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Outdoor Boom or Bust?

This Autumn has seen a massive rise in the number of participants in our outdoor groups and a huge increase of enquiries. To make up for lost work and income since March, we have created more groups but have found that these are all already oversubscribed. We have never been full before in our sessions and never had so many enquiries from parents of children and young people across all ages. As a freelancer I have also seen an increase in work in across the school sector.

It seems this sudden rise in popularity of outdoor provision is being experienced by many other outdoor providers, also reporting full groups and waiting lists in many if not all of their sessions. Like my colleagues and I, we all collectively understand that this represents a need. We, and other educators and facilitators, all reporting a desire to be able to provide more, to fulfil the sudden increase in need but already being at capacity and unsure about how to help.

This comes at a time when outdoor education centres are fighting for survival and still campaigning for a lift in restrictions. Outdoor Centres are hoping to avoid major staff losses and ultimately the loss of many outdoor education centres accross the U.K. Restrictions stating that over night stays are currently not permitted, means many thousands of children are missing out on crucial outdoor and experiential education. My own daughter at university studying Environmental Geo-science also has experienced a lack of field work opportunities due to the same restrictions. School camps represent one of the few ways that adventure can be accessed by children and young people in challenging financial circumstances, who would usually never be able to access watersports, climbing or even camping. The Institute of Outdoor Learning is lobbying on behalf of many across the outdoor sector, as a wide spectrum of education and experiential opprtunity is currently being lost, from outdoor adventure education to field studies.

Given the massive surge in enquiries and popularity of outdoor provision by schools and parents and the evidence to suggest outdoors is safer, the Outdoor Education Centre restrictions make little sense.

The rise in popularity of outdoor provision in some sectors such as forest school and outdoor learning may well be related to covid guidance and the research suggesting that the outdoors is safer than activity in poorly ventilated buildings. I have wondered if parents seeking activity for their children feel more comfortable with an outdoor setting or if other indoor activities have reduced member numbers or ceased entirely?

Sunny, one of our outdoor youth leaders, described that "most kids at school or in shops at the moment could be told off 100 times a day for not wearing a mask properly or forgetting the one way system. When they are in the woods they don't have to worry about those things. Even for those kids who might find the outdoors challenging usually, it now probably seems easier. Also, kids in schools might be playing outdoors more and in places where they weren't allowed before, like a muddy school field, but now because of covid, lots of kids might get more opportunity to be outdoors and so they will be more ready for what we do."

Another possible explanation for an increase in popularity could be that many families enjoyed a newfound love of time outdoors and in nature together over lockdown and that this continues, certainly there have been many reports to say this is so and to encourage this nature based activity.

Some people have anecdotally reported that being outdoors and in nature has helped their mental health (Even on social media there have been threads asking people to post a picture of nature to break the pattern of covid and political negativity in many posts).

A study out this week, The People and Nature survey for England, did echo this with findings that 83% of children reported that nature made them feel happy. However, as we have seen over lockdown, not everyone has the same access to the outdoors and nature and so 6 out of 10 children reported that they went outside less during covid restrictions. The closure of parks were a major reason for this. Whilst some of us work hard to make extra space and provision for an increased need-in our natural spaces, woodlands or beaches-actually, local parks are one of the few places that many children will engage with nature. This serves as a reminder that the spaces we chose to offer outdoor provision can exclude even when we are desperately seeking to include. Last month, the Environmental Agency Chief warned that access to nature was too middle class.

This autumn and winter will also see a reduction in the community and social festivals of light that we are used to. Children at our groups are bemoaning the fact that they wont be allowed to trick or treat and several urban/rural myths are developing as a result, such as if you trick and treat you will be arrested. The lack of clarity on so many covid related matters, means that parents are forced to make their own judgements. When these are not universally agreed, the spectrum and range of anxieties means that we make choices based not only on our own common snse but also on how we will affect the comfort or anxiety of others. Many parents will not know if trick or treating is acceptable or not this year and that confusion will inevitably be picked up by their children.

A major outdoor event that usually sees communities large and small come together at this time of year is Bonfire night. Certainly, large organised firework events and also lantern parades were cancelled months ago and this, particularly from a child’s eye view (and my own) represents significant losses of outdoor, seasonal, community togetherness. In my own family we navigate Autumn and Winter via a series of outdoor night-time festivals. The fire, the lights, the community, the seasonal food and rituals are what get us through. In acknowledgment for these losses the curious school of the wild is using making soup together outdoors over fire in small gatherings, as some small consolation.

Darkness activity outdoors is a crucial part of a child’s development and understanding of the world and themselves. I hope that families will be able to find ways to still get outdoors in the dark. We are now better as parents, teachers and leaders at understanding that children and young people managing their own risk is essential for development and confidence and I think we can add managing the risks associated with darkness play to that. These seasonal night festivals represent potential to make important positive playful experiences and connections with the dark and with night. I am fortunate that one school I work with is happy to do some darkness sessions as the winter arrives.

At a time when my outdoor practice ought to be nicely balanced with research and PhD study, I find that it is currently the practice pulling me in. For an outdoor practitioner seeing and feeling an increase in a need for outdoor experiences, is an irresistable temptation. As one practitioner put it "this is our time". Locally, it can feel like that but I am mindful that the current Covid 19 restrictions are affecting the sector in very different and inconsistent, even exclusive ways . The thought that "this is our time" is very seductive. But, how will we adapt? Will the popularity of our provision last? This is a significant and turbulant moment in history for the outdoor sector. This blog personally represents a rare opportunity inbetween the very full and increased outdoor sessions, to pause and think about what it all means for us, my local outdoor communities and others further afield. I wonder, has covid 19 meant an outdoor Boom or Bust for you?

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