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Outdoor matters

Outdoor learning must be protected through the coronavirus crisis says Alison Johnstone.

Alison Johnstone MSP
Alison Johnstone MSP

Our relationship with the outdoors starts young and has a huge impact on our life. It shapes our physical and mental health and our relationship with the world. That’s why education that takes place outdoors should form an integral part of all stages of the nursery and school curriculum. Its positive effects on young people at risk of offending are also well documented.

Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to formalise outdoor education. With some of the most beautiful and diverse outdoor spaces to be found, Scotland should be leading the world in this approach, but the current crisis has placed much of that under threat.

Outdoor education centres across Scotland face an uncertain future. These centres are vital if we want everyone to learn how to access and enjoy Scotland’s hills, beaches, forests and moorlands in a responsible and sustainable way.

Every year, 105,000 children and young people go on outdoor residential trips, and more will go on day outings on our canals and rivers and to our beaches, forests and mountains. These are valuable and rewarding learning experiences, especially for children on lower incomes.

Now, restrictions placed on some activities and sites as a result of Coronavirus, however necessary they might be, threaten the future of some of them. The Save Your Outdoor Centres campaign estimates that by mid-2021, without urgent support, a significant proportion of staff in residential outdoor centres will be at threat of redundancy, and 50% of such centres will have closed.

In many places, extra funding provided by the Scottish Greens in budget deals has kept these centres open in the past, and I’m determined this work isn’t undermined as we fight to keep these centres open. For example, the Blairvadach Centre near Helensburgh was saved from closure earlier this year due to it being able to access a share of the funding we secured for local government as part of this year’s budget.

Edinburgh Council has three outdoor centres – Benmore Outdoor Centre near Dunoon, Lagganlia near Aviemore and the Bangholm centre right here in Edinburgh, providing access to walking, mountainbiking, watersports and other activities, whilst Bridge 8 Hub, on the canal at the Calders, provides canoeing and kayaking to school groups and people of all ages.

We also have organisations like the Water of Leith Trust and the Green Team at Tynecastle keen to offer outdoor learning to schools – and schools enthusiastic to take up this offer. Surely it is easier to maintain safe distances learning outdoors than it is in the classroom?

The expansion of outdoor learning can be an opportunity to keep young people safe. It needn’t face an uncertain future.

Access to the outdoors is vital for the development of our young people and the wellbeing of everyone. It is also the only way we learn how to live with nature. It’s clear therefore that the Scottish Government must urgently step in to provide financial help for the sector and commit to supporting all education outdoors.

Scotland has a long and proud history Scotland of facilitating children and young people’s access to the great outdoors. It must be built upon, not abandoned.

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