Resilience and the influence of outdoor learning

By our Head of Learning and Impact, Dr John Allan.

I don’t need convincing that outdoor learning impacts positively upon the education, health and well-being of young people. The wealth of researched evidence, citing a range of beneficial outcomes, is also difficult to ignore. For example, there is a strong correlation between the goals of outdoor adventure learning and experiences which generate resilience in young people. So, how can every child benefit from outdoor learning, and what makes this type of development not accessible to all?

Firstly, what is resilience?

Resilience is the capability of individuals to positively adapt their behaviours to overcome the adverse effects of stress. This includes not only being able to bounce-back from setbacks, but to also bounce-forward and grow from the experience. An essential skill that can result in positive outcomes to life’s challenges.

Residential experiences and how they nurture resilience.

At Kingswood, the supported aspect of exposing young people to outdoor challenges, and allowing a moderate level of risk in the form of an adventurous challenge, really nurtures resilience and encourages young people to recall and learn from those practical experiences.    

Idealised, residential outdoor education programmes, represent a microcosm of the challenges facing young people in society; some of which may negatively impact their capacity to cope with stress and fulfil their potential as adults. Research tells us that as a result of participation in outdoor learning, a young person’s repertoire of resilient behaviours notably increases. This may include becoming more thoughtful towards others or even being able to ask for help. Whatever profile of such behaviours are realised, resilience has helped young people to perform successfully in educational settings. Wider evidence suggests that outdoor experiences not only reinforce academic learning, but also have a significant positive influence on various later life outcomes, including those relating to health, well-being and employment.

Avoiding risks and its impact on young people

Despite such acknowledged benefits, many youngsters are being denied access to nature or authentic ‘risky forms’ of play to build their resilience. Risk aversive practices mean many children may hardly ever play outside or experience residential adventures. Groups of children that have the chance to engage in physical activities outside, spend more time under adult supervision, which tends to stifle their creativity and drive to experiment. I am not suggesting that the outdoors, or indeed, resilience is the only way of improving the health and well-being of young people. But it helps. On the journey to adulthood, young people need to be resilient to ever present threats to their well-being. Outdoor learning is a way to nurture more adaptable, resourceful individuals.

The case for outdoor learning in improving mental health in today’s society

The demonstrable impact of outdoor learning takes on even greater significance given the current problems associated with children’s health and well-being. Following the pandemic, young people are struggling with academic attainment compared to their peers two years previously. The cost-of-living crisis is also negatively impacting schools’ capability to undertake crucial school trips. Parents and carers are being priced out of sport and physical activity - some not being able to afford their child’s PE kit. Britain is currently at the bottom of 14 nations in Europe in terms of connectedness to natural spaces.

Outdoor learning is a force for growth and for unlocking human potential, it is the answer to improving wellbeing and mental health in young people, but it is also under threat. This is despite the fact that physical activity in outdoor settings provides a good financial return on investment in terms of public health and educational impact. Therefore, exposure to outdoor adventure and natural spaces - even within local parks and gardens - needs to be recognised for policy-makers as a mainstream educational necessity in enabling young people to become stronger, healthier citizens.

As outlined at the outset, I don’t need to be persuaded by this argument. However, we may need to provide more compelling evidence which communicates more effectively, not only what positive outcomes arise for young people engaging in outdoor learning, but how this is achieved, and what we can do to help them retain and build-on these learnt-skills. In this way, we may be able to work towards a more comprehensive appreciation of outdoor learning as a basic need irrespective of the many barriers to its use.