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For too many young people, their life is impoverished by little or no contact with the natural environment. Randall Williams argues that benefits of active involvement with nature requires a better response.

Think back for a moment to your childhood. What was your favourite or special place?  For the majority of today’s adults, their favourite place was out of doors, in most cases beyond adult supervision. Ask the same question of today’s generation and the odds are that the answer will be their bedroom, interfacing with technology rather than the natural world. As for being beyond adult supervision, the likelihood is that every second of their lives will be monitored, far beyond the age once thought necessary.

‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ is a phrase coined by Richard Louv to describe the human costs of alienation from nature. Natural England has published figures that show that only 10 percent of children play in natural spaces: this is despite crystal clear evidence of the benefits that arise from engagement with the natural world.

Those benefits relate to a range of social concerns and policy priorities. One obvious positive impact of active involvement in the outdoors is physical fitness, which directly impacts on obesity and health in later life. Less obvious, but nevertheless very real, is the physiological and psychological impact on well being.

There is also evidence that outdoor activities improve the outcomes for young people at risk of disengagement or anti-social behaviour. And of course, the value for money equation for society is heavily weighted in favour of pre-emptive action. As recent work by the New Economics Foundation has confirmed, proactive work to re-engage young people before they have tipped over the edge is far more cost-effective than picking the pieces up when it is too late.

For many young people, a school journey will be their only experience of life outside the city. They may never have seen the stars unimpeded by the glare of sodium lights. Some will need persuading that it is safe to pick and eat blackberries. Yet, without first hand awareness of the natural world, how can we expect our children to rise to the challenge of being responsible custodians of the planet? Children need to experience the world outside the city. Nature needs children.

A further step is to use the natural environment to introduce children to challenging adventurous activities. Outcomes of a programme of challenging activity resonate with the RSA’s principles of 21st century enlightenment.  In terms of self-aware autonomy, children often discover their real abilities for the first time and develop enhanced self-confidence and independence. In terms of capacity for empathy, living and working closely with others opens their eyes to an understanding of other people and how to relate effectively to one another.

In response to the challenges they will face in the future, young people need to learn to live with uncertainty and to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them. The Campaign for Adventure and the RSA Risk Commission have achieved greater public and media awareness of the need to strike a sensible balance between risks and benefits. An adventure experience helps young people to learn to manage themselves in a risky and uncertain environment and to achieve that balance.

Such an experience can be a real boost to self-esteem, especially for those who have not previously excelled. Many children discover for the first time that they can succeed, a discovery that has a direct effect on their subsequent engagement and motivation. However, opportunity is far from equal, particularly for those who need it most. My own research (forthcoming) shows that, although 90 percent of primary schools offer their pupils a residential experience, the 10 percent that do not are those from areas of greatest deprivation.

Both the last government and the current coalition have recognised the benefits of activities in the natural environment and have funded programmes for certain groups of young people. However, neither has grasped the nettle of embedding such experiences in the curriculum and making them an expectation for all young people. To do so would address the current inequality and allow all young people to access what is both an important part of their heritage and a powerful educational experience.

In the current economic climate, new government funding is not expected but there are delivery models which do not rely on this. Parents recognise the importance: those who can are willing to contribute and the proposed Pupil Premium could act as a backstop to cater for those who could not otherwise afford to participate. All that is needed is a simple entitlement to a progressive range of experiences in the natural environment, including at least one residential experience, as part of every child’s education.


Randall Williams is Chair of the English Outdoor Council, an umbrella body for outdoor education, recreation and training.  He has recently retired from running a charitable outdoor centre and is currently undertaking doctoral research in outdoor education.

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