Empowering young people – Dave Spence

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Many educators acknowledge the need for young people to develop essential qualities. Given the challenges of climate heating, biodiversity loss, globalisation etc. we anticipate a stressful future. Young people will need to be confident, resilient, optimistic and display a growth mind-set if they are to thrive in their world.

Research suggest we are falling short in enabling young people to develop these qualities.  Residential Outdoor Learning claims to be one of the best approaches to empowering young people.  How do we do this?

Young people stay at an Outdoor Centre and engage in challenging activities (canoeing, climbing, abseiling etc.) alternating with educational activities, and more leisurely games and play. This iteration of ‘stress’ and ‘recovery’, similar to that found in sport physiology, develops mental toughness.

Engage in one activity and the young person transitions from apprehension to achievement. Do it 20 times over a sequence of days (like the 5-day residential) and we fundamentally change the young person, their self-perception, self-belief, resilience, optimism and confidence. 

Further, through these activities, they become familiar with successful achievement in new contexts. They change from entering a new space and engaging in a novel activity and perceiving it as a threat, to one in which a new contexts are perceived to be exciting opportunities.  “To begin with, mental toughness involves a particular attitude to novel events: a toughened individual welcomes novelty as a challenge, sees it as an opportunity for gain; an untoughened individual dreads it as a threat and sees in it nothing but potential harm.” (1)

Of course, it also requires skilled outdoor education specialists, able to judge the right level of challenge in an activity for the group and individuals in the group, and for young people of different ages and abilities, to bring about positive changes. Too much stimulus and panic blocks development; too little and the young person will soon let you know they are bored. Judge it just right, and the experiences are transformative for all young people including those with additional needs. “I didn’t think I’d like being in the outdoors but now I know there are things I enjoy doing in the outdoors… and it’s a lot less stressful than the city.” (2)

Our understanding of physical toughness relative to our understanding of mental toughness is more advanced today due to the work of sports scientists.  But that does not prevent many of us feeling an urgent need to enable young people to develop qualities that will sustain them in a rapidly changing world that generates so much stress, anxiety, fatigue and mental ill-health.  

Residential outdoor centres capture a fairly unique combination of exciting activities, outdoor education specialists, in an immersive residential experience over several days. As a result, it is possible to inspire and motivate a young person to develop these qualities. At SOEC, we believe that these qualities are more than desirable; they are essential for young people in their future.

To this mix, we should add another ingredient – collaboration between teachers and outdoor educators.  We know that partnership working may be more challenging but it delivers the best results. Despite premature bans on residential bookings, teachers want residentials for their young people, as provisional bookings and expressions of interest for next year show.

With Centres unable to provide residential experiences because of the pandemic, and with no financial support from the Government, Third Sector organisations, like Scottish Environmental and Outdoor Education Centres (trading as SOEC), will disappear.  The pandemic may have initially shut Centres but in failing to support Centre staff from working with young people, the government is driving the sector to extinction. 

It is therefore right to ask, if we want young people to develop these qualities, how are we going to achieve that in Scotland without Outdoor Education Centres?  In pedagogical approach and in scale, Third Sector residential providers do what few other organisations can.  In 2019, over 100,000 young people engaged in over 500,000 learning days in the outdoors through a residential experience. No other group or organisation can provide the sheer volume of work that residential centres do today.  As Third Sector organisations are being forced to close Centres permanently, would it be possible to recreate this complex combination of factors to successfully empower young people to develop these qualities?  If we chose to do so in the future, how much will it cost?

We have come a long way in 80 years, from character building to emotional intelligences, and to mental toughness and resilience.  Residential Centres support teachers and make a positive contribution to young people developing qualities they will need in their future.  However, organisations that run residential outdoor learning are being forced to permanently close their Centres.  Is there a realistic alternative that could deliver these outcomes so cost effectively and so well?  Or should for the Government support outdoor centres as a matter of urgency, and pull them back from the brink of extinction? 

If you believe there to be no effective alternative, and what residential centre providers offer teachers and pupils is just too good to lose, please sign the petition #saveyouroutdoorcentres.

Dave Spence is CEO of Scottish Outdoor Education Centres.

  1. Jonathon Coates ‘The Hour between the Dog and Wolf – Risk-Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust’ 2013 Routh Estate publishing.
  2. a young person with autistic spectrum diagnoses after participating in an SOEC Transition to Work programme.