Lynley Bilby is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Switching off gives girls the power of survival

Could your teen live without technology? Meet the students who go digital cold turkey for a month. Lynley Bilby reports.
Issie Robinson, Pasi Talakai and Margot Cranshaw get to grips with yachting during their month-long outdoor education course at Kahunui in Bay of Plenty. Photo / Alan Gibson
Issie Robinson, Pasi Talakai and Margot Cranshaw get to grips with yachting during their month-long outdoor education course at Kahunui in Bay of Plenty. Photo / Alan Gibson

As the new school year begins, children throughout the country are turning up to class smartphones in hand, iPads in backpacks.

Born in the era of the internet, today's Millennials are digital natives raised on a diet of devices. Communication is instant, connection paramount.

But as smart technology embeds itself in every aspect of our lives, one top Auckland girls' school is pushing back, getting its tech-savvy pupils to switch off and discover new lessons outside the classroom, away from a computer.

For the past decade, St Cuthbert's College has sent 14- and 15-year-old girls away for a month to a purpose-built outdoor education centre on a remote property in the Bay of Plenty.

Free from all electronic distraction, groups of around 30 girls at a time are pulled from the upmarket private school and immersed in a nature-filled setting, their days filled with bushcraft, conservation, outdoor activities and life skills.

Girls live in close quarters with pupils they barely know and are challenged to take part in activities far outside their comfort zones.

Meals are cooked from scratch, the girls learn budgeting skills and some will even endure the misery of a chilly night in the bush under a makeshift shelter with little or no food.

Yet despite this, girls are loath to leave, many in tears the day parents arrive to collect them.

This is Kahunui, brainchild of principal Lynda Reid, who was keen to give her girls an educational experience outside the prescribed curriculum.

Since opening its doors in 2006, Kahunui continually rates as a highlight of college years for pupils and parents alike.

One of the keys to its success is the total immersion programme into alternative education free from modern technology. And that means a ban on contact with the outside world for a month, except for a handwritten letter home.

Reid says the programme's focus is on building resilience and independence and helping students understand "what it means to be a Kiwi girl".

"I originally thought I'd love all of our girls to go to Outward Bound, but it proved too complicated. That's when I thought we needed to do our own version."

It took three years from when the idea was mooted to welcoming the first girls. And the results have been life-changing. "The vast majority of girls come away understanding that they have greater internal strength and resources than they realised," she says.

Being removed from the creature comforts of home and severing contact with the outside world was an important aspect of the programme's success.

"You do without social media for a month, you realise you're not defined by it. You know that you can cook a great meal. You can sit solo in the bush and feel comfortable.

"You know that you can have a sheet of plastic and two lengths of string and you can build a bivvy and that you can push yourself a bit beyond what you thought your physical capacity is."

Reid says by the time the girls are in Year 10 they are more than ready for the experience. "We thought it was an age where girls had a sense of identity and a sense of separation that meant that they would cope with being away for a month. And it has been proven to be."

The student accomodation at the Kahunui Campus operated by St Cuthbert's College in the Waiotahe Valley in the Bay of Plenty. Photo / Alan Gibson
The student accomodation at the Kahunui Campus operated by St Cuthbert's College in the Waiotahe Valley in the Bay of Plenty. Photo / Alan Gibson


Initial fears taking girls out of the usual classroom programme would cause them to lag behind academically were quickly dispelled.

"In fact, our exam results have improved year-on-year," says Reid. "Kahunui hasn't impeded their academic progress and there's some argument that by building their self-belief they can do things, their understanding that if they persevere they get through, that it in some way accounts for some of the lift that we've had in our exam results in the period that Kahunui has been in operation."

Course co-director Christine Furminger says Kahunui is a great leveller. Most girls experience a level of anxiety in the first week, no matter their background. "The biggest lesson we see is the girls learning about themselves and what they're capable of," she says.

But it soon became a place of growth and freedom where girls are identified by their first names only and encouraged to leave any baggage at the door.

"That's the most wonderful thing about Kahunui. It's not a fashion parade. They walk around in polypro and gumboots and what they look like becomes less important."

At the end of the four weeks the girls have been introduced to many aspects of environmental management, including pest control, fencing and planting in wetland areas, sustainable food production and a social focus of making garments for less-privileged children.

Reid says tutors at the centre play a pivotal role coaching the girls through situations well outside their comfort zones.

"It's not one of those bleak experiences that you are cast adrift in the wilderness and you fend for yourself. The staff are very good at working with the girls and seeing what she sees as her tolerance, her level of acceptance of the risk and encouraging her to take that next step out of her comfort zone.

"It's done in a very safe way. It's not one of those shape-up-or-ship-out experiences. It's very firmly based around the coaching model. I know that when the kids come back one of the things that they most value is the fantastic relationship they have with tutors who take time and have great learning conversations with them."

For 15-year-old Pasi Talakai the experience has proved the highlight of her year, expanding her circle of friends and know-how when it comes to everyday activities. "My perspective of other people and other things around me, like the way I think, has changed. I've got more confidence and learned budgeting and life skills."

She wrote excitedly to her parents about learning to drive a boat, something she thought she would never learn to do.

"I have also learned how to cook. I'm sure I'll be cooking dinner more when I get back," she wrote.

A student nailing an identity tag to a tree for a predator tracking tunnel in bush. Photo / Alan Gibson
A student nailing an identity tag to a tree for a predator tracking tunnel in bush. Photo / Alan Gibson


Pupil Margot Cranshaw, 14, was surprised at how much she enjoyed her time, despite spending a night in the freezing cold.

"Sometimes at the beginning I started to let how tired I was get in the way of me having fun but after a while I thought, 'I have to get over this otherwise it's not going to be so fun'. It ended up being so amazing.

"Survival was freezing! But I got to know my team better and we survived the night!" she wrote.

"I've got so much more general knowledge about different things, especially about surviving in the outdoors and how to pack tramping bags and tramp properly and use a compass. And the friendships, I know people so much better than when I left."

She says the experience has made her more dependent on herself and she is using her initiative more, which is making her mum very happy.

Champion runner Issie Robinson, 14, was surprised, living in close quarters with six girls, there were no major disagreements among so many opinionated people. "I'm a lot more mature and I have learned to differentiate important from unimportant arguments. I'm more patient with other people in my family now, especially my sister," she says.

The bushcraft gave her an enormous amount of pride, holding out until daybreak after she and her mates were spooked by a possum when they spent a "survival" night in the bush.

Netsafe chief technology officer Sean Lyons applauds what the school is doing to broaden the girls' skills. "These things are constantly challenged by social media and I can see why they've chosen to do that. It's a practical way to build relationships and to build the other skills that maybe the school and parents between them have agreed girls at this age are lacking.

"So I can see why people do that and that would be great for young people in that context."

However, he is loath to say that everyone should spend huge amounts of time away from technology. For some groups and individuals, technology can provide a vital link to community that could not be found in any other context.

"There are various examples of young people who may have beliefs of ideologies or sexuality or gender issues that are not 'normal' in a mainstream environment who may find themselves a healthy community online among other people in New Zealand or globally that allows them to express themselves and feel more 'normal'," he says.

Social media also plays an enormous role for teens in rural areas. "I don't think it's a case of saying 'everyone take a month off technology' but I think it's about achieving balance."

Lyons understands the month-long camp could build resilience and independence but says it is still important for young people to be competent in a digital world.

"If we spend our lives in that camp environment and switch off all technology we will probably do our kids an enormous injustice in terms of the skills they develop.

"But if you just let them live in that [digital] world and you don't think about social resilience and don't think about conversation then we're probably deficit in that respect as well."

As a fresh group of girls eagerly await the year's first intake, Kahunui is proving to be an educative legacy that brings Reid enormous pride.

"I think it's been one of those projects you have that's successful beyond the dreams you have for it. The programme has more than delivered on the aspirations we had in terms of what it would mean for the girls' physical and social development."

For many, the impact is immediate. Many pupils change their behaviour at home, turning off lights when they leave a room, recycling more intentionally and not leaving the taps running while they brush their teeth.

Then there is the long-term effect.

"I'll get letters from girls who have been out of the school for two or three years saying, 'I got the letter I wrote myself when I was in Year 10 and here I am now a medical school student.

"So many of the things I am today I can link directly back to the lessons of Kahunui'."

Students planning out an area for riparian planting. Photo / Alan Gibson
Students planning out an area for riparian planting. Photo / Alan Gibson


Technology-free tips for parents

• Draw up a contract of screen or phone time and negotiate how much time you and your children agree on.
• Use "Grandma's rule" - "You can do what you want to do when you've done what you've got to do".
• Have TV-free nights and a curfew on cellphones after 8pm.
• Revoke media privileges if you need a consequence to reinforce discipline.
• Establish a family "media culture".
• Have the computer in a public part of the house where it can be monitored.
• If there are other computers at home, disable or password-protect access.
- Courtesy of the Parenting Place

- Herald on Sunday

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