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Poverty Proofing Outdoor Learning

Marcus Rashford has done so much to bring issues of poverty to public attention with compassion and commitment. Suddenly there is a platform for those of us who have been working, living with, or campaigning on these issues to be able speak up in solidarity.

If anything, the discussions being had have shown us all that there is some way to go to understand the circumstances of people experiencing poverty. This blog explores the experiences of children and young people living in poverty and asks us to consider how they are coping with it. Much of our understanding is based on measuring the material aspects of poverty and not the ways that families, children and young people cope with not having enough resources. It is tempting to list here data and poverty statistics but actually if I do then I undo part of my own argument, which is to ask that we consider poverty as it is experienced and lived not only by how we measure it.

The outdoor community has become better and bolder at presenting research to persuade us of the benefits of being in nature, getting outdoors, of physical exercise outside, of outdoor play and learning. We do not yet understand fully how and why many can’t or don’t access the benefits of outdoor or nature-based activity. We need to be mindful of the kit, the food, the remote areas we work in and even the outdoor cultural capital many can take for granted. We are having conversations about access to green and natural spaces largely spurred on by the inequality of lockdown experiences highlighted during the pandemic. We also know that for the same reasons many more people are living in poverty through loss of work or ill health. The campaign for free school meals to continue through holidays has left many shocked by the political response but also encouraged by community generosity. What has not always been understood is the relationship between poverty and shame and the great lengths that people in poverty will go to distance themselves from the stigma associated with their situation. Having some understanding of the ways that children and young people in particular, develop strategies to cope with poverty and protect themselves from social exclusion, I think it will be difficult for some of the generous offers to be taken up, depending on how they are offered or presented.

The same can be true in schools, even systems designed to help and alleviate some of the difficulties associated with poverty, such as free school meals, depending on how that system operates, greatly affects take up and also the stigma that those pupils encounter. If a school could effectively poverty proof its practices, there would be no way to know the difference between a child with free school meals and any other pupil.

We can seek to poverty proof our outdoor learning systems too. Some of us obviously begin from a different place, where often the provision is paid for privately by parents. This is not always the case, many of us work with and in schools or other educational settings. In either scenario, we can analyse how we work and check the systems that we have. In my experience working outdoors across diverse settings for over 10 years, there is no consistency of approach for outdoor clothing for example. In forest school, outdoor adventure education, school camps, guides, scouts, Duke of Edinburgh Award, school outdoor learning, field studies, it is largely expected that children and young people should have good wet weather kit to participate. While some settings will provide wellies and waterproofs, most do not. Consider then, that some children do not own a coat or a school jumper or only have school shoes and the need for poverty proofing outdoor learning begins to become clear. Then add to this the strategies that children and young people will use to avoid the social isolation associated with not being able to afford essential items.

On an outdoor first aid course whilst discussing risks of hypothermia, a couple of practitioners openly criticised teenagers who wouldn’t wear coats and put this down to the fact that they couldn’t be bothered to walk to their bags. Another practitioner offered his method to ensure everyone wore the correct kit was to threaten them with having to wear a bin bag and according to him, some actually did. To my mind, these practitioners need to poverty proof their practice. One of the most common ways that a child or young person can distance themselves from their poverty and lack of resources (or lack of appropriate and socially acceptable resources) is to act is if they don’t want them, don’t need them, forgot them etc. This distancing strategy is a way to cope with the ever-present threat of social stigma and shame, it is for social survival. The boy who raised the game to actually wear the bin bag, did so I imagine, to overcome the alternative and much bigger shame of just not having the right kit.

When we focus on the material resources that a child does or does not have in poverty, we overlook the significant psychological and social damage that can be done. (However, I worry we are still a long way from even worrying about the material lack in outdoor learning.) We are sometimes so close to the details, routines and systems of our practice that we cannot consider what those systems mean for disadvantaged participants. I have been in schools when staff have, between each other, ridiculed a child for their choice of outdoor clothing. It would not be unusual for a primary school child to turn up in what looks like a brand new fluffy white bunny jumper for example, but for many families, the letter home that asks for outdoor clothing puts on a similar pressure as non-school uniform days for those on low incomes. Chances are, the choice for the parent of that child was to either get a new item of non-uniform clothing or not attend or participate at all. The new, fluffy white bunny jumper, not great at deflecting rain or mud, it is hoped by the parent will be great at deflecting the shame and embarrassment of not having kit. This is a classic distancing strategy designed to deflect stigma and shame and I have seen it in action many times and witnessed it being misunderstood just as often.

Other sources of stigma and shame associated with outdoor learning can be the necessity to bring food. I have written about food extensively and discussed how food is often like a ticket you need to get in or participate. This is true in so much of life but includes outdoor learning. Just consider for a minute your food practices. What do they say about what you offer and who its designed for and who can access it? Do you provide novelty, treat food? Do you provide food at the end of a session? Do you ask for participants to bring their own food? Do you provide food at all? We know that it is hard to concentrate and learn if you are hungry, so how do you keep warm and remain resilient in all weathers and in all physical challenges if you are hungry and undernourished?

Outdoor Learning is often anecdotally presented as being a fantastic leveller. The student who can’t access school work is somehow brilliant outside, with a different set of expectations, experiential learning, a different space, a chance to take risks, get fresh air, have physical and embodied opportunities-we all have those positive stories. There are though marginalised groups in poverty, who we are still struggling to include. Funding is part of it- if the nature premium campaign proves to be successful that would no doubt change the game. Saving outdoor education centres would help-many young people have only accessed outdoor activity through the school camp experience-although in all honesty depending on the support from schools, so many families also can’t afford school camps. Funding is only a part of the poverty proofing of outdoor learning. To poverty proof your practice means to understand the ways in which a participant may feel the shame of not having resources, even when resources are provided. Generous and well-intentioned systems and services can still get it very wrong, depending on the method of delivery. Understanding the stigma and shame of poverty is at the centre of poverty proofing any organisation, including those in the outdoor sector.

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