It is not uncommon to meet people who are incredibly enthusiastic to tell you about the experience they had as a young person on a school or youth club residential trip.
Something about it seems to stick in the memory and the stories are always accompanied by a wistful look and a smile. At a recent event promoting the work of our children and young peoples’ team, the guest speaker (a participant on one of our programmes) described their Brathay experience as being “sprinkled with fairy dust”. The experience had clearly had a profound effect for him.
Many of us have an innate sense that this type of residential learning experience is a fundamentally good and positive thing and here, as elsewhere, was confirmation. But is this type of anecdotal evidence enough to keep alive a thriving community of professionals and resources to deliver them in an increasingly competitive environment?
Our Research Hub and others (for example, Learning Away) have been endeavouring to understand what this ‘fairy dust’ is: What are the vital components that make a residential programme a potentially transformational experience? Can a #brilliantresidential contribute to meaningful learning and sustained positive change? How do we bottle the fairy dust to ensure we articulate the value in what we do and secure the future of this provision?
There are some recurring themes in the research findings:
Relationships – This is both the nature of relationships present during the residential, the depth of connection that is created during the experience (peer to peer and with staff), as well as the capacity to build positive relationships in the future. Pippa Knott, at the Centre for Youth Impact recently wrote an interesting blog about the power of relationships, which mirrors much of what our research shows.
A neutral safe space – Here at Brathay we work with young people from across the UK. Some, as part of a whole school or class experience and some with a more focussed need, perhaps as part of an employability programme like the Prince’s Trust, or as part of a wider support programme for more vulnerable groups. Time away from the everyday environment, expectations and norms, can provide an opportunity to gain new perspective, to reflect and understand yourself and your world more clearly.
Learning experientially – Understanding that it’s not just ok to make mistakes, it’s a core part of learning, growing and succeeding! A good residential experience creates and holds a learning environment that promotes experimentation and autonomy of learning. How often have any of us recited the phrase “you have to learn it for yourself”?
Challenge – At Brathay, a cornerstone of our philosophy is “challenge by choice”. But this is only achieved once the above conditions have been created: rapport through relationships, safe spaces and an experiential approach. Through this process young people identify and decide for themselves what their challenges are. They find, with support, the ability to embrace, overcome or accept them.
It is a combination of these conditions, adapted dynamically and expertly to the individual and to the group, that allow us to promote wellbeing. We believe wellbeing is the foundation of learning and development and this is more meaningful and sustainable when developed through empowerment and agency. We have a well evidenced Awareness-Choice-Action framework to guide our practice (Maynard & Stuart, 2018).
We, like many other residential providers, are endeavouring to understand and evidence what makes the experience the best it can be. We gather evidence from participants, both past and present, gaining insight into the lasting impact these opportunities can have. We are building this understanding and evidence base, in order to articulate impact, to continually improve what we offer, but most of all, to ensure the essence of fairy dust is sustained for this and future generations.