When the door to outdoor adventure (nearly) closed
When lockdown hit at the end of March 2020, we had to start thinking and acting quickly. In normal circumstances, we use outdoor adventure as a platform to help vulnerable young people build resilience, develop confidence and learn skills to face the challenges in their lives. Those challenges didn’t just disappear because there was a global pandemic. In fact, in most cases, life got even harder for the 11-15 year olds we work with. The door to the outdoors may have seemingly closed, but the Youth Adventure Trust had to find a way to ‘stay open’.
We had 190 young people enrolled on our outdoor adventure programme, suddenly set adrift with little in the way of support from schools or the local community. At that time, we had no idea how long the pandemic would last, and we worried about the long-term effects a lockdown could have on young people who were already in difficult circumstances. From the very beginning we were absolutely clear about our mission. The young people were our primary focus; how could we best support them in the short term and continue to have a positive longer term impact on their futures?
We wanted to respond quickly but also wanted to ensure we would provide safe and meaningful support. We had a number of things in our favour:
a small, dedicated and creative staff team who usually worked from home;
volunteers who have always been central to our delivery;
a clear focus on what our young people needed;
strong leadership confident about what was morally ‘right’ and practically possible for our organisation;
a network of supporters willing to stand with us; and
a well-established trusting relationship with our young people and their families.
In the first instance, we identified those who we felt would be most adversely affected by the lockdown and targeted our new online mentoring provision towards them. Thanks to our funders who allowed us to be flexible with their grants and our donors who continued to trust us to spend their gifts wisely, we were able to provide direct support and engagement to these young people. We encouraged them to get active outside where they could, challenge themselves and have the opportunity to share their frustrations and concerns. The volunteer mentors supported the young people through the long drawn-out months of lockdown, the challenges of a summer with limited opportunities, and during the back-to-school transition period.
In addition to this online offer, we thought about what all our young people lacked most – access to the outdoors, motivation to leave their screens and encouragement to engage in physical activity. We had to adapt our offer from taking young people out to have adventures to bringing adventure into their homes. We transformed our view of outdoor adventure with the realisation that it is not about a place, nor about an activity, but rather about a mindset.
We got creative, running a whole host of initiatives to keep our young people engaged with the outdoors and nurture that ‘adventure mindset’. A virtual Coastal Camp saw people kayaking in their bathtubs, raft building in their fish tanks and surfing on their ironing boards. The Summer of Adventure, supported by The North Face Explore Fund in association with Ellis Brigham, challenged them to get outdoors every week in the summer holidays, with activities ranging from natural scavenger hunts to camping in the garden. Outdoor adventure became a virtual activity until the door to the outdoors opened again.
In October and February, we were once again able to see our young people in person. The activity days we ran followed strict Covid protocols, but gave them the chance to reconnect with the outdoors and with each other. With some young people telling us that they’d barely stepped outdoors other than to go to school, the sessions served as a good reminder that without organisations like ours, the outdoors remains inaccessible.
As we look once again to the future, we recognise that getting young people outdoors has never been more needed. It’s important that we don’t simply go back to doing what we used to do; instead, we must capitalise on the momentum we have gained from adapting to face adversity, consider what opportunities we have to develop our model and find new ways of harnessing the outdoors to increase our capacity to help more young people. As an organisation we need to be at the forefront of change, playing our part in the government’s levelling up agenda, showcasing through our work the massive impact the outdoors can have on peoples’ health and wellbeing and highlighting the need to make the outdoors more accessible.
We have an opportunity to shape the future for the next generation, and the door to the outdoors must stay open!
Back in action!
This year has taken us all by surprise and had a huge impact on the programme we could run. Determined to continue supporting our young people, we’ve been adaptive, inventive and committed to reaching out to them in as many ways as we can through remote mentoring, challenges and projects, and with great success.
Over the October half term however, we were excited to be able to get back to doing what we love best; working directly with our young people and inspiring them to take part in a whole host of activities. Across 11 adventurous days run right across Wiltshire and Swindon, we gave our young people a much-needed opportunity to get out in nature, work with new people, volunteer locally and challenge themselves.
As you can imagine running our activity days in the current climate threw up some interesting challenges! We had to adapt many of the activities we usually run to fit in with government and National Youth Agency guidance, following strict protocols and risk assessments. Throughout the week our young people showed great maturity and understanding in helping us to work within these guidelines.
Despite these enforced changes, the young people, volunteers, and staff alike enjoyed the days immensely. Here are just a few stories from an epic week of fun!
We spent four days at Wiltshire Wildlife Trust sites across the county, having lots of fun, learning new skills, and contributing valuable work in creating and maintaining habitats for wildlife. Our young people got the opportunity to learn new skills including pollarding and ancient fencing techniques. They also tried their hands at Willow weaving, fire lighting, whittling and raft building.
Two fantastic days were spent at a local activity centre where young people had the chance to try activities such as archery and tree climbing, whilst honing their map reading skills to navigate to a host of other woodland games and challenges.
Across another five action packed days we saw our young people excel in a wide range of challenges. In an autumnal woodland, they worked in teams, using GPS devices to find games and puzzles hidden in the woods. At another site the young people utilised their map skills to get to challenges dotted across the venue, earning points in everything from ‘extreme fishing’ to assault courses.
With some challenging weather across the half term, our young people – and volunteers! – showed amazing resilience to keep the smiles on their faces and challenge themselves in so many ways.
After such a uniquely demanding year for everyone – not least our young people – it was really valuable to see them face to face again. Although we have had online contact with many of them, it felt great to get outdoors once more, creating opportunities for our young people to challenge themselves and take part in adventures. The week was full of achievements and really showed that the Trust’s commitment to supporting our young people, regardless of the challenging environment 2020 has created, means the world to the young people we work with and truly changes lives.
“I started doing video calls then something happened with my mum…the video calls helped. It just helped me get out my feelings, telling Youth Adventure how I felt… since I got to do the calls I felt less stressed…they helped me to learn to express my feelings more. Youth Adventure Trust helped me express my feelings when I couldn’t tell other people” Jack, age 13yrs.
Giving an ‘adventure vaccine’ to young people
As Youth Adventure Trust Chief Executive, I recently caught up with one of our Ambassadors, Alastair Humphreys, for his Living Adventurously podcast, to share how we provide an ‘adventure vaccine’ to vulnerable young people – giving them resilience to face the challenges in their lives.
As well as talking about my adventurous childhood spent outdoors, I explain how important it is for me to continue stepping out of my comfort zone and tackle things that are more difficult than I imagine I’m capable of. I feel that this approach embodies the ethos of Youth Adventure Trust, and by stretching other people through adventure, YAT is giving an ‘adventure vaccine’ to young people – developing resilience, mental toughness and the skills they need for life.
I share with listeners how the long-term programme focuses on developing those crucial life skills through outdoor adventures, and the difference the Youth Adventure Programme has made to some of the young people we work with. The key to delivering all of this is thanks to people: the operations staff who develop and deliver the adventure Programme, the fundraising team who connect with our funders and donors, and the amazing volunteers who give up their time to inspire the young people.
Link to listen: https://share.transistor.fm/s/e775046e
Living Adventurously, with Alastair Humphreys, highlights stories of ordinary people choosing to live extraordinary lives so it’s a real honour to be featured among them! Al interviews artists and chefs, students and pensioners, athletes and travellers. He wants to discover what living adventurously means to different people, what universal obstacles stand in the way, and how each of these people took the first step to overcome them and begin their own fascinating journeys.