With just a few weeks left until the end of the summer holidays for most school kids and teachers alike, I take a moment to reflect on the privilege of getting out into the great outdoors.
Have your kids and others had the privilege of a bit of adventure this summer? How many have not? How many have sat at home while parents worked? How many have been stuck with their nose glued to the TV, computer, games console or mobile phone indoors during the heatwave?
I’ve been grateful myself to have got myself out of the city and into the countryside this summer. I’ve been to three national parks: Snowdonia, The Brecon Beacons, and The Lake District. I had a serious go at hiking up Snowdon and got 3/4 if the way up. I started out by heading with all good intentions up Scafell Pike but then realised i was probably not ready for that yet – nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed a six-mile hike around the bottom and various neighbouring tarns. And then, finally, I achieved a summit – I got to the top of Pen Y Fan last week and felt a sense of fulfilment.
Aside from all the personal challenge confronted in my current round at getting fitter again after spending a few years in air conditioned Dubai, by pools and cocktail bars, the gorgeous green, natural beauty and sumptuous fresh air I encountered on my hikes in Wales and the North West of England did of course fill me with awe and wonder: it was inspiring, breathtaking, and humbling, magnificent, tremendous and pleasantly overwhelming. Perhaps it was the contrast between leaving the desert cities of the Middle East and launching myself back into this lushness that made me appreciate it all the more. I do know that many others have felt the same on their return from the human grilling machine of the UAE summer sun and sandpit.
What did make me smile quite warmly was also seeing families and children enjoying themselves out in these places as well. There were groups of teenagers with maps in hand carrying rucksacks bigger than them heading up mountains probably on a Duke of Edinburgh mission. There were five year olds running ahead of puffing and panting parents up mountain paths. There were kids fishing with adults along the canal, paddling canoes together, cycling around reservoirs, and camping in fields. It was a dream to behold: the halcyon days of youthful summers were there in plain view.
It wasn’t quite Swallows and Amazons: I didn’t see any groups of children trundling off unsupervised onto islands in the middle of lakes, but then we aren’t living in 1930s Britain anymore, are we?
But one chance conversation with a headteacher from London outside a welsh tea shop last week out things into perspective. She smiled when she affirmed that at this age her gang of boys thought all caravan and boat trips were pure adventure, but lamented knowing that on her return to school life in September there would indeed be hundreds of kids who had never made it off their street or out of the house. Some parents, she explained, had not even known where Regents Park was when letters were sent home about the location of last term’s sports day, as most of them it seemed just went to work, the shops and school for the kids. The headteacher was sad to report that as a result it was all too easy for children to end up in inner city gangs.
When I returned to London last Friday and crossed the road to catch the bus, I was happy to see a minibus pass me by with a load of kids crammed in it, with a tonne of gear covered by a tarp on the roof, and the words, “Bede’s Adventure Project” emblazoned across the side. ‘Heading home, or just going out?’ I wondered. Either way it was win/win.
That’s what we need now. More weekend adventure opportunities for children who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance. Parents should be encouraged to get involved if possible or even take the lead, but if parents aren’t available then there should still be chances for kids to get out there and do stuff anyway under correct supervision and training: hiking, cycling, mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, mountaineering, abseiling, and the like.
What can Schools and local authorities do to help? I’m sure they do want to close their doors for a much needed break over the summer months, goodness knows they need it. But as the teachers close the doors on weekends and for summer holidays, could external agencies open them to use the facilities for extra curricular activities such as these? Should school buildings ever be locked up empty when they could be used for hubs for so much more?
It’s true that some organisations do exist to provide all of the above. Eg Guides, Brownies, Scouts, Cadets etc. But are these secular enough and do they reach out to all enough? In today’s diverse England, does everyone wish to pledge allegiance to the Queen and have automatic assumptions made about attachments to faith based organisations? Can we have adventure and the outdoors without all that so that more diverse inner city populations in London, for example, might wish to engage?
Food for thought.
In the meantime, I’d love to see an extra-curricular, age-appropriate, adventure curriculum offered (not mandated) for all school age children, and especially for disadvantaged children. This could include the full range of activities currently covered by those groups such as Scouts to DofE.
Not necessarily Swallows and Amazons, but definitely a chance to get their feet wet somehow. But perhaps we are going in this direction… I was happy to read Nick Gibbs’ announcement the other week that the DfE would be investigating links between extra curricular activities and social mobility over the next few years. Bring it on! But please bring with it the above opportunities too.
Enjoy the rest of your summer.