The importance of outdoor activities for teenagers

The importance of outdoor activities for teenagers

During the February half-term holidays last year, I welcomed 45 teenagers to the National Air Cadet Adventure Training Centre in North Wales. Little did I know that this would be the last residential course here, or anywhere else, for longer than anyone would dare to imagine.

Children cycling through forest
Cadets taking part in a cycling expedition, pre-pandemic Download 'Michael Blakey_Blog.jpg'
"There’s a vacuum being left by the ever-increasing pause in activity." - Michael Blakey, Fellow

The week of activities would include trekking in the hills around Cadair Idris, mountain-biking at the Coed-Y-Brenin MTB centre, and rock-climbing on Barmouth Slabs. There would be social time too: lots of laughs, new friends and fresh ideas to consider. The cadets would have a great time and they would achieve all that defines and justifies a week in the outdoors: teamwork, confidence, self-esteem, communication and resilience, to name just a few.

The group headed home at the end of the week, exhausted but satisfied. Very shortly afterwards, the impact of Covid-19 would come slamming down, an invisible viral avalanche consuming the routine of everyday life in its path.

We soon realised that outdoor activities for young people could not continue. Initially no one knew for how long this would be. Some said it would be OK to resume by Easter, or the end of the summer term, or surely by August? But the weeks rolled on. School trips were cancelled and cadet activities followed suit. It then seemed that the summer was cancelled. Well, almost. A lucky few youngsters managed trips out with their families, but for many it was lockdown at home, with little opportunity to escape to their friends or find their own space and like-minded company.

Air Cadet activities had stopped - and it was only then that the empty void became acutely apparent. A thousand empty cadet units across the UK, which would normally accommodate 40,000 cadets twice a week, remained empty. Almost 4,000 adventure training centre beds were left unfilled across the summer season. Overseas expeditions were cancelled, with potentially life-changing opportunities gone forever. The list goes on and spills over into an untold number of experiences lost across the whole of the voluntary and commercial youth sector.

The pause button has been pressed. Well, a pause in some respects. It’s certainly a pause in outdoor activities and regular social interaction, but there’s no pause in young people growing up.

Cadets embarking on a trek at Exmoor National Park
Cadets embarking on a trek at Exmoor National Park, pre-pandemic Download 'Michael Blakey_Blog2.jpg'

Agreed, there was a return to school and some face-to-face cadet activities, but once again classrooms are closed for most and cadet units have followed suit. Even when the doors re-open we can only expect provision to be partial and fragmented. Bubbles and cohorts have replaced wider interaction, while separation and isolation remain the norm. The freedom to explore and personal preference have been stifled. Outside what little opportunity there might be in the formal learning environment there’s not much room left beyond for socialising and being with friends.

Of course, schools have got their work cut out if pupils, the ‘Covid-19 cohort’, are not to be disadvantaged or patronised in higher education or the workplace, when sandwiched between their pre- and post-epidemic rivals.

It’s clear that schools and colleges have no choice but to focus on academic subjects at the expense of peripheral extra-curricular activities. These are what Ofsted defines as ‘personal development’ and where ‘the curriculum extends beyond the academic, technical or vocational’.

However, this understandable lack of capacity does not diminish the importance or value of those experiences that otherwise hold a valid and recognised place in the context of a child’s broader educational experience.

There’s a vacuum being left by the ever-increasing pause in activity. It is being felt in schools and the voluntary youth organisations, the clubs, societies and traditional institutions, which otherwise form a reliable and trusted social infrastructure upon which we have come to depend.

That space and structure is now being filled by the often narrow and unchallenged ethereal influences of the internet. Yes, of course, there is a positive and useful side of the world wide web, but equally there is a plethora of minority opinion, misinformation and malicious intent, waiting to capture the imagination of the unsuspecting and innocent youngster.

Significantly, the influences surrounding the adolescent teenager at that time of physical and mental development will lay the foundation for future attitudes and behaviours. In effect, the brain will become emotionally hard-wired. There is no pause button for emotions. They continue to absorb the influences that surround them, whatever those influences might be.

My concern is that children are not being exposed to the normal and natural social interactions that they would otherwise be part of. Whilst they might have online contact with their peers, evidence suggests that this can only go a small way towards substituting for the benefits of being physically present amongst their friends and contemporaries. Recently published reports suggest that social interaction, body language and other non-verbal nuances significantly influence emotional development and behaviour. It is a fundamental aspect of growing up and it is currently missing.

Of particular importance is the lack of exposure to risk management. Throughout the pandemic, we have been subject to strict guidelines and a series of expectations. As a result, we have become risk averse and more inclined to await instruction. There is a danger that a whole generation of young people might continue to exist under the cloud of Covid-19, never having experienced the clarity and security of effective risk management. I fear that we might dilute the natural sense of adventure and exploration that exists within our younger generation. The consequences could be dire. How or where will our young people develop the skills or experience necessary to deal with challenging situations or to fill the riskier, yet essential, occupations in adult life? We will be lost without those with the confidence to take on that responsibility.

Outdoor learning goes far deeper than the simple definitions of teamwork, confidence, self-esteem, communication and resilience. It allows adolescent minds a chance to decipher and interpret the complexities that surround them. It also enables them to understand the diversities that exist in our society and to form a sound platform of personal values and social responsibility. It helps them to make sense of the world.

Once the lockdown is eased, it is more important than ever that we do all we can to get young people back into the outdoors and into our residential activity centres. That buzz of excitement, the sounds of laughter and those smiling faces that were last seen in February, have long since faded. The next group arriving in wide-eyed anticipation can’t fill those spaces soon enough.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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