As I prepared our four children to go back to school it was clear that they had grown. Not just physically (although any hope of school uniform still fitting has gone out of the windrow) but also in their confidence, well-being and ‘spark’.
Chatting to friends this appears to be a common occurrence – the break from school is in itself important – holidays are good for everyone – but there was a common agreement that this well-being was – in a large part – due to summer spent outdoors.
That outdoor learning supports learning, physical well-being and personal development is not new. Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (CLOTC) outlines the evidence as part of their wider work on non-classroom learning and reports over the summer add to this. Encouraging a generation of digital natives to move beyond the sofa is a challenge that many charities have risen to; The National Trust 50 Things is a must for parents and is part of a wider range of work by organisations aiming to bring the outdoors to more children.
Our own children were also fortunate enough to try new sports over the summer – wakeboarding is great fun to do, although slightly nerve wracking to watch as a parent. Again after each go the confidence grew and each face plant into the lake was supported by encouragement to get up and try again by skilled instructors.
While adventurous sports and outdoor learning are not synonymous they do have some great areas of overlap and – a key solution to encouraging outdoor activity for all – might be to introduce the adventurous sports as part of the curriculum. It was exciting to see that bouldering has been excepted into the GCSE PE Syllabus and the interest in rowing at the Olympics is helping to drive more young people to take this brilliant sport, but outdoor sports cannot be the preserve of the rich.
However – despite the evidence we know that many children still do not regularly access the outdoors or adventurous sports. While the beach may be free, the petrol to get there isn’t; while forest walks are fabulous, buses from the urban centre are limited; while older kids can play outside alone, younger children need support. When parents are juggling childcare and working over holidays getting them out is a challenge.
But this not a universal offer. Schools have to have a clear role in encouraging time in, and a love of, the outdoors. On school playing fields (where schools still have them); on days out to the forest or canal or park or beach; in PE lessons as part of climbing, canoeing or rowing and as part of the residential experience that Sir Tim Brighouse used to guarantee for every school under his watch.
“For some children a week’s residential experience is worth more than a term in school” – Sir Tim Brighouse.
Residentials are also where relationships between teacher/leader and student can be rewarding on new levels. Interactions can be more informal and the whole context can change as they learn more about each other and share new experiences together. I remember a former colleague being reduced to tears when one evening a young person handed them a large knife. They said that they usually sleep with it under their pillow, but ‘I don’t need it here, I feel safe.’
In terms of my own children there is no doubt that the eldest grew much over their summer residential. My eldest is a young Guide Leader and sister a Guide and the five-day camp helped stretch them both in terms of leadership, self-reliance and a break from social media! And again the outdoors – tales of shooting stars, surviving downpours and cooking on an open fire.
The impact of residentials is also well researched. NotDeadFish have supported the Learning Away Consortium over the last year and their Brilliant Residentials work makes clear the benefits of stays away from home.
So - while this is written from the personal it is evidenced from the research and while we are enthusiastic advocates of the outdoors for our own children I recognise the privileged position we are in. Outdoor learning, adventurous pursuits and residentials are each important rites of passage and learning opportunities and should be available for all children and young people.
Which shamelessly brings us to the longer point. There are a number of organisations offering disadvantaged young people all three of these things and this is a plea for you to support them.
The Youth Hostel Association – is the quiet giant of the charity sector. We have been fortunate enough to work with them over the last year and seen how their work is helping encourage young people to enjoy the outdoors, adventurous sports and experience time away from home. Their Breaks for Kids funding helps them offer this to more young people.
Hindleap Warren outdoor centre is run by the inspiring London Youth. For me – as a kid from an estate in Brighton – it was residentials at Hindleap that opened my eyes to a different world. My career – indeed my very wellbeing – is grounded on those experiences and for this reason NotDeadFish is supporting London Youth over the year ahead to fundraise for the Hindleap Warren centre. Click here to support them.
If you can help either of these two great causes, then please do.
And for me – to ease the stress of the annual trip to the uniform shop – this evening is going to be the final shooting star watching competition of the summer on a blanket in the back garden. Outdoors forever.