Updated: Mar 10, 2019
I've been thinking about this question for a while now, and I've come to learn the unfortunate truth. There is a burgeoning inequality in outdoor education opportunities in our society primarily due to wealth, socio-economic status and ethnic background among children and their families.
Is Outdoor Education a Human Right Or a Privilege?
Children from wealthy families, in middle-class neighborhoods have significantly more and better quality outdoor education opportunities, and are able to reap the full breadth of benefits that outdoor and experiential education can provide. However, for disadvantaged children growing up in poor neighborhoods in predominantly inner-city areas, outdoor education is more of a privilege than an essential part of growing up. And this lack of opportunity for experiencing the outdoors tends to include the school setting, the local community and the home lives of those less fortunate in our society.
In the UK, poverty affects more than 1 in 4 children according to the Child Poverty Action Group. In 2016-17, there were 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK. That’s 30 per cent of children, or 9 in a classroom of 30 children that miss out on many of the things most children take for granted, like warm clothes, school trips and having friends over for dinner. And it's a similar story in the U.S, with 1 in 5 living in child poverty. That’s 15.5 million impoverished kids in the U.S according to a recent report by the US Census Bureau.
A 2016 study by Natural England found that more than 1 in 9 children had not set foot in a park, forest or other natural environment over the previous year. Children from low income and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) families were particularly affected. Just 56% of under-16s from BAME households visited the natural environment at least once a week, compared to 74% from white households. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds living in deprived urban areas have less opportunities for outdoor play, something which has been variously attributed to parental fear, crime rates, a lack of resources and limited green space in inner-city areas.
While some might say "Well, tell me something I don't know" is it acceptable that so many children living in poverty have little access to nature and the outdoors in the 21st Century? Is it a fundamental human right to have access to clean air, a healthy environment and an active lifestyle? These are essential constituents of a happy, healthy and fulfilling life, and yet for many children and families in modern society, the outdoors is not so much a right, but a privilege. It's about time that we appreciate this point, and make it a prominent public issue to be addressed.
"For many families, covering rent, household bills, groceries and daily expenses each month leaves little left over for luxuries like outdoor education trips and outdoor gear."
Now I'm aware that my own up-bringing was your archetypal middle-class, suburban childhood. I was fortunate to regularly go camping and caravanning with my parents, to be an active member of the Scouts for many years, and to have a good range of outdoor education opportunities offered by my local state school. My parents are avid outdoorsy people to this day. However, it's because of my relative privilege that I know and understand the true value of being regularly exposed to the outdoors, and connected to nature in childhood.
What Are the Barriers?
So why is there an opportunity gap for children from all walks of life to access the outdoors? Well, for starters organized outdoor education field trips and overnight residentials can be costly. Along with transportation, activity fees, accommodation and food, a 5-day residential trip at a specialist outdoor education center can cost upwards of $400 (€350) per child depending on the activity program. Add on top of that suitable outdoor gear, like a raincoat and hiking shoes, and the costs can quickly spiral out of control. Unfortunately, for many families, covering rent, household bills, groceries and daily expenses every month leaves little left over for luxuries like outdoor education trips and outdoor gear.
In addition, inner-city neighborhoods have less green space, higher levels of air pollution, and transport costs alone for a single-day school trip to the wilderness can be prohibitive for many families. In deprived areas, where child poverty rates are high, many schools are dealing with a whole host of social challenges that go far beyond the day-to-day delivery of teaching and learning. And the sad truth is that it's children in inner-city schools, from at-risk or impoverished backgrounds, that would benefit most from good quality outdoor education in rural settings.
"Citizens who are connected with nature, who value green spaces and who are well-informed on environmental issues, are more likely to become environmental stewards and take actions to conserve the natural world in adulthood."
Inclusivity in the outdoors also presents a further challenge. According to the most recent National Parks Service survey in the U.S, about 78 percent of those who visit federal parks are white. Meanwhile, African Americans, Latinos, women, and members of the LGBTQ community often report feeling unwelcome or unsafe in outdoor spaces. Moreover, the outdoor industry workforce -- which includes everyone from park rangers to outdoor instructors -- has minimal representation from these groups.
So What Are the Solutions?
The answer is perhaps unsurprisingly multi-faceted and, in my opinion, requires the following package of solutions to come together in a joined up way, to guarantee access to good quality outdoor education for every child:
Recognize the Evidence-Based Value of Outdoor Education - Increased recognition of the evidence-based benefits of outdoor education within our government and education institutions.
Provide a Supportive Legal Framework - Ensure adequate state funding for outdoor education in government schools, with a legal minimum number of hours children must spend outside participating in good quality outdoor learning per academic year.
Provide Grants for Developing Existing Outdoor Spaces - Encourage schools to make the most of their existing outdoor spaces by making grants available for developing outdoor learning zones (e.g. outdoor classrooms, school farms, campfire areas etc.).
Share Facilities and Expertise - Promote the sharing of facilities and expertise between schools with well-developed outdoor education programs, and those that are still in the early development phase, by creating a comprehensive support network designed to promote collaboration between individuals, schools and relevant stakeholders.
Provide Training for Classroom Teachers and Youth Leaders - Offer specialist training for classroom teachers and youth leaders on outdoor learning pedagogy, approaches for connecting children to nature and how to successfully weave outdoor learning into current curriculum frameworks and wider youth development goals
Ensure Access to Suitable Outdoor Equipment - Make sure families without the financial means to purchase suitable outdoor gear (e.g. a waterproof jacket, hiking shoes, sun cream etc.) receive adequate financial support or access to shared equipment.
Educate Parents On the Value of Outdoor Education - Educate parents on the benefits of outdoor learning for their children, and foster their support for outdoor education initiatives within the school and wider community
Adopt the "Robin Hood Organizational Model" - An increasing number of community organizations, non-for-profits and outdoor providers are helping to re-address inequality in children's access to outdoor education. By charging commercial rates for kids who can afford to pay full price to participate in outdoor programs, a significant proportion of the surplus is re-directed to at-risk youth in the community, helping to give those less fortunate the opportunity to take full advantage of outdoor education opportunities.
Ensure Ethnic Minorities and Other Less Represented Groups Feel Welcome - Inclusivity in national parks, the outdoor industry and rural communities, needs to be actively addressed through government and organizational policies designed to remove barriers, and encourage poorly represented community groups to get outside the city and into the natural environment.
It's Time To Fix This!
As teachers, youth leaders and parents, we have a duty to tackle these issues in our schools and communities. It's not only children who benefit from outdoor education, but wider society as well. Citizens who are connected with nature, who value green spaces and who are well-informed on environmental issues, are more likely to become environmental stewards and take actions to conserve the natural world in adulthood.
"It's children in inner-city schools, from at-risk or impoverished backgrounds, that would benefit most from good quality outdoor education in rural settings."
So if any policymakers are reading, I respectfully urge you to consider the points made in this article, and help tackle these issues directly so that every child, no matter their background, has regular access to outdoor learning and nature!
Have fun learning wild and I invite you to join the conversation in the comments section below!
Subscribe to Outdoortopia for more updates and blog posts on outdoor and experiential education for a sustainable future.
Join our Online Community to connect with parents, teachers and youth leaders passionate about education for a brighter future.
Households Below Average Income, Statistics on the number and percentage of people living in low income households for financial years 1994/95 to 2016/17, Tables 4a and 4b. Department for Work and Pensions, 2018.
DeNavas-Walt, Carmen and Bernadette D. Proctor, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-252, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2015.
Taylor, Patricia A., Burke D. Grandjean, and James H. Gramann. 2011. National Park Service comprehensive survey of the American public, 2008–2009: Racial and ethnic diversity of National Park System visitors and non-visitors. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/SSD/NRR—2011432. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
#outdoortopia #everychildoutdoors #accessnature #youth #atriskyouth #leadership #learning #outdoors #education #outdooreducation #future #pedagogy #teacher #teach #teaching #action #changemaker #socialchange #sustainability #sustainabledevelopment #ecoliteracy #environmentaleducation #educationreform