Many grand claims have been made about the character-building qualities of games and outdoor education over the years, but in this age of evidence-backed educational practice it’s worth asking how valid they are. 

Back in the 1780s, schoolmasters prided themselves on not intervening in the activities that boys got up to outside of Latin, Greek and sermons. Indeed, boys would riot if they thought an adult had crossed the line into their territory. What they did get up to includes cricket, stone-throwing and, even more cruelly, bird-killing. The only absolute interdiction was against fun to do with gunpowder. Thus, disputes between boys were often resolved by boxing matches (according to the established Broughton rules and refereed by senior boys). These were the tough, violent characters Wellington was so pleased to call on at the Battle of Waterloo.

Around about the 1850s the adults began to take a more proactive line, in the interests of keeping boys from vice and licentiousness, in the name of what came to be called ‘muscular Christianity’. It seems to have been an easy argument to make that keeping a boy away from what was perceived as vice (drinking, gambling and so on) was actually improving in a positive way. It’s an argument that hasn’t quite died out, as ‘busyness’ is still seen as a virtue.

I think we know what we’re trying to teach (I use the word loosely) in games and outdoor activities – resilience, teamwork, dealing with disappointment.  What isn’t so clear is how we go about making sure that we get these messages across – when your rugby team has just gone down 19-18 on a Saturday with the last kick of the game, telling them that they’re now ‘dealing with disappointment’ certainly doesn’t work. And most of them will have got over it by the next session on the Tuesday.

It’s also clear that there are some bad lessons that are all too easily learnt if you look around the sporting world. Blaming the ref is one, as is thinking that sport only exists for those who are good at it – I’d ask why you should let a lack of ability get in the way of enjoyment and well-being at all ages? (You can tell I’m a recreational middle-aged cricketer, I think). Another bad lesson to learn is that one’s sporting ability can somehow define one’s identity.  Focussing on the learning rather than the results is really helpful here. And not forgetting that it’s supposed to be fun.

If there is a consensus about how this important learning might stick in the face of these challenges, it comes down to two things: stealth, to make sure you get the messages across that the experiences demand to come across, and mostly while the student isn’t necessarily looking (hiking, boundary chats, walking back from training). It’s very often the case that the student has found these qualities within themselves and that an obvious failure is preying on their mind. Steering self-awareness, I suppose you’d call it. I wonder if we can measure how much of this actually happens. 

And, as ever, the other important thing is positive relationships. Research from America shows that the ‘value-added’ from being actively engaged in youth sport comes from the long-term impact that being able to build a constructive relationship with an adult can bring. ‘Coach’, that legendary figure of US education, is a legend for their ability to build those relationships. What you say in the bus on the way home to your disappointed athlete might be more important than you think.

So, we do a lot of this, and a lot of it obviously succeeds and a lot of it obviously fails. And it turns out it’s a debate as old as the hills we still go camping in – Roger Ascham is considering the value of educating the whole person in the 1560s.