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.