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!