21 May 2020
A few months ago, I wrote about Why Outdoor Learning Matters, reflecting on the importance and impact of high-quality outdoor learning experiences for children and young people. Since 1946, Woodrow High House has welcomed thousands of young people each year from schools and youth groups onto our site, with our busiest period peaking during the summer months from June to the end of August. For many young people, such a trip will be the experience of a lifetime where they will have the opportunity to create lasting memories and build new friendships, leap out of their comfort zones and test their resilience as they tackle a new challenge outdoors, and experience the exhilarating feeling of independence by being away from home on a residential for the very first time.
Like many others, closing our doors as a result of this global pandemic, and being unable to operate has been utterly devastating. The significant financial implications for the charity and disruption to our entire staff team notwithstanding, it’s the tremendous impact on the thousands of young people who will not get to experience the adventure of a lifetime as part of their learning that really stings. As I walk through the building and around the grounds this week, the silence is deafening where-else there would have been a daily cacophony of happy and excitable youngsters, teachers and youth workers dishing out encouragement and motivation, and outdoor instructors buzzing about getting ready for sessions and looking after their charges. It’s heart-breaking.
With millions of young people trapped indoors for months, confused by what is happening and unable to go outside for exercise, we are seeing an increase in screen time, and concerns around mental health impact are on the rise. Whilst many of us are managing our wellbeing by enjoying our gardens in the sunshine, riding bicycles and taking long walks in nearby parks and woods, there are many more who are disconnected from nature, and with very limited access to outdoor spaces. My childhood in South Africa was spent in a tiny village nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains, trees, rivers and waterfalls as my playground. Not once did I ever consider another child elsewhere would not be enjoying what I was totally taking for granted outside.
I have found myself now more than ever pondering how it is we have such a divide in society that expands to something as simple as not having access to nature. Imagine that for a moment… Which is why what we do at London Youth matters so much, providing opportunities – outdoor learning, residential experiences, sport such as swimming and football – to those who would never otherwise have the privilege.
So here we are, during Outdoor Classroom Day and Mental Health Awareness Week, faced with the extraordinary conundrum we are in and a challenging road ahead. I’m not a clever scientist, social media influencer, or thoughtful philosopher, and I certainly don’t have the answers as to how we come out of this and return to “normal”. But I am an optimist who prefers to see the serendipity in every challenge, and despite the complexity of a situation fraught with pessimistic variables, I am hopeful that somewhere in all of this, resilience will prevail. Nature has shown us time and time again how this is so, and I believe the secret remedy that will help us heal is our great outdoors. Children learn so much from being outside, and now more than ever we need outdoor learning. We will never be able to replace the missed opportunities our youth have lost out on during recent months. But rest assured, when we are able to re-open our centre to young people, we will be leading the charge in ensuring outdoor learning is front and centre of the agenda.
Reflecting on my own experiences, I am convinced the fundamentals of what I learned outdoors as child are what has more often than not seen me through times of personal crises – overcoming fears (like climbing a waterfall and jumping into the lake below), resilience from mistakes (learning very quickly some tree snakes are not to be messed with!), remaining calm when panic sets in (pretending to be female 007 hiding from spies but really just getting lost in a massive forest!).
“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach each of us more than we can ever learn from books.” John Lubbock
To find out more about Outdoor Classroom Day and how you can get involved, you can visit the website here. Make sure you’re also keeping an eye on our Facebook page here, as well as our #StayHome activities page here for some great activity ideas (both outdoor and indoor) to keep you entertained during lockdown.
Written by Asti Kanaris, Head of Woodrow
Banner photo credit @jsphotographyd33