On Becoming Outdoors … and the implications for working with young people: A Journey of Reflection
How do people come to define themselves as outdoor people?
How can I support colleagues so that they can become outdoor people?
Is it important for the future that we nurture outdoor people?
My starting supposition is that when people identity themselves as ‘outdoor’, they will have a greater affinity with the environment and nature than people who are alienated from the outdoors. If this is the case, what might be the consequences of sections of populations disassociating themselves from contact with the outdoors and nature? What might be done to enable people to form or re-form associations with the outdoors? What might be the consequences of this for our work with young people, so that we can motivate young people to experience and, hopefully, come to love the outdoors.
Should I worry? The Context
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has published a report, The State of Nature (2013). It finds that climate change is having an increasing impact on nature in the United Kingdom. Rising average temperatures are known to be driving range expansion in some species, and there is evidence that the harmful impacts of this are mounting. Concerns include:
- 30% out of the 54 butterfly species assessed have decreased in England;
- 60% of England’s flowering plants are decreasing;
- Over the last 200 years, about 80% of the UK’s lowland heathland has been lost.
The Natural Childhood Report (Moss, 2012) found that Children and young people’s interactions with the outdoors are reduced. Fewer than a quarter of children (and young people) regularly use their local ‘patch of nature’, compared to over half of all adults when they were children. Fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places; compared to almost half a generation ago. Children (and young people) spend so little time outdoors that they are unfamiliar with some of our commonest wild creatures. (ibid, 5)
These reductions in the numbers of children and young people engaging with the environment are likely to be having wider societal consequences. Increasing obesity is causing concern. Learning about the environment is more likely to be through second hand experiences, such as the television, which may have a reduced impact. Children and young people risk becoming alienated from their wider community. There is a reduction in knowledge about the environment, suggesting a reduction in an ethic of caring for the environment (ibid, 7-11).
Reflecting on my research findings
1. Women youth workers and an outdoor learning experience
I define myself as an outdoor person. If prevented from venturing outdoors I become restless and irritable. My outdoor identity has developed through childhood and family experiences. Important have been challenges and associations with friends, places and activities. A strong thread has been my membership of semi-structured outdoor clubs, holding club meets, and informal gatherings of like-minded outdoor people. My career has been concerned with inspiring and enabling people to develop the necessary skills and awarenesses so that they can become outdoor people. My hope is that they will then introduce others to the outdoors, in a positive manner, creating a new global generation of outdoor people.
During my earlier career, I worked with women youth workers for whom going outdoors and connecting with nature was not an essential element of their personal identity or family culture. During this earlier research, I came to realise that these women participants had to overcome self- and societal-imposed barriers. The importance of the outdoor educator being sensitive to the insecurities and needs of their learners as they create outdoor and environmental experiences for their participants, enabling them to move beyond previously held negative views of the outdoors, outdoor educators and outdoor activities, was critical in creating positive experiences.
A number of the women youth workers, with whom I have worked, have lacked an outdoor habit. I was slow to realise the huge steps some people had to take, in order to take part in an outdoor experience. My post-experience questionnaire research into outdoor education and women youth workers (Ayland/ Collins, 1991) found that traditional caring roles presented a challenging obstacle, acting as a constraining feature, for many women who wanted to engage in an outdoor experience:
It was very difficult (to join in), even when my children were in their teens. Other people thought I was mad, to even attempt such an exercise (hill walking in Wales), but I was determined to go. (ibid. 98)
I had to arrange childcare facilities. Mother and mother-in-law took it in turns. “Never again”, they said. My children scarcely missed me. (I came home to an empty food cupboard.) My husband and others did not believe that I would leave them to do outdoor activities, even for such a short time. My husband said, ‘You’ll be cold all the time. It will rain. You won’t go.’ That final comment was the challenge that made up my mind`. I would go. (Ibid. 99)
For others it was a combination of their perceptions of what might be entailed in going outdoors. Some were constrained by the assumptions that the outdoor activity would, by definition, be physically challenging and competitive. Frequent fears were expressed as ‘I wouldn’t be able to keep up with everyone else’ (ibid. 88). This lack of confidence in physical abilities could be made more frightening with the possibility of the outdoor activity necessitating some rock climbing (ibid. 92). As a relatively inexperienced outdoor educator at the time of this research, and by offering an outdoor experience mirroring those provided by my male colleagues, I may have contributed unwittingly to the fears and negativity of at least one participant:
…. physical and mental limitations …. I didn’t enjoy edging along a narrow, high path in dim light. I couldn’t muster the courage to do Maggot’s Crawl (in a cave), though I didn’t feel low about that …. being very frightened under the stars at night …. (Ibid. 115)
It is also easy to underestimate the possible consequences of being a member of a group. As an outdoor person, I am used to being a member of a group or club. However, not all participants regarded this as a potentially positive aspect of being outdoors. There were concerns about whether people would be friendly, or whether they would make judgments about fitness levels, walking speeds, or the ability to grasp the technicalities of navigation. One woman described this concern as ‘exposing myself to the weaknesses that others may pick upon and could use against me’ (ibid. 105).
As a club member, I am used to cooperative decision-making and a readiness to share our skills and knowledge. However, participants suggested that they had expected an aggressively competitive environment (ibid. 11). Over half of the respondents indicated that the learning environment created by the group facilitators, in partnership with the participants, was a critical feature for them ultimately having a positive experience. Included in this was the selection of a locality appropriate to their interests, needs and abilities. They also stressed the importance of having confidence in their facilitator’s knowledge and outdoor skills. The benefit of facilitators being able to manage a holistic learning environment was noted. One woman recorded this in a positive manner, as ‘new experiences, offered by non-threatening people – (I had) never been in the mountains before’ (ibid, 113). Some sought feedback from previous participants about their perceptions of the quality of the outdoor experience. For some people it was positive comments about group cohesiveness that became a significant factor in enabling them to decide whether to attend (ibid. 109). For the women youth workers, the potential to step outside traditional roles with their associated expectations, to ‘feel a person in my own right, not a mum, sister’s wife, dog’s body’ (ibid.111) was highlighted. I recognise that being outdoors also has the potential to provide personal reflective and recreative space. Some participants also acknowledged this factor. One woman explained, ‘ I was looking forwards to the space. I would get away from the pressures of life at home, to take stock of myself – where I was going and what I wanted to do’ (ibid. 111).
2. Community development workers and youth workers and their connections with nature and the outdoors
My more recent research (Collins, 2005) developed as I sought to gain insights into why people chose to define themselves as non-outdoors. It comprised an analysis of in depth interviews, with community development worker and youth worker colleagues. In fact, I found that the majority of my colleagues, who had initially said that they were non-outdoor, did have connections with nature and the outdoors. It was mainly their perceptions of the outdoor world that led them to regard themselves as outsiders. When thinking of the outdoors and nature, they felt physically, culturally and/or economically excluded.
A common feature of this non-outdoor perspective of the outdoors is that a physical connection is required. One colleague stated, ‘I think it is about climbing mountains for some people, and I think that’s alright …. and for me it’s not’ (ibid.152). Another, born with a dislocated hip, explained, ‘…. the parental attitude of cotton wool …. I couldn’t climb a tree without fearing that I would fall out and really hurt myself …. and I got ridiculed’ (ibid. 155). Another thought that she could not engage with the outdoors because she could not afford the right fleeces with their logos or walking boots. As an asthmatic, she was cautious about her physical abilities and did not want to ‘ruin’ her friends’ day (ibid. 156). A male colleague, who is gay, associated the outdoors with being bullied. He did not enjoy an intense physical relationship with the outdoors, yet he became an enthusiastic gardener (ibid. 159). It also became clear that there are cultural reasons why some people do not want to connect with the outdoors. One colleague was brought up in Ireland during the Troubles. As a Catholic, she did not feel she could venture onto the large tracts of open country owned by Protestants. She reflected that her Pakistani neighbours did not venture into the surrounding countryside, partly because they did not know where they were legally allowed to go, but also because they associated it with the poverty from which they had escaped (ibid. 158).
Although my colleagues initially defined themselves as non-outdoor, it became clear that all had connections with nature and the outdoors. Some spoke of camping with the Guides, others of walks along the sea front or riverbank, others of tending a small garden patch of their own. One became a keen ornithologist, others enthusiastic gardeners and others regular walkers. Despite this, at first they argued that they were not outdoor people because they did not fit in with their stereotyped perceptions of what it means to be outdoor people.
An analysis of collective poems, written after an outdoor experience revealed the importance of the senses in making connections:
The sound of raindrops over my head
The sight of the rainbow across the waterfall
Howling wind against the body (ibid. 164)
Observations were made about the power of nature:
The thirsty ferns sipped the thundering water
Droplets of water transformed into a solid mass
Sheer power and energy – why can’t we use and not abuse it? (ibid, 165)
To see the sheer beauty of a land untouched or spoilt
To hear sound never heard in cities
The force of the wild unknown to city dwellers
To think of life in pace with nature’s rhythms
Small humans in vast country … but they will survive (ibid. 167)
The writers wrote of feelings of peace, being alone with nature, seeking support from their co-walkers and facing personal challenges. They wrote of mythical beasts. They wrote of a reflective space:
Reflecting on my own
Solitude is not being lonely
It’s a powerful silence
The answers are there (ibid. 176)
Through the participants’ involvement in these research processes, it seemed that they were able to give themselves permission to recognize the legitimacy of their involvements with nature and the outdoors and to consider re-defining themselves as outdoor.
Further analysis revealed that people developed a connection with nature through a combination of factors:
- their family had a tradition and habit of going outdoors;
- they were members of friendship groups which went outdoors;
- they had developed a love of nature, generally from childhood;
- they had an enthusiasm for outdoor activities ranging from sailing and climbing to wildlife watching and gardening;
- they had been inspired by someone or something; and,
- they had been given opportunities to engage with the outdoors.
A critical factor for many people was having a friend or mentor who would persuade them to go on trips outdoors.
3. My recent practical work and observations
I have recently facilitated courses aimed at increasing the confidence of youth and community development workers to take their client groups outdoors. At the end of the courses, an increase in confidence and ideas has been reported. However, a recurring theme has been that there has not been enough information about activities that they could lead with the children, young people or adults. This is a cause for concern as it appears to replicate the traditional view of the outdoors being concerned with leading activities, rather than facilitating outdoor experiences, so that people can extract from these the things that they are initially comfortable with, and having control over defining their own personal challenges. There was still an interest in taking people to more remote places, rather than on appreciating the nature that surrounds us. Yet the nature that surrounds us is accessible and generally free from some of the activity, economic and cultural considerations that impact on going further afield. Bond (2013) argues:
“Nature needs passionate naturalists, who care for the plant and animal species struggling to maintain their positions in rapidly changing habitats. Where do these people come from? They grow up in family gardens and spend time in local parks, woodlands and seashores. They care about the environment because they experience it. They have a sense of oneness with nature and as the relationship grows they start to develop a feeling of responsibility for its welfare.”
I recognize that more time must be devoted to supporting colleagues so that they can become outdoor people, so that they can understand on a personal level what it means to be connected with nature and the outdoors. This involves mentoring, developing creative means for connecting through photography, art, story telling and poetry, and giving time to explore and reflect on the intricacies and marvels of nature. Many courses merely replicate what has gone before with an emphasis on physical activities.
My hope is that outdoor educators will support the development of a much broader definition of the outdoors and outdoor activities. Some national organisations are drawing the public’s attention to options. The Royal Horticultural Society is promoting gardening in schools. The National Trust offers a list of 50 ‘must do’ activities, ranging from holding a scary beast to making a trail with sticks (www.50things.org.uk). The Woodland Trust has downloadable sheets for children and young people. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has an activity wall, which includes such ideas as feeding garden birds or planting some seeds.
Does a connection with nature and the outdoors matter? Cooper (2013) argues that engaging with the outdoors provides opportunities to confront real issues. These may be critical to the development of an ethic of care. Ultimately, future reports on the state of the nation’s nature might paint a more positive picture, because of actions taken to bring about change and caring for the environment. The snapshots from the collective poems, noted earlier, reflect some of these concerns as well as a sense of wonder.
How do people become define themselves as outdoor people?
How can I support colleagues so that they can become outdoor people?
Is it important for the future that we nurture outdoor people?
People may initially define those who are outdoor as having a mainly physical connection with the outdoors. By encouraging the legitimization of a broader range of connections we may be encouraging more people to identify themselves as outdoor. This may result in an attitudinal shift so that people are more open to considering some of the major environmental issues that we face. This applies as much to our work with adults as to our work with young people.
Ayland/ Collins, D. (1991) Upward, Onward, Inward and Outward Bound: Outdoor Education and Women Youth Workers. Guildford: University of Surrey. (Unpublished M.Sc. Dissertation).
Bond, D. (2013) The State of Nature http://outdoornation.org.uk/2013/05/24/the-state-of-nature/ (downloaded 20.05.13)
Collins, D. (2005) Outdoor Education, the Informal Sector of Education and Otherness: Making Connections with the Outdoors and Nature. High Wycombe: Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College. (Unpublished draft PhD Submission).
Cooper, G. (2013) How Outdoor Education Contributes to Sustainability http://www. outdoor-learning.org/info_centre/environment.htm (downloaded 20.05.13)
Moss, S. (2012) Natural Childhood. London: National Trust.
R.S.P.B. (2013) The State of the Nation. London: The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
50things. (2013) Fifty Things To Do https://www.50things.org.uk/media/1235645/English%20A4%20list%20poster%20final.pdf (downloaded 20.05.13)