On the dark side
Learning under the pressure of caving
The unknown can be scary but it also offers adventure and challenge. David Gregory explores the benefits of caving as an outdoor activity as students learn how to lead under pressure.
What better way to challenge a group of students than to take them into a cramped cave in which your chest is flat to the ground and the roof grazes your back, then turn out the lights?
If this sounds like something you’d love to do, then Bungonia caves is the place to do it! Deep in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales and on the edge of the Shoalhaven Gorge, lies Bungonia National Park. It’s an easily accessible area not too far from the Hume Highway. Here there’s a stunning cluster of caves with a variety of challenges for all skill levels. Now even though I really enjoyed this experience, caving isn’t really my thing, so I’m not going to give you any technical details or advice about caving. If you’re going to do this, make sure you have an experienced guide to lead you, as every cave is different and presents different risks and challenges.
The benefits of caving
Caves are cramped and dark and provide an excellent opportunity for some great experiential learning. The cave I mentioned at the start is quite a short one, just tens of metres long. However, it can take a group ages to get through it in total darkness!
Caving is a fantastic activity for developing communication skills and teamwork. The fear factor that’s added in, with the total disorientation that comes with being in complete darkness, is the perfect way to test even the most confident of students (and teachers). Now this exercise isn’t about messing with people’s heads. It’s about building a team that can communicate, work together and develop a cohesive plan minus one of their most important senses. You really don’t understand total and utter darkness until you’ve been in a cave like this. There’s no glimpse of light from anywhere. You can literally hold your hand in front of your face and you won’t see anything, no subtle movement, nothing! It feels weird! Some students totally freak out, but if you’re leading the group, resist the temptation to just turn the lights back on. That’s a last resort and defeats the whole point of the exercise.
Once everyone has crawled down into the cave with their lights on, there’s an area in which you can gather everyone together and brief them on the task. Once you’re done, it’s lights off! Time to work together to get out. At this point, you get to see the group dynamics either gel or implode and it happens really quickly. Robbed of their ability to see, basically someone needs to show leadership and take charge using their other senses to start leading people out. But it can’t be reliant on one person: everyone must play his/her part. That’s why I love this activity, because it quickly forces people to accept or reject the team and the team leaders.
After the initial excitement of being in total darkness is over, you can expect the stress level of the group to increase, and they suddenly realise you’re not joking about getting out in darkness. This activity can bring a group together, in which case they’re usually out in a fairly short amount of time; it’s not that deep a cave. However, it can also tear a group apart with nobody wanting to take responsibility, poor communications and internal fears overwhelming students. This sort of experience is raw, challenging and can lead to some amazing teaching and learning moments.
Briefing and debriefing
No matter how long it takes your group to get out, the two most important elements of this activity for you are the pre-lights-out briefing and the post activity debrief. By carefully framing the activity and letting the students know this could be challenging, but they’ve got each other, you can guide their purpose and focus their minds. In the debrief of the activity, let them run through how they felt and how they found the communication and team dynamics and let them know how you felt in there as well. Even though it’s a safe activity, it can still be unnerving and make you feel uncomfortable too.
This activity puts people outside their comfort zones. In doing so students grow by adapting to meet the challenge of that discomfort. By providing positive feedback when the team pushes past their discomfort and grows, is ultimately the goal of this amazing experiential education activity.
It’s well worth a trip to the Southern Highlands or to any other similar caves.