Encouraging Children In The Outdoors
Here’s a scary one. Apparently, a recent Guardian survey found, 75% of children now spend less time outside than prisoners. Now few would argue that the way children spend their leisure time is changing and yet, if I'd been asked to make an estimate, I wouldn't have predicted a stat anything like that. For sure there are more home based distractions, maybe school homework takes more time than ever and parents are sometimes worried about the risks of children exploring outside unsupervised. The reasons are clear to see, but surely keeping children active in the outdoors and maintaining their links to the natural world is vital for their development and essential for the protection of our environment.
My own childhood was a very feral adventure and my friends and I seemed to spend almost all our time outside. Sometimes this was near home, but our parents also seemed happy to allow us great freedom to venture widely and we often spent unsupervised nights out in dens or tents. All our parents were caring and responsible - they just seemed at ease with us being at large a lot. I think they instinctively knew we’d turn up when we got cold or hungry.
The seeds were already planted and then, when I joined my local Scout Group as a young teen, those seeds sprouted and my future was forged. By coincidence the scouts were going climbing on my very first visit and I was immediately hooked. I loved the personal challenge and the element of risk - from that first experience my whole focus was climbing and mountain adventure. It has been an obsession that lives with me still and now I feel privileged that it is also my employment.
Fortunately, in my university student days, I also met a like minded partner via the student climbing club. Caroline and I have been together ever since and enjoyed adventures all over the world. Fifteen years ago our thoughts turned to having a family and, having seen the positive effect the outdoors have had on our own lives, it was inevitable that we would want to provide the same opportunities we’d enjoyed once our own children came along.
Ben was our first arrival and, 15 months later, Tom joined the team. We had made a conscious decision to have the boys fairly close together and, although challenging in the infant days, the narrow age gap means they have always been firm friends and similar enough in physical ability to allow us to introduce new activities and share new adventures with them close together.
We always had in mind that, although we’d share our own interests with them, it may be that they would ultimately choose a different path and favour other interests eventually. They have to some extent (Tom is a keen fencer and Ben plays plenty of football), but fortunately, at 14 and 15, they are still keen to fell run, ski, climb, kayak, camp, mountain bike and hillwalk. We are also still enjoying trying new adventures whenever possible with SUPing, for example, being our latest ‘big thing’.
Our children are no different to many others and will still happily drift hours away on their XBox, tablets or by watching TV if we let them, but we simply strive to get a balance. They first climbed at 18 months and were regularly running and cycling while still school infant age. Skiing started at about 30 months and they were camping from well before a year old. Infact Ben first visited an overseas crag at 6 weeks old as we took him on a sport climbing holiday with us to Spain. It worked out great - each day we hung his car seat from a shady tree at the crag base and he rocked himself happily to sleep in the Spanish warmth. It actually got far more challenging when he could crawl!
Hillwalking was, as it is for quite a few families, always more of a sticking point. We both have lots of professional experience walking with children and over the years we’ve gained ideas to enthuse and coax tired legs, but with our children it was still a battle. They just weren't inspired by the plan for a long walk. Weren't inspired, that is, until a pivotal day.
One evening the boys came home from school and as soon as they walked through the door they were excitedly sharing their plan. It turned out a friend at school was heading off with his family to tackle the national 3 peaks and they had decided they wanted to do it too. Clearly there was some friendly rivalry going on here, but Caroline and I were delighted. This was the first time ever that our adventure apprentices had actively created their own mountain challenge.
We thought about how to make the most of their enthusiasm and decided the key was to maximise the development opportunities the adventure offered. The boys had come up with the idea and so we thought they should continue to develop the plan. They dived into this with gusto and we immediately learnt the power of getting them actively involved rather than just telling them what to do. They chose the valley based accommodation, decided what equipment would be needed, selected the ascent routes, sourced the food we’d eat and helped with the navigation on the mountains. They gained so much and we learnt so much - at that time they were only 9 and 10, but so much more competent than we’d ever imagined. Of course we had to guide them, but the power of Google made very easy work of the planning.
We'd do the National Three Peaks differently, they decided. It wasn't going to be about fastest or even continuous. For them it was about interesting. Over three great weekends the challenge was completed. We ascended Snowdon via Crib Goch, Ben Nevis along the Carn Mor Dearg (CMD) Arête and for Scafell Pike we decided to add an en route wild camp at Styhead Tarn. They were fantastic shared adventures and we have used the same model ever since.
Since then they have come up with lots of similar ideas. Caroline and I get fully involved in the decision making (and quite often drip feed ideas in to the mix), but we try above all to make the boys feel they are the masterminds. Some of the adventures have been simple and some complicated. Some have been easily completed, some got done at a push and a couple have failed. Regardless, they have all succeeded in inspiring and teaching the children and we have relished them all.
in the UK we’ve nailed the ‘10 Crags Challenge’ which involved completing 10 climbs on 10 different Peak District crags within 10 hours. This was another pivotal adventure for us because having a set end goal really focussed the day . It took far longer than we’d planned but we then had the challenge of finishing in a time limit to keep us moving. We finished with two very tired children only 20 minutes short of the 10 hours. This was soon followed by the 10 activities in a day adventure which involved a circular door to door journey via 10 activities (mountain biking, scrambling, running, a sport and trad climb, bouldering, SUPing, caving, abseiling and gorge scrambling) and this summer we set out on a 10 passes cycling route in the Lake District.
We have slept in the Millican Dalton cave in Borrowdale, completed a Snowdonia Triathlon (involving climbing Grooved Arête on Tryfan, cycling to Anglesey and kayaking a section of the coastline), ascended Commando Ridge in Cornwall, bivvied mid way up the Idwal Slabs and a host of similar adventures.
As a family we favour trips with overnights and this has been the tack for more recent outings. We planned some mountain bike rides from home that ended up at a half way youth hostel and then returned by a different route to form a loop. A few times we’ve done the same but stayed at a small B&B or Travelodge (they are available in a surprising amount of places). Youth hostels are well set up to store bikes and we've always had a positive response from other places too. The best example was the Glossop Travelodge who let us store 4 mountain bikes in their staff room!
At some point we branched out to add some overseas challenges. We climbed Table Mountain in Cape Town and completed some hut to huts in the Alps. We’ve climbed big rock routes in the Costa Blanca and SUPed around the coast of Northern Spain. This year we climbed on Naranco de Bulnes in the Picos de Europa range and this involved a long walk in, overnight in a mountain hut and multipitch ascent.
One of the best overseas trips so far has been a family ascent of Jebel Toubkal in Morocco. We wanted an altitude trip (but one that wasn't too high) in a place that was easily accessible but that felt very different culturally. It also needed to be manageable on a fairly low budget and this ticked all the boxes. The boys were fully involved in all aspects of the trip planning and learnt so much from the whole process.
They booked Easy Jet flights and planned timings, coordinated with our incountry agent and planned what equipment was needed. We also got them researching the route and the Morrocan culture and just about every other small detail we needed to consider. Our goal with this trip was to give them all the skills needed to be able to complete a similar ‘expedition’ in the future and I am confident we managed that. It was a brilliant adventure in every way.
Of course, once the train of increasingly challenging trips has been set in place, there is some pressure to keep providing more interesting objectives. This needs managing if budgets and time available is limited. We have always tried to make sure the boys realise that as much can be gained from smaller challenges as larger ones and the principles can be applied to urban adventure too. We recently had to travel to London for a wedding and decided to apply the same principals. The boys sourced the hotel and we decided that, for London transport, we would just use the rentable ‘Boris Bikes’. The boys planned routes, downloaded the apps that make the system easy to use, planned some sightseeing rides before the wedding and planned how to hone our luggage down so it was easily transportable (quite a challenge with wedding clothes!). It was another great few days.
For the future we already have several trips ahead. There are some shorter trips such as a challenge to SUP the west coast of Anglesey (with a support boat) and we are still working our way through ticking all the Ken Wilson Classic Rock routes. We also have an upcoming 2 day circular mountain biking route planned via the remote Black Sail Youth Hostel in the Lake District.
Overseas, Mont Blanc is on the agenda. The highest mountain in Western Europe and, in many ways, the boys biggest challenge so far. We have been working on this for a while and so, for example, they have already been practicing using crampons and ice axes on snowy terrain in Scotland. We have also spent time looking at crevasse rescue techniques and preparing physically. Now they are tasked with looking at the various accommodation and logistical things that we need to put in place. They are starting to look at equipment requirements and even keeping an eye on weather forecasts. We are with them every step of the way, but ultimately the whole project is being driven by them. If done right, the planning and preparation is almost as big an adventure as the main event.
It is interesting to reflect back on the way my boys unexpectedly gave us the key to unlock years of adventure. It was such a simple change to the way we operated but it has totally revolutionised how they see the outdoors and has even changed some significant aspects of our relationship with them. We have also seen the outdoors through new eyes and that is a powerful thing. Get your tribe involved every step of the way and I am sure a whole new door will open for you and them.
Posted by Paul
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