Outdoor adventure can reveal unexpected strengths in children with special needs, as Mary Hampshire discovered
As the wind lashes across Ramsley Reservoir at Sheffield, 12 children battle to paddle in a straight line. "Pull through the water, and make sure you sit low in the canoe," shouts instructor Adam Tracey, 20. His voice is momentarily drowned out by the blusters and shrieks of excitement and intrepidation. "That stops the wind from blowing you over," he adds.
It is the first time most of these special needs pupils, from The Northern Primary Support Centre, Kirkby, Merseyside, have been away from home - let alone tried adventure sports.
Behind the fun and drama of this one-week residential in Derbyshire's Peak District is a serious aim - boosting self confidence and teamwork skills. Outdoor adventure education, argue enthusiasts, helps motivate children to overcome social and economic, as well as physical and psychological disadvantages, by revealing new strengths in a non-academic environment.
The Merseyside group has a range of moderate learning difficulties. These include problems with visual perception, auditory discrimination and the spoken word, as well as physical clumsiness and emotional immaturity.
"We try to compensate for their disadvantages," says deputy head Alan Taylor. "Residential weeks like this set interesting targets and goals. These kids are not easily self motivated. They need to be pushed by people who have high expectations of them.
"If they're faced with similar challenges again, hopefully they'll recall what they've learned here and rise to them with more confidence."
In spite of the benefits, opportunities for outdoor pursuits have become restricted by financial and other pressures. "In spite of the efforts by educationists in the 1960s, opportunities in the 1990s are being reduced, " says Roger Putnam, director of the Foundation For Outdoor Adventure, a charity which commissions research and develops educational programmes.
"Many teachers feel they have to jump through hoops to get to the outdoors. Outdoor pursuits are no longer a mandatory part of the national curriculum; teachers struggle to fit them in," he says.
There may also be concern about legal action against negligence since the Lyme Bay tragedy five years ago when four children died when their canoes capsized. Subsequently, tighter regulations requiring providers to be licensed for school trips have been introduced.
At Ramsley Reservoir, the children are equipped with buoyancy aids and have a teacher in each canoe. They go through warm-up games and exercises to get used to the water. Most scream with delight, being more interested in getting as wet as possible than anything else.
Others are more timid. Leslie Chapman, 11, who previously excelled on the climbing wall, metamorphoses. "I'm scared. I want to get out," he cries, and is gently persuaded to stay in the canoe, while another child alternates between laughter and tears, excitement and fear.
"Activities like this can be a powerful catalyst for change," says Mark Tozer, chief instructor at Parson House Outdoor Pursuits Centre. "Sometimes it's a case of admitting: 'Okay, I'm scared. But grit and determination will see me through.' These kids learn to recognise and transfer those qualities from the outdoors activities to other aspects of life.
"It's healthy to encourage risk-taking within a controlled environment. Some teachers may cringe at that. But, whatever you do in life, you have to take a leap of faith, once all reasonable precautions are taken," continues Mark, a qualified teacher, cave explorer, mountaineer and rock climber.
The benefits of team work, encouragement and the exhilaration of achievement are readily observed during the climbing session. Most adults would struggle to control their nerves when scaling a 30-foot wall. When the children falter, they are egged on by their peers. Many get to the top, achieving beyond their expectation.
After climbing, some have a go at bouldering: traversing across the climbing wall, which requires not just physical effort but draws on planning skills and setting goals.
"The children use motor skills they're not normally challenged on," says Mark. "They increase their confidence by achieving more than they believe they're capable of; and they gain awareness of the need for co-operation. Even if a child doesn't reach the top of a climb, they still gain from being an anchor and supporting the others."
Outdoor adventure can be a great leveller, says Mark. "I've found some of the bigger lads, full of bravado in the classroom, crumble. One shy boy, who was picked on, turned out to be brilliant at abseiling and climbing. That gave him a lot more kudos with his classmates."
It's a philosophy he can relate to personally. "I was one of those clumsy kids at school who was always average at everything until I tried climbing," he says.
Mark once fell 120 feet when his rope broke while climbing in north Wales. He spent six months in rehabilitation after suffering a ruptured kidney, punctured liver and fractures to his leg, pelvis and wrist.
"What happened to me was an unfortunate accident. I don't regret climbing for a minute, because it's given me such a tremendous feeling of self worth. "
He believes that the risks of outdoor sports have been subject to exaggeration. Between 1987 and 1997, there were 10 deaths arising from outdoor adventure activities. During the same period there were 1,000 fairground accidents, of which 13 were fatal. "Yet, outdoor adventure providers must comply with government legislation to operate, while fairgrounds have been advised merely to tighten up on safety," explains Mark.
By the evening, the children look pleasantly tired and contented at surviving the rigours of the day.
"The canoeing was a lot of fun, and made me feel good," grins James Pearson, 10. "But I didn't like the caving. I was a bit afraid of the dark."
Helen Scott, 11, admits to disliking the obstacle course but felt a bit more confident when her friends held her hand to get through.
Meanwhile, Leslie Chapman seems to have conquered some of his fears about canoeing. "I was scared," he admits, "but I'm still glad I did it because I'm not so nervous about it now."
Parson House Outdoor Pursuit Centre, Ramsley Reservoir, Longshaw, Sheffield S11 7TZ. Tel: 01433 631017