February has been a month full of freakiness in Singapore, but one incident that stood out for parents and students alike was a fatal accident during a high-element outdoor activity. High-element outdoor activities are challenges conducted dozens of metres above the ground, such as above-ground obstacle courses that supposedly “build character” for children and teenagers. They have traditionally been considered a cornerstone of adventure camps conducted by schools. However, the sad recent death of a student has triggered a national discussion on whether these high-element activities were safe and whether they did “build the character” of those who went through them.
Deeply intrigued by the argument, I have tried to look at the debate from two points of view.
Some parents have been actively pushing for “business as usual”, and I could understand why. The accident was an isolated incident and after investigations, school camps could still proceed with high-element activities. Having gone through similar activities as teenagers themselves, these parents were also convinced that their children should follow suit. And the “building character” part was apparent — attempting challenges twelve feet above the ground allowed participants to confront their fears and develop courage.
However, others were hesitant. There are alternative, safer activities that could be conducted on the ground and still achieve the same effect. Plus, one student who had gone through the activities didn’t think that they taught participants courage, but instead about how to bow to peer pressure — impressionable teenagers were forcing themselves to take part even though they may have been scared because the rest of their friends were doing so. Of course, in this activity, you can always back out if you are too frightened, but what if this was not a school camp, but a gang of friends pushing for you to try cigarettes? It’s an activity that requires “courage”, and you certainly don’t have the ability to say no.
I have taken part in such a school camp before. One of the activities required students to walk on a thin rope and navigate an obstacle course high above the ground. As I stood at the very back of the line, I mentally prepared myself for the task. When it came to my turn, I took a deep breath, held out my foot and my shoe touched the rope.
And I somehow found I could not physically move myself forward.
Being one of the last to step onto the platform, there was no time left for me to start the obstacle course. Stepping back down the earth, I sighed. When I bumped into other friends around the camp who enthusiastically asked about my experience, I could only shrug, half-embarrased, in reply.
I also did another activity which involved flights —- the flying fox. Because my partner was one of the brave few who put up their hands to go first, I felt pushed to raise my hand too. And I did. As I fully realised I would be one of the six to start, I groaned inwardly at my naivety. Why? Why? Why?
Again, I went through the agonising mental process of preparation. The flying fox wasn’t too high. It was perfectly safe. It would only happen within a matter of seconds. It would not kill me. Considering I wasn’t scared of heights and had been free of any pre-existing phobias, it should have been easy for me to step off the platform and whoosh down to the ground. It wasn’t.
The moment came. I once again stepped up to a high platform. I took a deep breath and held on tight. Then I swung down and enjoyed the thrill of submitting to gravity. It was only for a few seconds, and as I dismounted, I was craving for more. It was a roller-coaster ride of emotions — at first, I felt mortal fear for my life. Then, I readied myself for the journey. I trembled with excitement and screamed in thrill. Finally, I went off with sparkles in my eyes: Again! Again!
High-element activities do encourage participants to develop good traits, and they aren’t inherently bad. It is good for youth to try these activities every once in a while because the experience is immensely rewarding. However, youth shouldn’t feel “pressured” into these activities because of their peers or the purpose of “character building”. The activity should be optional, and people should be able to say no without feeling guilty about it. High element activities also shouldn’t be the only activity to “build character” because they are inaccessible to a significant number of people, such as disabled people or people with a fear of heights.
Character building is a long-term process that starts from a young age and can’t be magically sped up by a single obstacle course. They should be supplemented with regular activities done on the ground. There are easy ways to start developing your own courage. You could raise your hand (physical or virtual) to speak in class. You could try something new, such as gardening or creative writing. You could hold a horror movie marathon with your friends. Character isn’t just built from balancing on a string of rope, it’s built from the lifetime of experiences we enjoy.