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  • Dave Harvey

Realising the benefits of the outdoors: you have a choice….or do you?

A friend of mine told me during Covid how his company had been advocating going for a walk in the morning before working from home and then another one in the evening to bookend the working day. It made sense, and as at the time I was working from home as I wrote up my PhD, I did just that. I went for a walk and as a result I started the day energised and ready to work, and it’s a habit I have continued as I have become self-employed.

A question of privilege

As I was walking up the little hill that I am fortunate to have close by, I thought about the different things that were enabling me to be able to be there. Where I live - a choice - is the obvious one, being physically close enough to something I value. The hill itself sits above the town and is easy to get to via public footpaths. I am physically able to walk up it, and able to navigate my way to it and back again independently. The weather was a bit drizzly so I was wearing a waterproof and had on footwear that I didn’t mind getting wet and muddy. I had a legal right to be there, enacted through public rights of access that have given us a footpath network and open access land. Within the community that I live in, walking up these hills is normal behaviour. I am unlikely to be threatened in any way, and am likely to meet other like-minded souls whose values will intersect with mine in how they see and interact with this hill.

But there are other factors at work as well. My identity as an ‘outdoory’ gives me a confidence to be there and has led to me owning suitable clothes and equipment. My skills and experience mean that I am confident in my ability to take part in this activity; my understanding of what being out there provides, in terms of my wellbeing, gives me the motivation. I haven’t had to juggle the thousand and one competing demands that many households do on a daily basis, and I have the freedom to spend as long as I like walking to my work. I am also a white, middle class male, three aspects of my identity which have huge significance in my ability to access these benefits. Me being able to go for this walk is a choice, but it is contingent on many factors.

There is a big difference between having an opportunity to do something (as provided by the physically accessible hill) and actually being able to access that opportunity. There has to be the opportunities in the first place, of course, and that is provided, in this case, by our legal right to be there. To access the opportunity we need to be able to get there, we need the money to be able to afford to do it, and we need the confidence to do it. This isn’t just the confidence that comes with technical skills and knowledge, it is also connected to social identity, to how our peers, our family or our community, virtual or real, will view us.

Choice implies awareness and knowledge of the consequences, good and bad, that will stem from a course of action, as well as the power to enact that choice. This is agency. Any choice involves a weighing up of the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and these will be perceived differently depending on personal context. Deciding to go for a walk might be a straight forward for me but for someone without access to the same resources it will be a very different choice. We have very different ‘freedoms’ to actually make that choice.

Some of these barriers are very practical but some are embedded so deeply that they are not even articulated. A cultural history that does not include valuing the outdoors for wellbeing, or one where you do not feel welcome in that community, for example, is a hurdle before you even get to the opportunity. However, if those first opportunities can be realised then it is a small step on the road to the awareness that informs choice. This is why the opportunities to experience the outdoors through facilitated outdoor learning experiences are so important, and it is why a single experience is not enough. If we want to do more than provide taster sessions and genuinely increase the chances for people to access the benefits that the outdoors can provide, then perhaps providers need to think beyond their individual offer.

What if…?

What if there was an idea of progression that we all shared, no matter what our teaching philosophy or approach was? What if that core idea was aiming for autonomy in whatever field we were focused on? Independent people, able to choose for themselves to take part in outdoor or environmental activities responsibly and safely for either their own, others’ or the planet’s benefit might be a reasonable goal. But the critical point is that it is for people to make their own minds up about whether they want to do these things and then to be genuinely able to do them. This is more than just having an opportunity. It is already the explicit goal of much skills coaching and progressions such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Outdoor learning by its very name implies a change of either knowledge, skills, attitudes or behaviours. Can that change in whatever context contribute to agency as a pre-requisite for being able to become autonomous? Our role as practitioners, unless we are lucky enough to be involved in a long term programme, is fleeting at best, so our opportunity to make a difference is small. But the experiences that practitioners facilitate have enormous potential and we don’t know where they will take the participant. We need to understand the other opportunities that people could access and help them to do so. This means that we need to think about what it is we are trying to achieve and then design programmes accordingly – a theory of change.

We also need to ask ourselves what it is that we give our participants that actually helps them on their journey. The ‘classic’ outdoor education activities of climbing, canoeing and orienteering have long been used as vehicles for developing personal, social and environmental awareness, and we can leave them there of course, as isolated special events. Alternatively, we could also give them the skills and knowledge that they need to help them engage independently back at home. This isn’t about providing a list of climbing walls or canoe clubs because as we know there are plenty of reasons why they are simply a step too far. We need to teach people how to go to the park and geocache, where they can access climbing through a Youth Zone, or how they can access citizen science projects such as BioBlitz. We need to balance the competing forces of safety in our provision with real life accessibility when we are not there. It is only by understanding the real barriers that people face and what real life access to the outdoors looks like that we will make our teaching as relevant as it can be. In short, we need to understand the bigger picture and work collectively to achieve our goals.

What I am suggesting is not a standardisation of experience or message. Far from it. The power of outdoor learning is that it is so diverse, and that so many different approaches and outcomes are possible. Many of the outcomes can be achieved through other means (the arts for example), but the outdoors offers some things that no other medium can. We should capitalise on these things and work collectively to challenge the structures that result in the inequitable access to the outdoors that we have today. Once people have the power to really choose then we may be on the way to more equitable access, and perhaps everyone can go for a walk.

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