Outdoors: Is it a privilege?

February 5, 2019

 

The outdoors as privilege is on my mind a lot at the moment.  

I am part of a gang of outdoorsy types who believes that the outdoors is good for you.  I believe that it can be beneficial for health and education, I believe that it is beneficial for the health and education of not only individuals, but also communities and ultimately our planet.

 

What's bugging me though is that I know people who can't access it.  I know people who can't drive to it, can't get the appropriate kit to be in it or people who are having local green spaces taken away, bought and developed.

 

Even the common outdoor mantra "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing"  is problematic.  

 

This blog explores the arguments and issues surrounding access to the outdoors as a privilege.

 

I write this as Schools will have just been sent details for the Activity Passport, a proposal from the Education Secretary, Damien Hinds.  It gives a list of activities that can occur outdoors and is designed to help the resilience of children, bring families together and encourage children to move away from "gadgets". 

 

Click here to view the Activity Passport

 

The first activity on the list for Reception aged children is Visit a Farm.  The passport is designed to help schools and families access more outdoor activity but a recent article in the TES states "However, the Department for Education told Tes that schools will not be given any additional funding to help pupils achieve these goals." 

 

To put this in perspective, the Guardian yesterday published an article based on research that found "Almost half of the country’s most socially deprived areas are more than 15 miles by road from 10 national parks and 46 areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB)"  The article goes on to say, "The study was commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and has prompted calls for better bus and train links from towns and cities. More than nine in 10 journeys to national parks are made by car and Natural England has estimated that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds account for about 1% of visitors to national parks despite making up about 14% of the general population."

 

In Cornwall, a county of extraordinary natural beauty, it is known that many children do not access the beaches that the county is famed for.  In 2004 an Arts and Dance project titled "Road to the Beach" evolved, as data suggested that many children from Primary Schools in Cornwall had never visited the beach.  In 2016 an article in the Guardian explored Penzance as a centre for Sea and Surf, and found, "Penzance, the most westerly major town in Cornwall, is known for its picturesque port flanked by sandy beaches. But while many children are enjoying the summer holidays building sandcastles and eating (clotted cream) ice cream, the children from one of the town’s estates can only dream of days at the seaside. Treneere is only a mile away but parents, unable to afford the ice cream and bus journey to get tired children home, avoid the outing. It may as well be 100 miles away."  Childhood poverty has only increased since the date this article was published.  

 

The same article quotes Cat Keene, Director of the Charitable Organisation Trelya, that works to improve lives of disadvantaged young people, she raises another important issue; "They dread going to school as they don’t often have a clean uniform, and know they will get into trouble for not having a PE kit, or for being late because nobody was there to wake them up. They might be bullied for their unkempt appearance, not having the same trainers as everyone, for being poor."

 

This brings me back to the "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing" mantra.  Outdoor kit is an enormous barrier to outdoor activity.  As an outdoor educator, I can unfortunately agree with the idea that when it comes to outdoor kit, you get what you pay for.   It is difficult to find an effective pair of waterproof trousers for under £40 for example.  Cheap tents are pointless, aside from fair weather opportunities in your garden [assuming you have a garden], and kit required for adventurous outdoor activity is just off the scale.  We live in Cornwall, a surfing mecca, but I have never seen a wet suit in a charity shop.  Surf boards, kayaks, expedition worthy rucksacks, walking boots, climbing equipment, climbing shoes, even second hand if you can find them, are all prohibitively expensive to many. 

 

!! years ago, when Rudy, my youngest was a baby, I started a walking group for mums with babies and toddlers hilariously named "Better than day time telly".  It mostly came about as I couldn't cope with my baby socialising being in dark village halls, indoors.  I made a schedule, distributed it and advertised it and we met in various locations to walk together, sometimes in our immediate locale and other times further afield on beaches or in woodlands.  It was a successful group and kept us and our children, healthy and buoyant.  We supported each other, and new mums who wanted to join us by sharing transport, food and drinks and pushing or carrying each others offspring.  I had noticed then, that even a walk was not accessible for some Mums, literally and financially.   Besides the transport, some terrain was difficult to navigate with certain buggies or prams.  At the time a decent child carrier back pack was at least £50.  Slings were a new and emerging bit of baby kit, but also at least £50.  I went about  putting together a library of donated slings and backpacks so that Mums would have options to carry their children and access natural or green spaces, other than those with a tarmacked pathway.  Now a back pack costs around £90-£170.

 

The Duke of Edinburgh Award is another concern of mine.  Again on the surface an amazing programme, just like the recent activity passport for schools and parents, the intention of getting young people outdoors to experience adventure, team work and nature is great.  The practicalities of accessing the D of E Award if you have any barriers at all such as lack of family support, lack of kit or lack of funds to purchase kit are enormous.  Schools often provide tents and the Trangia, cooking equipment.  However, participants must pay for membership onto the scheme and then for expeditions.  On top of this they must have a 60 litre backpack, walking boots, suitable food for cooking on a Trangia, walking socks, water proof coat, waterproof trousers among many other items.  Click here to view the extensive kit list.  You will see the kit list also makes suggestions of trusted brands.  This is a commodification of outdoor adventure that just exacerbates accessibility.  Young people in adverse situations will either not take part or do their best to take part with inferior kit.   This may make their kit heavier, experience harder and more uncomfortable than that of more privileged peers or at worst, put them at risk.

 

This leads nicely to an American academic paper that explores the privilege of white and financially comfortable young people and Outdoor leaders in experiential and Outdoor Adventure.  One of the leaders asks herself this question:

"Why do experiential educators (who are often the recipients of multiple privileges) seek to bring participants (who may or may not have backgrounds of similar or different privileges) into educational opportunities which may be neither geographically nor financially available? We must realize that the construction of “living simply” for a period of time carries a hefty price tag in terms of gear and access. Often, we go “into the woods” with thousands of dollars worth of equipment ..." 

 

One of the leaders found himself in a challenging conversation at the end of their 3 week "adventure" during the review and reflection part of their experience.  Jeff had found himself doing what many Outdoor Educators do and explaining his view on the benefits of outdoor experiences to a group of 80% non-white, scholarship funded participants.  Jeff felt he had made his point well when a participant, who's views were also well supported by his peers said  “See Jeff, I don’t think you understand. This isn’t what I do. This is your thing. Why would I want to do stuff like this? Why would I want to come out here to sleep on the ground if I don’t have to? Why would I scare myself on some ridiculous rock climb up a mountain in the middle of nowhere? Why would I work so hard to find water, to fix my dinner every night? I get that every day at home, and I hate it. I work hard to avoid those things, not to look for them. So why would I do that out here if I don’t have to?”

 

You can read this paper here

 

It would be reasonable to assume that the participant addressing Jeff in this paper would not enjoy microadventures either.  A recent phenomenon created by Alistair Humphreys to encourage mini adventures sleeping out under the stars, anywhere but preferably in beautiful or inspiring natural spaces.  The idea is that a microadventure is 5pm to 9am activity.  You can even go to work and school after you wake from a microadventure, and we have.    I am a fan of the microadventure and share this love of crazy nights under the stars in the wild with my daughter Sunny.  One of the reasons I like it and have taken it up as it feels like I have gone on a mini holiday after I have been out for only a night.  It's also "free", so it feels accessible for me. A microadventure is free, after you have got a basic kit together. The better your kit, the more comfortable you will be.   It is often difficult and not always comfortable but the appeal doesn't wane somehow.     A recent Podcast with Russel Brand interviewing Ed Stafford the well known Explorer and Adventurer, discusses the rise in popularity of the Microadventure movement.  Ed explains how people have begun to consciously choose some level of discomfort in the wild, sleeping on the ground and being cold but that this was "pressing the reset button" before people would get back on the tube and go back to work.  Russell digests this idea and then describes the microadventure as a kind of "yearning for something real".   It's hard not to consider being homeless and sleeping out every night with no option for an indoor setting and then remember the privilege involved even in a simple microadventure.  My daughter and I, sometimes with friends and family are choosing to sleep out and be uncomfortable or cold for a night in the wild and then return home.  What makes sleeping out overnight in adverse conditions an adventure instead of homelessness is a matter of politics, privilege and money.  We only need to google famous explorers to view the vast heritage of colonialism and wealthy, white, male adventurers to look up to.  But that's another blog!

 

Listen to this podcast here 

 

 

 So is it all bad news?

 

I write this as an outdoor educator who grew up in a flat in South London and then at the age of about 6 or 7 moved to a council estate in Farnborough, as part of the London Overspill policy.   This is me partially coming out of the poverty closet but I was also raised in times and circumstances when it was more likely that kids were obliged to be out of the house instead of in.  I certainly developed an adventuring spirit.  In hard core urban environments where ball games were not permitted, I climbed [the flat roofed garages], I made camps [on the building site] and we played tracking games [around the concrete estate].  I joined the Brownies without my parents even knowing, excited about the adventures it promised but left just before my enrolment; I knew my parents would not afford the uniform.  Later, I did the same thing with Guides.  My family was not a member of the National Trust and we would not have visited a farm because the Education Secretary thought it would be good for our family to be together or good for my resilience.  I think I was already pretty resilient to be fair!  This is another reminder to not become unintentionally arrogant or condescending about what we think the benefits of the outdoors are.

 

O.K. so that was the 70's but no stranger to the complications of access to the outdoors and issues of privilege, in my own life I also work with families and children who have little access to the outdoors for health, education or leisure.  Their local spaces are crucial but as is the case in Bodmin, where I live, a green space was recently acquired to become parking for a new hotel development.  Research shows that limitations with outdoor programmes or some Outdoor Education activity are that the green or natural spaces used are not accessible to children and families when a programme has ended.  This means that often there is no possibility of continuing to use the outdoor spaces explored if there are financial or transport barriers for those groups.  The organisation Playing Out, give support to communities or individuals who want to mobilise their communities to play out even in urban environments.  They can help you work out who to contact to close your street for play.  They discuss the massive benefits not just for the kids playing out on the street, but to the adults who then come together to make it happen.  I think this is brilliant. 

 

The recent rise in Forest School activity has gone a long way to providing outdoor experiences for children, young people and adults.  Provision is available privately but it has also been taken up by many nurseries and schools.  Forest school is a valuable opportunity for many children regardless of background, to access the outdoors and outdoor experiences, if it is delivered through schools, and school in areas of deprivation and cultural diversity.   Forest school leaders are under immense pressure however to measure the value of their practice in order to keep projects running.  FS practitioners often face opposition and difficulties with staff and parents in school settings where there is not a holistic approach to valuing the outdoors.  Often when funding runs out projects end.  When a project ends if those sessions were held on a site away from where the families or children live, then the access to the outdoors also sometimes ends.   Some critics of Forest School would also add however, that quality of provision varies greatly between practitioners and hence also quality of experience.  Others would also argue that Forest School is another commodification of the outdoors.

 

 It would be wrong to not mention the Wave Project at this point.  An organisation who have been incredibly successful in helping disadvantaged and differently-abled children and young people access surfing.  6 sessions are free initially and transport is provided for those who can't access it otherwise.  All equipment is provided.  The sessions are contextual and they learn about beach and sea safety, play team games as well as develop surf skills and confidence in the sea.  After 6 sessions, participants are welcomed to continue surfing with massively subsidised sessions and transport still available.  Older participants are encouraged to become volunteers.  This in my view is almost the perfect outdoor model.  No wonder the project is spreading way beyond Cornwall.

 

This morning I was lucky enough to wake to the news that we had been given an award by the Alpkit Foundation to purchase kit to help us enable others to take part in microadventures.  The existence of the foundation acknowledges the barriers to adventure that some experience and they are doing their bit to help break down these barriers.  Thanks Alpkit!

 

I know many talented and dedicated outdoor practitioners who find creative ways to work with groups who find it hard to access the outdoors.  Often at their own expense and with many unpaid hours spent on funding applications and filling in reports or collecting resources or data.  I worry, though when I read some comments on "outdoor" forums;  there are levels of unhealthy competition, back biting and one-upmanship that exist and diminish the positive influence we could have as a group.  The prevalence of outdoor "knowing" or outdoor expertise only adds more barriers for those who already feel or are excluded from the outdoors.  There are many paths to loving the outdoors or having a more outdoor life and all are valid.  While we argue the benefits of one outdoor activity over another we are unaware of or forget the inherent privilege of what we do. 

 

Many people recently helped me to raise money to purchase kit for outdoor cooking, that could happen in places not usually reserved for that kind of outdoor activity.  I put a crowd funder bid together that easily made it's total.  It had amazingly generous support from people who I can only presume understand the value of cooking and eating together outside and appreciate that not everyone has the opportunity to experience it.  Thanks to those kind people and their generous donations we can now offer our most standard of outdoor activities, that of making fire and cooking food together, to those who would not usually get the opportunity. 

 

The outdoor community is fully literate in the benefits of being outdoors to physical health, well being, social isolation and mental health.  If we consider that access to the outdoors is a privilege then we must also consider that good health is a privilege.    

 

There is much work still to be done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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