From wilderness to webcam - the adaptability of the youth work approach!
Having to cordon off the mountains and lochs and meet our young people online from living rooms and kitchen tables, was a head scratching moment as Robin Jeffery, Delivery Manager of Venture Scotland explains.
Development and growth is sometimes hard won and often comes from unexpected places, but we were always confident that by braving the chilly waters of the North Sea, helping your team scramble in and out of a rocky coastline, swimming in sea swell and taking a big jump out of your comfort zone, guaranteed the growth that we have to offer.
It might be the simple realisation that you were capable of doing something you had never done before, and maybe never even thought of, or, like the plunge into the North Sea, it could go deeper and kindle a profound realisation that the script inside you which said you had no valuable skills and would never achieve anything, could be re-written and your future changed.
The charity I work for, Venture Scotland, offers an outdoor-based personal development programme. It uses the exploration of the beauty and wildness of Scotland’s natural spaces, to nurture and cultivate self-awareness.
I am conscious that Venture Scotland is balanced between two worlds, one is youth work and the other outdoor activities. The natural challenge of outdoor activities in inspiring landscapes balanced by the in-depth, positive, supportive relationships that we cultivate and which are the conduit for personal change.
Once the Covid-19 wave broke and the screws of lockdown tightened, we fell back on our youth work skills and engaged with our participants in what was effectively a digital youth club. Check-ins and reviews as standard but experimenting with film reviews, live home baking, quizzes, Pictionary, hang man - we tried it all!
And on the whole, it worked well, despite the Zoom fatigue. The safe, supportive and engaging space that is central to trust was able to help participants through the lows and provided some much-needed highs. Staff were on hand to provide one-to-one support and challenges were set, to get them outside exploring their local natural spaces.
But this was no substitute for our pre-Covid offer of a progressive, four stage, personal development programme. A programme that uses outdoor adventure activities like climbing, canoeing, gorge walking, wild camping and wilderness residentials in remote bothies to stimulate, inspire and help sustain young people’s desire and momentum to change themselves and their lives.
As you might suspect this does not pack down well into a Zoom session.
However, due to the fickleness of the Scottish weather and conditions, thinking creatively on our feet is well practiced by Venture Scotland’s Delivery Team. So, we put our thinking helmets on and set to trying to deliver a digital format of the first section of our programme.
In normal times, ‘Challenge’, the first part of our programme, begins with a beach or forest day where we get to know each other, employing the classic youth work tools of simple ice breakers, fun games and light touch reviews. The next day we visit a local climbing venue and build on the beach day’s introduction to the group and comfort zones.
The next three days are a big step outside of those comfort zones when they are asked to go away with people they have just met, even though by that point they had probably shared some intense experiences on the rock face or solved the conundrum of a human knot. The real core of Challenge though, is the bothy residential. Three days at a remote bothy (an old shepherd’s cottage), where we live together, eat together and share the experience together.
Clearly, replicating a beach day, climbing day and a residential online was a tall order. How do we replicate the satisfaction of reaching the top of a climb? How do we recreate the experience of sitting around a dinner table swapping stories in a bothy in the middle of nowhere?
Well, some things were beyond us, but we looked to our outcomes as a guide: positive engagement, trust in relationships and increased awareness of change.
Ice breakers and some games transferred surprisingly easy onto Zoom, others we mined from the wealth of resources and information that lockdown has provided. We had previously delivered The John Muir Award on our outdoor programme and it slotted in nicely to our digital offering. It encouraged our participants to get out and explore their local natural spaces, share their findings and maybe share a bit of themselves too. We knew well that silly games and adventures help to break down barriers and begin the process of building a team.
So we felt hopeful that after four weeks our participants would be ready for the final part of the Digital Challenge; the part that would attempt to model the bothy trip, where our participants could try leaving their old selves behind and experiment with new thoughts and behaviours.
Challenge echoed in our minds.
Challenge had to be there, but a challenge that was engaging and fun. A challenge that brought a team together to solve a problem, maybe to solve a mystery?
And that is what we went with.
Building on the challenges of the past four weeks, participants had to work together to choose and then complete a range of individual and team based challenges which won them clues to help solve the mysterious theft of an Etive heirloom…
A great plot and script were devised by Daniel, our Volunteer Co-ordinator, and staff delivered Oscar-winning performances playing the characters. Trials with existing groups have proved positive so at the very least it has to be better than watching another episode on Netflix!
As the wave of Covid-19 gradually recedes, we are left with new skill sets and old skill sets repurposed. It will be fascinating to see how we can inform and develop our programme once we get back to ‘normal’, weekly check-ins on Zoom could allow those who find it difficult to travel to have more contact with us and introductory chats on Zoom, may help young people feel more at ease, speaking from their own front room.
Clearly Zoom will not replace fireside reviews, wrapped up warm against the chilly night at our bothy in Glen Etive in the Highlands. But it has given us new tools to refashion old ways and improve our offer to our participants.