Connecting Through Creativity: A Reflective Account

Paper presented at the EOE Conference in Metsakartano, Finland, October, 2011

I imagine I share with everyone here an enthusiasm for being outdoors in nature. The opportunity for an adrenaline rush or the unexpected peak or frontier experience seals my passion. As I reflect on my many experiences in the outdoors, I am aware of their complexities. These experiences are the sum of an interplay of such features as the weather, the light, a sense of attachment to locations and the people around me, the cultural context, emotional responses and much more. Through these experiences I have come to appreciate the inter-related qualities of the outdoors – the strengths, balances, sensitivities and fragilities in a variety of ecosystems – and the power of nature to destroy, rebuild or evolve. The accumulated effects of these factors have driven my desire to be an effective steward of the environment, to have a positive impact on environments – to conserve, to encourage biodiversity and sustainability, and to take action to inform others of the values, qualities and inspiration of the outdoors.

In this paper, I first explore why a connection with the outdoors and nature is of importance. I reflect on research undertaken with women youth workers related to their perceptions of the outdoors, and the constraints on and supports for their participation in outdoor activities. I then consider the outcomes of research with ‘outdoor’ and ‘non-outdoor’ colleagues and relate my analysis to Peter Martin’s (2003) pedagogic framework. Finally I explore ways photography might be an invaluable tool to enable some people to make a connection with the outdoors and nature.

I start from the stance that cconnecting with the outdoors and nature is of significance because:

a)  we are facing environmental challenges such as increased carbon emissions; the likelihood of global warming, which is still a contentious issue; and the permanent loss of some natural resources (Bunyard, 2004; Thomas and Thomas, 2004; Vidal, 2005; Vidal and Brown, 2005);

b)  sections of the British population feel alienated not only from the outdoors and nature, but also from British society, which may have a significant effect on the ways in which they develop their attitudes to, beliefs about and values about the environmental challenges (Black Environment Network, 2004; Countryside Agency, 2005);

c)  children are less likely to play outdoors and explore nature than the previous generation (Gill, 2007; Louv, 2009);

d)  part of the solution may be found in an understanding of issues related to the global environment and to feelings of inclusion and belonging (Moore, 2003; Norberg-Hodge, 2001; Shiva, 2004; Suzuki, 1997);

e)  and, some writers regard education, where people learn to care about the environment, explore the interconnectedness of environmental issues and are ultimately motivated to consider a global view, as critical for the continuation of societies (Leopold, 1949; Nabhan and Trimble, 1994; Thomas and Thomas, 2004; Wolf, 1989).

Peter Becker (2011: 4), in challenging us to consider the importance of woods and wilderness for young people, suggests that their significance may lie in the the fact that they are ‘as no other natural space’. He explains that they ‘have always been more affected by the close fundamental connection between culture and nature’ .

He suggests that:
Leaving what has been cared for, setting out into strange nature, can provide a multitude of opportunities to promote educational processes, but only if meeting the flora and fauna in all kinds of situations in all kinds of weathers that may occur can be perceived as a challenge. (Becker, 2011: 7)

This I agree with. However, as a manager of youth work over twenty years ago, I at times struggled to encourage youth workers and the young people they were working with to take up opportunities for outdoor adventure. Going into the outdoors, the woods and wildernesses, goes beyond the cultural beliefs of what is normal or acceptable behaviour for some groups of people.

To understand the impact of beliefs about the outdoors and outdoor education on the participation of women youth workers in outdoor activities, I undertook qualitative research with women youth workers, in the hope that I might find the key to increasing the participation of youth workers and thus young people. My purpose was to explore how outdoor education was viewed, and what it was that blocked participation (Ayland, 1991). Some of the women saw outdoor education as a purely physical and competitive activity, which was way outside their comfort zone. They were constrained from participating in actvities by their time-consuming roles as carers within their families. They cited a lack of financial support as being a block to taking young people away. They identified a lack of positive role models within the broad spectra of outdoor activities and adventure education, who might introduce them to experiences with a degree of empathy. However, once offered an opportunity to take part in an outdoor residential experience, they were able to recognise its potential for the development of confidence; for an opportunity to re-affirm their identities in their own rights rather than as a wife, as a partner, or as a parent; and as a powerful learning experience. Some of those interviewed continued to gain qualifications so that they could offer similar outdoor and residential experiences to the young people with whom they worked.

Whilst this research offered some insights, it failed to identify how people, who do not recognise the outdoors as being significant in their identities, could develop a connection with nature and the outdoors. I began qualitative research, interviewing play, youth and community development work colleagues who defined themselves as ‘non-outdoor’ and others who identified themselves as ‘outdoor’ (Collins, 2005). In analysing the results it became clear that the majority of people who initially denied having a connection with nature and the outdoors did in fact connect, but my use of terms such as ‘outdoor education’ and ‘adventure’ led them to consider these in more extreme ways, such as solo rock climbs and Himalayan treks. As they talked they identified a variety of ways in which they were engaged in the outdoors, ranging from gardening to taking photographs; from walking along the seafront to sitting with a view and listening to music; and to family picnics. Childhood experiences, whether positive or negative had helped to frame their current perceptions of what the outdoors was and how they were prepared to engage with it. I also analysed group poems writen by participants on outdoor experiences, finding that their connections with nature were related to friendship, achievement, and spiritual feelings associated with a particular happening or location.

Peter Martin (2003) developed a pedagogic framework related to stages in devloping ‘kinship’ with nature, based on his woork with outdoor education students (See Figure One). Martin had a hypothetical category, ‘alienated from nature’. However, I argue that this is not hypothetical. People who have defined themselves as ‘non-outdoor’ may be alienated from nature until they recognise that their connections with it are legitimate. Working with people who do not consider themselves to be outdoor educators has enabled Martin’s framework to be extended. Included are some of the more passive responses to being in nature, such as just sitting and observing nature and then watching the power of nature – perhaps waves crashing onto a beach or storm clouds scudding across the hilltops. Martin identified practical activities associated with caring for the natural environment. Again, my analysis suggests that this caring for the environment does not have to be physically active. People may not identify a ‘oneness’ with nature, but this does not mean that they are unclear about their role in relation to nature.

Martin (2003) developed another framework to amplify the activities that might aid an increasing emotional kinship with nature. Through analysis of the interviews and group poems, I identified that initially there was a social dimension to this developing connection. (See Figure Two) For the people I had interviewed, ‘low key’ activities were identified as entry activities, such as den building and linking stories to certain environments. One interviewee had stressed the impact that Graham’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ had had on her interest. Others talked of the children’s adventure stories by Enid Blyton. Having a special place to go to was of significance for some. Others spoke of habits and rituals such as picking berries every autumn or family walks at the weekend. Also significant was the impact of an open-minded mentor, who could encourage and explain things. This social dimension increasingly overlapped with the emotional dimension as more and more time was spent in nature. The importance of an inspiring landscape was apparent. Others talked of the significance of creative activities such as gardening, wildlife observation and photography. The emotional connection was associated with having the time and tools to reflect on experiences in nature and the outdoors, and recognising the restorative qualities of being in nature. Again, the activity of gardening was mentioned, but it now incorporated concepts of stewardship or bio-diversity. As my experience of interviewing progressed, I became increasingly aware that for some ‘nature’ had stereotypical connotations, and for others the word ‘outdoors’ had negative associations. This awareness I have transferred into my working practice. I know use a variety of words, hoping that the listener will identify positively with at least one word

As a Leading Practitioner of the Institute for Outdoor Learning, I clearly see that my role is connected with promoting the image and potential of outdoor learning. Through my research, I have become more sensitive to and open- minded about the things that might trigger an interest in nature and the outdoors. Creativity can support the development of a connection with nature and the outdoors. Promoting creativity to connect has included supporting play and youth workers to create myths and stories about and in the outdoors. As digital cameras have become cheaper and more effective, it has become clear that the camera can also enable people to go outside and to take time to observe. For landscape photographer, Charlie Waite, photography is ‘a pursuit of some kind. I think it’s probably based on a need to get closer to the divine essence of things’ (Waite in an interview with Oliver, 2008). Photography can enhance the outdoor learning experience, drawing attention to aspects of the outdoors that we might otherwise rush past in our impatience to complete a journey. For people who are reluctant to engage with the outdoors in a physical way, photography can be the medium that enables and develops a connection with the outdoors, offering meetings with ‘the flora and fauna in all kinds of situations, in all kinds of weathers’ (Becker, 2011: 7).

Niall Benvie (2011: 32-33), nature photographer, photo-lobbyist and a director of Rewilding Childhood, believes that photography can support children in discovering nature for themselves, and can subsequently have a positive long term impact on their lives, developing into a lifetime passion for nature and environmental actions. Children’s observations and photographs can also contribute to an in depth knowledge of the local area (2010: 53).

In its simplest form, photography may be described as ‘an expression of our response to the world, in a particular place, at a particular moment’ (Waite, 2009: 7). However, David Ward, who seeks the abstract in landscapes, has a more elusive definition. For him it is ‘chasing …. an unobtainable illusion’ and is linked to a personal inner quest (2004:1 1). These words could also be applied to our intentions when exploring the environment in a more physical way.

Photographic experiences in the outdoors can be enhanced in a number of ways.
At the heart of developing photography beyond the mere capturing of memories are a number of possible actions:

a)  slowing down the process of taking photographs and photographing with intent;

b)  reducing the number of images recorded; encouraging the photographer to look and think, and

c)  developing a greater knowledge of a particular environment, for example, where the sun rises and sets at particular times of the year, the path of light across the landscape, the tracks of animals, the positions of particular flowers, the seasonal changes of tones and hues.

The act of ‘slowing down’ in the taking of photographs can result in us actually seeing more, rather than simply looking at obvious or superficial things. Photography can become a tool for increasing environmental awareness. If out with a group, members can be challenged to record the unusual, to focus in on unusual perspectives Images could be incorporated into a quiz. Group members could be stimulated to start challenging attitudes by taking photographs of:

rubbish versus beauty;
a polluted versus a beautiful site.

In this paper, I have outlined why a connection with nature and the outdoors is of significance. I have reflected on the outcomes of my research journey, which has been closely related to the development of my career in the outdoors. Finally, I have considered the role of creativity, and in particular photography, in enabling some people to make a connection with the outdoors and nature.


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