colonial times is also the site of one of the country’s most ambitious restoration programs. It is the contrast between the polluted streams and lakes in the lowlands and the efforts to restore the damage caused by pests (e.g. cats, mice, possums) and deforestation that captures many students’ attention and provides a powerful example of the effects of optimism in the face of adversity. It is a region of contrasts, both physically and culturally with the Crown recently (in 1995) making amends to the Tainui people for the injustices of illegal land confiscations and dispersion of communities.

Interestingly all of these features (the river, Maungatautari, dairy farms, and of course suburbia) are within a 30km radius of the university campus. The need to travel hundreds of kilometres to gain an outdoor education experience seemed, from my perspective, unnecessary.

I was conscious of a number of factors when designing the program. These included:

  • being ‘self-propelled’
  • utilising the resources in the area
  • using simple low-technology equipment that was readily available and inexpensive
  • taking time to pause and understand the local history and ecology of the places through which they travelled
  • providing a model of outdoor education provision that could be replicated by students in the future, and
  • avoiding an overt focus on risk as a means of learning yet retaining an element of challenge.

The journey has now been run for the last two years and consists of the following elements:

Day 1

The first day is a bicycle ride from the university, along country roads and through several townships, to a small village called Pukeatua. The distance is approximately 65kms and is a mixture of flat and undulating bitumen roads. The ride encompasses the outer edges of suburban Hamilton, country roads passing through dairy farms, horse studs and several small rural service towns, some no larger than a school to serve the local farming community. We camp in the Pukeatua Primary School’s playing fields. We arrive after school has finished and depart at about the start of the school day.

Day 2

This day consists of an approximately 18km walk from Pukeatua over Maungatautari (a local ‘mountain’ with a height of 797m) and then a 7km ride to a council-owned campsite on the shores of Lake Karapiro. Maungatautari is volcanic in origin and was once home to an estimated 5,000 people in pre-European times. Its abundant wildlife was supported by extensive forests on both the mountain and the surrounding lowland areas.

From the school we walk about a kilometre and enter the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust’s enclosure.1 The MEIT have placed a 47km pest-proof fence around the mountain and have completed a pest eradication program. The scale of the project is astonishing (e.g. 850,000 staples, 100,000m2 of fine steel mesh, 8,500 three-metre posts) and encloses 3,400 hectares. The removal of pests (rats, feral cats, possums) has allowed the forest to rejuvenate and the reintroduction of native birds such as the kiwi, takahē and hihi. Students are introduced to the aims of the trust, and we visit the aviary where recently arrived birds (e.g. kākā) are contained prior to release and climb the lookout tower which takes us up into the foliage and forest canopy. In addition to the birds the trust has also been successful in assisting in the preservation of geckos, skinks and the rare Hochstetter’s frog. We then traverse the mountain (inside the fence) and cross farmland to pick up our bikes and ride the final leg to the campsite.

Day 3

This day begins with a 9km ride into Cambridge from where we kayak down the Waikato River finishing at the Hamilton City Gardens (a paddle of about 25km). From there we walk the two kilometres back to the university campus. The trip down the river is in double sea kayaks and the river meanders through farmland, a short gorge, exclusive riverside properties and industrial areas. There are several public access points to the river via reserves and boat ramps. At various points on the river storm water discharge outlets are a common site as are pumps drawing water out of the river for irrigation and local town water supplies (after passing through treatment stations). The river is wide and follows a clear channel with no obstacles, apart from some willows near our point of entry. In many ways the ‘architecture’ of our experience mirrors European societies’ utilitarian approach to the river, which is in contrast to that of the local iwi (tribe), for whom it is alive and a source of spiritual significance. For example, an older established town such as Cambridge is built away from the river as in early times it served as their means of transport. Industrial subdivisions of the 1960s and 1970s were built with the rear of the properties facing the river and you can see discarded machinery placed away from public view. In other parts of the river you sense an awakening awareness of the scenic value of the river, with large houses built to take in the view and manicured gardens stretching down to the river’s edge.

In total we travel about 125kms over the three days and the three modes of travel provided different challenges and experiences.

Pedagogical impulse

As Brian mentioned in the previous chapter, journeys or expeditions have featured in many outdoor education programs. However, it would appear that for many New Zealand school students, if my undergraduates are a representative sample, the most common form of outdoor education experience was at a residential centre. Thus for most of these students the notion of going on a journey was novel. Each year two trips are run about a week or two apart. Given the number of students in the class it is necessary to contract a small outdoor education company who help to provide appropriate staff:student ratios. In addition we use a local kayak hire company and guide for the river section. However, none of the activities involves highly technical expertise and the students are only required to bring a bike and ‘sensible’ clothing for a three-day trip. Day packs and sneakers are suitable for the walk and most students have or can borrow a bike and tent – in fact students in the two groups often share resources.

The outdoor provider supplies a vehicle and trailer to transport food and bikes (for the shuttle around the mountain) and their instructors lead small groups over Maungatautari. The students are required to cook in small groups (first night) and communally (second night). The journey is both an opportunity for them to be a participant but also to ask questions of the staff. Often opportunities are taken at suitable ‘teachable moments’ to explain reasons for doing things in particular ways and to use stories of successful strategies when working with school groups.

As part of the journey, students are paired up prior to the trip and they can choose a topic relating to the history, ecology or cultural significance of the area through which we travel. At the appropriate times we stop and students share their knowledge of the local area (e.g. a particular plant, site of a battle between colonial troops and local Māori, or the environmental impact of power generation on the river). Not only do contributions come from these pre-prepared talks but often students who live nearby, or, in the case of some Māori students, whose families are linked to the area through many generations, add depth or different insights to the discussion. Thus the role of teacher – student (expert–novice) is disrupted as new insights are gained and contributions come from unexpected quarters.

This shared experience forms the basis of ongoing discussions in class and a means to connect theory with practice. For many students it serves as a stimulus to rethink outdoor education and question their beliefs about the taken-for-granted assumptions that they had based on school camps that consisted of a series of ‘fun’ activities. The sense of satisfaction (or maybe it was relief) on arriving back at university is palpable. In post-journey class discussions many students express surprise that they could have an ‘adventure’ so close to town. Many are amazed at the sense of ‘wilderness’ they felt on sections of the river (which may have only been 500m from the main state highway), while few knew of the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust, which is the largest such project on the New Zealand mainland.

Student perceptions: A small case study of a developing place-responsive outdoor education program

The following interviews were conducted with five2 ex-students about 15 months after they completed their journey. At the time of the interviews I was not teaching any of the students. Each student was interviewed individually and the recordings were transcribed. The interviews were of a ‘conversational nature’ based around a loose framework of questions. For example, I had an opening question, ‘what do you recall from last years’ journey?’ I might then have asked the student to expand on a point that they had made. This semi-structured format worked well with students with whom I had already shared the journey experience.

I read through the transcripts a number of times and consulted with a colleague, Crispian Hills, to confirm that my reading of the transcripts and the emergent themes were consistent with interviewees’ accounts. The interviewees were provided with a draft of this chapter for comments and feedback. Given the small number of interviewees I am hesitant to make any claims beyond the bounds of this program. What I have done is highlight some of the themes that have emerged from the discussions that I had with the students. The process has been useful in helping me to make sense of what the students, or at least some of them, might take from an embryonic place-responsive program. As part of the standard quality assurance mechanisms within the university, evaluations are conducted that provide some student feedback about the paper. However, the opportunity to speak with ex-students about their experiences has provided further valuable and insightful feedback in the ongoing development of both theoretical and practical aspects of the paper.

Journey: Generation of different meanings of outdoor education

Many of the students had some experience of outdoor education through school trips to one of the numerous outdoor education centres in the Waikato/Bay of Plenty region. These experiences of ‘traditional’ outdoor education meant that initially the journey approach was treated with some hesitation or mild confusion. As Dave stated;

Initially when I knew we would be doing the three-day field trip as opposed to the outdoor pursuits thing, I was, in a somewhat selfish way, a bit disappointed because I wanted to go and experience the high ropes and all the things that it has to offer; but in hindsight and even during the process and learning about the process of a place-based approach and the journey aspect, I’m rapt that I’ve done it because I just think it’s got a lot more meaning than going and jumping in a kayak or doing ropes as far as my use of it in future education of students.

Jan had studied outdoor education as part of the senior Health and Physical Education curriculum that had a heavy emphasis on the assessment of skills (e.g. rolling a kayak, tramping, etc.). The nature of the journey, with a lack of focus on technical skill development, instructor-driven lessons and assessment, meant that for Jan this was a new way of experiencing outdoor education.

I really enjoyed it and it was completely different to how I had … like, compared to my seventh form. Each night we went over what we enjoyed and things like that and that was completely different, I hadn’t experienced that before … at school it was kind of like, well, you do this you pass, if you don’t, you don’t pass, basically, so that was a big difference probably – was that you got to choose whether you wanted to do it or you didn’t want to do it.

There is no doubt that part of this difference observed by Jan relates to structural issues concerning assessment that differ between the secondary and university sectors. However, it also reflects an approach to learning that recognises the value of experiences as being of value in and of themselves, rather than as a largely unproblematic ‘resource’ that can be broken down into discrete parts against which a student can be assessed as competent (or not).

Sarah also contrasted the journey to her experiences as a school student where outdoor education was conducted at a residential centre.

I remember my time there: you got up at a certain time and you went and had breakfast. It was cooked for you, you just did the dishes afterwards and they said, right, today we’ll do this and we’re going to do this and followed by this, here’s your lunch, see you later, come back, lights out at a certain time, ready for the next day when we’re going to get on the bus and we’re going to go here and there, there, there and, like, we just went with the flow, we didn’t have to think about anything, we were just clowning around the whole time. So … yeah, it was a great, as a kid it was awesome, but there was no – it was just an experience, there was no sort of learning outcome or anything; it was just a really cool experience.

Despite Dave’s initial feelings, he described how for him the journey format had ‘more meaning’. In response to a request to clarify what he meant by the term ‘more meaning’, Dave replied:

More meaning in that it addressed issues such as environmental impact, getting to know your own area – like, one part of it we had to do a little … what do you call it, a little prepared sort of presentation on the local area and that in itself I found really interesting, just to learn about what’s happened in our local area and stuff; and I guess more spiritually fulfilling. Yeah.

Andy used the term ‘more special’ to describe his experience of being on the journey in places with which he already had a level of familiarity:

I feel that it was more special in the way that we’re very close to where we are rather than just up and leaving when we’ve already got it here …

Dave and Andy’s assertions that the journey provided an opportunity to connect with their local area, as something special or more meaningful, was also re-iterated by other interviewees.

Increased or differing awareness of place(s)

The opportunity to be ‘immersed’ in the environment, as compared to being cocooned in a vehicle, provided different ways of experiencing the taken-for-granted aspects of the local environment. The students expressed this different appreciation for the places they encountered on the journey, which they frequently pass through in their day-to-day lives, by reference to direct experience and the opportunity to research and share their knowledge of the cultural significance of places.

One of the defining features of this area is the Waikato River (hence the name of the region and the university) that wends its way through the city of Hamilton. It is not possible to live in Hamilton without encountering the river on a daily basis, albeit most likely from a car crossing one of the many bridges. However, this view from ‘on high’ looking down at the river conveyed a very different impression than that gained from being on (and partially in) the river. As Dave explained:

The kayak back down the river was awesome and it was also somewhat eye opening to me because I wasn’t expecting the level of pollution that there was or the level of development; I mean, I knew that we were going through a predominantly farming area but I expected there to be some pockets of bush or something along the way as opposed to just fringes on the side around towns and that. Yeah, it opened to my eyes to the level of pollution in the river.

Andy spoke about the different way of seeing the countryside as compared to passing through it at high speed in a car:

it was taking you on a different sort of journey … as you were biking you were actually really taking in what you were biking past… when you’re on your bike you’re sort of actually really looking around at where you are and what you are doing so it’s something quite different and you really actually take it in. So what you’re doing is quite special, I guess.

Sarah commented that the slow pace of the journey and the frequent stops on the cycling leg forced her

to look at the environment and smell the horses and see everything. Yeah. So that had a big part in it …

Slow(er) paced travel enabled an appreciation and interaction with place(s) that resulted in the formation of different perspectives. The smell of the water or horses, the snaking ribbon of bitumen through farmland and the body’s response to hills or the rise and fall of the kayak contributed a richness to the students’ experiences.

Greater awareness of the local

Most of the students interviewed came from the Waikato area or surrounding districts and several of them made mention of the impact of travelling in areas that were familiar, or of seeing aspects of the local environment in a different light.

Sarah expressed satisfaction that she was able to complete a journey in her ‘own area’. She stated, ‘it was nice for me because it was familiar’.

It was great doing it in the Waikato, and because I know the area, I know Pukeatua, I’ve got people, friends that live there and stuff so it was … yeah … nice, for me nice to do things in an environment that I knew.

Andy expressed a similar sentiment:

we could have actually gone somewhere else and done a very different thing and it probably wouldn’t have meant as much to a lot of the people but since we did it here there was such a great experience, like, real close proximity to us where we actually already live and I think that was really wicked, I think that that’s a real cool part … It was so different and new yet it was only just over there so there was that feeling of familiarity with the place, yeah.

On one of the trips we did a small (3–4 hour) project cleaning lichen off the predator proof fence at Maungatautari. The fence is constructed of fine mesh atop which is a metal panel which prevents cats or mice climbing up and over the fence. If too much lichen builds up it might be possible for the animals to gain a grip on this smooth surface. Andy described his reaction to this experience as follows:

Learning all that stuff at Maungatautari was really quite interesting … just about all the, I don’t know, just the wildlife and how they preserve it and even the fencing and stuff was quite enjoyable. And it was really interesting because of how much people all knew about that mountain and then when we went to clean the railings, everyone just got into it because they actually felt like they were a part of what they were trying to achieve with that place; it wasn’t like, ‘oh shit we’ve got to do some cleaning’, it was a bigger picture, you know, we were trying to keep predators from going in there and wrecking that environment.

The enthusiasm from the students, working with volunteers from the trust, was most surprising. The realisation that a whole mountain could be fenced off, and noticeable advances in the regeneration of flora and fauna could occur in a short timeframe, seemed to capture their imagination. We were lucky that while in the enclosure we had seen kākā fly right up to us and the students’ eyes would light up as they realised the privilege of such an encounter. I also think that as this project was ‘in their backyard’, was funded entirely from donations and volunteer workers, and was something that they could contribute to in a visible and immediate manner, it was highly appealing and meaningful to the students.

Simon stated that one of the high points of the trip was the peer presentation where he was able to share information about the area with his classmates. He and his partner told of the pre-European settlement at a site and the effect of colonisation and the resultant displacement of the local tribe. In a simple, but effective manner, they were able to point out where the present town boundary, which today is a wire fence, marked the limits of the land designated to be under the control of colonial troops.

That was good because it sort of, like, brought out my Māori side I suppose, and what happened around that area. I’m not from around that area but what we researched at that time was quite fascinating.

He went on to state that for him it was important that his classmates were made aware of the pre-European history of the area and the impact that conflicts over land ownership had on local Māori. Simon was interested in not only the cultural and historical relationship that people have had with the land but also the impact of changes in geology, wrought over a
longer period.

I think it’s good because you get to understand what had happened there: have there been any changes since then? Like, you know, the river might have dried up by now or something but before it was a river and you could see the deltas or something like that and that’s interesting, and that to me is what … that interests me.

I was able to tell Simon how on the most recent trip I had stopped at the spot where he and his partner had made their presentation and retold the story that they had shared the previous year. Simon’s response was interesting;

Exactly and it’s good that … see, so you’ve told somebody else then they might remember it now then they’ll, you know, and if ever they ever go over there with family they can pass on that knowledge as well so that’s why I think it’s good to make sure that everyone sort of knows what used to be in certain areas.

For Simon, as Tāngata Whenua (a person of the land), connection to the land and sense of identity is not restricted to present ownership rights or usage, but is a matter of connection through multiple generations of occupancy and migration.

Developing creativity and possibilities

Part of my rationale for conducting this small journey was to disrupt existing models of outdoor education provision, or at least provide an alternative approach for students to draw on should they, in future, be in a position to organise or have input into a school-based outdoor education program. While not overtly promoting a place-responsive journey as the way to do outdoor education, I had hoped that students would see this as a viable alternative, rather than reverting by default to the belief that outdoor education could only be provided by specialists in a wilderness location. It was interesting to hear that several of the students would consider implementing such a program. Sarah, for example thought that she might be able to use the principles of this type of journey in a primary school context.

Even if you just started off small like half-day things, like say, yup we’re going to bike to this nature reserve or whatever, we’re going to do a little study and we’ll come back to school to carry on and then step up to like a day thing and then perhaps an overnight thing.

Dave found the whole experience more satisfying than he had initially imagined. The slower pace, the lack of rushing from activity to activity and the space to engage in lengthy conversations with fellow students while walking, riding or paddling changed the dynamics in the class. As Dave indicated:

I felt more … I don’t know, more satisfied, more … just yeah, more satisfied … and it sort of opened up to the possibilities of Outdoor Education rather than just think go camping, go high ropes or whatever; that there were other things we could do, yeah.

Jan picked up on the points made earlier about the value of the local and the realisation that travelling is not always necessary. If the option to travel elsewhere is set aside, then new possibilities for creativity may arise. As Jan suggested:

You don’t have to drive somewhere all the time. Yeah, like I never thought we’d be able to do so much in that three-day trip from university … I definitely think we can be creative and think of things to do and places to go and what you could do and stuff like that.

Sense of satisfaction – being self-propelled and returning to the point of departure

The financial cost and environmental impact of travelling several hundred kilometres by coach was one of the factors considered in developing the journey program. However, I was also keen to see if it was possible, within reason, to design a program that allowed the students to complete a trip ‘under their own steam’. In previous positions I’d both participated in and observed students journeying from one point to another or departing and returning to their home base or port. I had always sensed that departing and returning provided a sense of accomplishment for students and I was keen to encourage this if possible.3 This aspect of the journey was commented on by several of the students.

The whole idea that we went to a place and came back on our own steam, I thought was really good. And, you know, from an environmental perspective, an achievement perspective, all of that was just a good idea and a way of doing things, I thought. (Dave)

It seemed so just basic and I think that was quite a wicked way to do it – just that everyone, you know, you packed a bag, there wasn’t all these extras, you were kind of just doing it the long hard way but in the end it was just so much more rewarding. (Andy)

I liked the concept of we powered ourselves the whole way. (Sarah)

I think it’s great starting here and finishing here; like, not having to get in a bus to travel somewhere to do an activity and then travel all the way back. Like, when we finished our three-day trip last year it was quite good because it was a sense of accomplishment – like, whenever I see Maungatautari I always say, well I walked over that, I rode all the way. Like, it was quite a big thing to start somewhere and then go right round kind of thing and come all the way back, I thought that was pretty neat. I really enjoyed that. (Jan)

Sarah also spoke of the difference in emphasis that she experienced as a result of the journey format. Sarah expressed a new appreciation for the environment that is ‘passed through’ and ignored in much day-to-day
life. She made reference to her experiences of outdoor education in the past where the focus was very much on the destination rather than the journey – the bus trip was a necessary and tedious ordeal to get to the
OE centre.

If you’re driving in a vehicle or something you’re not thinking about where you are or you’re not consciously looking at your environment, you’re just waiting for the destination … (Sarah)

Andy also picked up on the importance of ‘how you got there’ as part of the experience:

I found a lot of the experience to me was the enjoyment of where you actually went and how you got there, so the things that you did on the way and the things that you saw. I thought that was the more important part of it.

It is encouraging to see students reflect on place and how it is experienced as inherently pedagogical rather than as merely a site for activities. Andy went on to explain:

we could have done that whole three-day thing simply in an afternoon really if we had taken a bus there, gone to Maungatautari, came down, gone to the river, paddled a bit and then hopped back in a car and driven back, you know, and that would have taken away the whole special part of the experience, you know; and I think that’s what’s quite unique about it [the journey] you feel as though you’ve accomplished something so you can actually tell the story about from however long the cycle was, you know …

Simon commented on the bike ride as being difficult for him due to his self-admitted lack of fitness. Along with some of the other students he found riding for most of the day (albeit slowly with lots of stops) and sitting on a bike seat a challenge. Thus developing a place-responsive program does not necessarily indicate that physical challenges will not be present nor does it negate the claims of bonding and team cohesion associated with more traditional programs. For example, Simon’s statement about the ride:

we sort of bonded a bit more because we were going through it all together; you know, we could feel each other’s pain I suppose.

Jan also commented on her desire to push her boundaries and find physical challenges:

my goal was for the biking not to get off my bike and walk uphill and I completed that so I was pretty happy with that. I don’t know, I just recall trying to do … like, not regret anything so for the tramp I made sure I went on the harder one more than the easier walk, I just – I didn’t want to miss out on anything, I wanted to do, you know, everything the hard – you know, if it was possible, the harder way kind of thing.


As a compulsory component of this paper the cost of providing the practical activity comes out of student course fees rather than being an add-on cost charged to the student. Thus there are financial constraints and budgetary considerations. As all providers will acknowledge, there is a price point which meets with increasing consumer resistance. While not being the sole driver, costs are important. Like school principals, outdoor education co-ordinators and parents, I am not immune from having to deal with the reality of justifying costs associated with the provision of outdoor education. Although planning a journey of this nature is more time consuming than using an outside provider, the costs are substantially less.

The need for students to buy or hire specialist outdoor equipment is also reduced. Dave (a parent himself) saw a place-responsive program as:

A viable alternative and an enriching experience, and for me in particular – I’m referring to that ‘future use’ thing – I want to work with kids from a lower socio-economic group and I think it just opens pathways into getting activities that are more affordable for them.

Jan contrasted this experience to her exposure to more skills-based programs. Implicit in this comment is an appreciation of the potentially restrictive aspect of outdoor education that focuses on the acquisition of technical skills.

[Getting] skills is one thing but just the enjoyment of students to be able to get out there and do it without costing them an arm and a leg and I think that’s really good.

Andy referred to one of the highlights of the trip being the (apparent) simplicity of the activities and the fact that it would be possible to repeat the trip, or aspects of it, with friends. He also repeated the appeal of the relatively inexpensive approach to outdoor education:

since then I’ve wanted to take a few people back there, you know, and show them what I did because it’s not an expensive way to do it or anything like that.

As students on limited budgets with competing demands, several made comments about their perceptions of the affordability of such a program:

I thought that was pretty good actually because it was just using what we had and we didn’t have to go anywhere to get – or get any special stuff; like, you could use any bike and could do any decent kind of shoes, I thought it was very good actually. (Jan)

Linked with affordability are issues of ease of access and the opportunity to repeat or revisit places of meaning and interest. As Jane mentions in chapter eight, attending a residential centre for a series of activities may be fun and stimulating but students’ ability to repeat these experiences or share them with family members may be limited due to specialist knowledge/equipment, the need to be part of a larger group booking, and the remote location on private land. One of the attractions for Sarah was the ability to either repeat aspects of this trip or to find other activities of a similar nature in the area.

Like, anyone in the weekend could go, ‘oh yup I’m just going to do something’ … there’s always opportunities and it opened my eyes to see that you can just go out and find things to do that are relatively cheap and don’t take that much [money] … It was good, it just opened my eyes to what’s out there in the Waikato.

Sarah felt that her previous outdoor education experiences, based at residential centres had led her to believe that:

you could only do outdoor activity things if you were going somewhere. Whereas this one it was – yeah, like just made everything so accessible and you could see that you can do it anywhere and anytime.

Like all through school … it doesn’t seem anything’s run in that area – you’re always on a bus somewhere for a couple of hours, do something, and then you’re back on the bus to school for a couple of hours … like, at school and stuff you sort of were given the impression you’re going somewhere exotic and fun and you could only do these fun and cool things if you were away and … yeah, but it’s not the case at all, you just get outside and do something.

Several of the students have been back to Maungatautari with family members and Simon described how his son went there as part of a school trip. Simon expressed pleasure at being able to talk to his son about his experiences, and the pictures that his son drew encouraged dialogue about what both had seen and enjoyed about the reserve.

I have now completed this journey a number of times, as well as doing various sections of it with friends and family. Each time I return, my understanding and connection is enriched, be it through observing a change in the developments at Maungatautari, hearing new stories about the places we visit (e.g. on a recent trip one of the students who grew up on a farm at Pukeatua told of how the post office was blown up by would-be burglars), or sharing stories and experiences with a new group of students. What was once unfamiliar and new is becoming more familiar, more rewarding, and more enriching as an educational experience.

Students cleaning animal enclosures

“Each time I return, my understanding and connection is enriched, be it
through observing a change in the developments at Maungatautari,
hearing new stories about the places we visit ... or sharing stories and
experiences with a new group of students.”


This three-day journey in the local environment is not inherently risky, in the sense associated with much outdoor education practice. It is does not contain any startling educational innovations, but hopefully it will have planted a small seed in the minds of some of the participants about alternatives and possibilities. Students conveyed a sense of satisfaction at completing a self-propelled journey that contrasts with the fast-paced life they normally live; juggling part-time jobs, study, family, social and sporting commitments. The ‘immersion’ in place(s) provided the opportunity for students to engage at multiple levels, at a sensory and visceral level (e.g. the smells of animals or the ache in the legs as they rode) as well as encouraging them to think, imagine and reflect on their impact on the places that they inhabit (e.g. the positive effect of fencing a mountain or the consequences of particular farming practices on water quality). The issues raised are not ‘out of sight, out of mind’; they must engage with the river everyday as they travel around town, nor are their memories consigned to a ‘mythical wilderness’ because they walk past the departure and return point of the journey each day they come to university. It also illustrated the potential for a more egalitarian form of outdoor education or personal recreation that does not require high tech clothing or skills honed over many years.

This form of outdoor education might not be seen as adventurous or character-building by advocates of adventure education but it is rooted in sound pedagogical principles. Perhaps of equal importance is that this form of outdoor education is potentially more sustainable, both environmentally and financially, thus making it possibly less likely to be removed from an already crowded school curriculum. As detailed at the beginning of the chapter this is not a finished project nor is it held up as an exemplary approach to place-responsive programming. It is, however, an example of how a place-responsive program has been designed and implemented. What I have tried to do is provide an opportunity for students to learn, not only about place-based education as an approach to outdoor education pedagogy, but an experience of a program that moves towards a responsiveness to place (Cameron 2003a).

At the time of writing the journey has been running for two years, it may well change subtly in the future based on student feedback and changing understandings of best practice. What I hope I have illustrated is that it is possible to introduce a place-responsive program in an urban setting, albeit bordering large tracts of rural land. In one sense this journey differs markedly from those described by Brian (in chapters six and nine). Yet in another it also strives for simplicity and valuing the quality of ‘everyday’ experiences that was a feature of the River Murray journeys. Students were encouraged to engage in places that were familiar, places that they had frequently driven past or seen in the distance.

There is no magic formula to follow, the fact that we cycle, walk, and paddle is largely determined by where we are. The stories that are told of the peoples of this area and the particular issues that we face (due to intensive agriculture) are of this place at this time. They will not necessarily resonate with you or your students. The challenge for educators is to be aware of and responsive to the place(s) in which we find ourselves.

The development of this small place-responsive journey signals my attempts as an educator to address some of the shortcomings identified earlier in this book. It is not a universal remedy or the best example of a place-responsive pedagogy. It is in its infancy and we, both my students and I, have some way to go on this path; for instance we still use a vehicle for logistical support and our food is sourced from the supermarket rather than local markets. It is not a finished product and at present it lacks the nuanced and subtle pedagogical expertise evidenced in the case study of Arthur Curl, a place-responsive educator (chapter nine). Hopefully this will come with time as my experience in the local landscape here, and with the students, deepens. But what I hope it does is provide you with some ideas for working with your own students in your place(s).

Raising awareness of the importance of place(s) is a modest and defensible claim, as evidenced in the comments of these students. While place-responsiveness may not match some of the grand narratives associated with traditional outdoor education programming I would hope that in some small way John Cameron’s (2003a, 195) suggestion that paying ‘closer attention to place relationships helps to sustain the individual, as well as the society and its environment’ holds true.

Cite this chapter as: Brown, Mike. 2011. ‘"That Feeling of Familiarity": Developing Place-Responsiveness’, in A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World, Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 123–143.

© Copyright 2011
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the copyright owners. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University Publishing.

A Pedagogy of Place

   by Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown