Starting high school represents a monumental milestone in a child’s life; it marks the start of a period of great growth and increased independence. For Year 7 students at BBC, it presents an opportunity to retreat to the great outdoors.
For two years now, the College has run a unique Orient and Connect Retreat program for those starting high school, designed to help boys build resilience, alleviate any anxieties associated with the transition and importantly to foster genuine connection.
Just weeks into the first term, a noticeable sense of camaraderie and energy could be seen in the schoolyard.
According to BBC’s Outdoor Education Coordinator Virginia Mitchell, the program - run over four days in the first week of school - has received an overwhelmingly positive response from parents, teachers and boys alike.
“The whole experience is built around connection. Whether boys are completely new to the College or are transitioning from our Junior School in Year 6, we want them to know that they are not only joining a community, but belong within it,” said Virginia.
This year the initiative commenced with a one-day Orient program held at the school, followed by a three-day Retreat where boys participated in a range of activities designed to help them learn about themselves and others.
“On the first day, boys’ orienteering skills were put to the test as they navigated the campus using a map and a range of clues. This activity was all about getting them to interact and cooperate with their peers, whilst engaging with the history of the College. It was a very symbolic way to say, ‘You’re now a part of this history’.
“They were also given a personalised hat and an individual bag tag, which were made by one of our staff from the Manual Arts department.”
Boys and staff then travelled to Camp Somerset on the Wednesday to complete the Retreat component of the program.
“We want boys to feel accepted and valued for who they are from the very first day, which is why the experience runs in the first week of school. It’s a crazy time to do it from a logistical perspective, not to mention the heightened sense of nervousness experienced by boys and parents alike during this period. But for us, ensuring a strong start to the year takes precedence,” explains Virginia.
“Instead of boys turning up in a new uniform, not knowing their peers and having to navigate a foreign environment, we want them to have an experience where they are challenged but also supported.
“And when it comes to breaking down barriers and strengthening relationships there is no better place than the natural environment itself. In a structured, timetabled world boys don’t always have the opportunity to have those incidental conversations that often take place on camp. The type of conversations that help to establish friendship and trust. We’re incredibly lucky to have such passionate staff who not only make the program possible but who truly endorse it.
“The initiative acts as an important rite of passage, with the activities symbolic to their growing independence. Boys took part in a high ropes course, rafting and also took lessons in learning to polish their shoes, iron their shirts and to wear their uniform with pride.”
Parents also play a significant role in the experience which according to BBC’s Acting Head of Middle School, Sean Riordan, is essential.
“Parent partnerships are crucial in the middle phase of learning. At BBC we understand the importance of parents and teachers working in partnership to achieve successful outcomes for all of our boys. It’s important that boys are able to move from dependence to independence and are supported during this phase. Middle schooling is very much focused around relationships, connections and partnerships,” said Sean.
“Parents were able to attend a session on Monday, where they were invited to write a letter to their son and place it in his locker ready for his return from camp,” said Sean.
“Watching boys read through their notes and to share this experience with their parents was really quite amazing. We are also going to archive the letters for boys to revisit when they reach Year 12.
“Looking three weeks on, you can see boys really immersing themselves in the BBC culture and because our principal teachers and housemasters joined us on the retreat, strong relationships have already been formed, which means we are down to the business of learning already.”
For mum Rowan, new to the school, the experience helped make the transition just that little bit easier for the whole family.
“Our son can get quite homesick and despite feeling a little anxious on the day of the camp, he returned with some great stories and clearly enjoyed the experience. He’s even polished his shoes and ironed his shirt a few times – although I’m not sure how long this will last,” laughs Rowan.
“As a mum there is always that sense of being torn between wanting your son to be independent and strong and at the same time protected, because of course you want to nurture them – I mean they are only 12. So we were very excited to see him return and what an entrance. Seeing the boys walking through the guard of honour, past all those seniors to the sounds of the bagpipes and war cries was real goosebumps material. Despite looking a little weary and slightly overwhelmed you could see a real sense of excitement in their faces,” she said.
“The whole experience has definitely helped our son to settle in. Rather than just going in on the first day, not knowing many people, it enabled him to realise that he’s not alone and that there are many boys in the same boat.
“The presentation from staff at the end of the camp was great. They were extremely personable and it’s clear that they understand our boys. It was nice to hear their natural and humorous description of the Somerset experience.”
In her address to parents, Virginia highlighted the power of relationships as the foundation for learning and growth.
“It is our role at BBC and specifically through Outdoor Education to inspire your son, encourage him to dream, take control of his life and create his own bright future. Challenge is not comfortable, your son will not have loved every moment or every meal. He will however have tried, he will have persevered, he may have had to ask a mate for help, he may have even failed. It is through this process he will have learnt. About himself, about the support around him and what it is to try.
“We have high expectations of our boys, but we believe your son is brave and we believe in the power of human connection and the joy it brings.”
Click here to watch a video about the experience.