Young people’s mental health is of increasing concern to all of us as teachers, parents or employers. Debates around “screen time versus green time” contribute to our national conversation about supporting our young people in times of economic uncertainty, increased social media use and peer pressure.
I believe in the power of the outdoors to help improve all round wellness. I use this term as it implies a holistic approach to young people’s mental and physical condition, rather than focusing on diagnosable mental health problems. Coming from an agricultural background, I spent all my youth outside and know the positive effects of being part of a team, working together, developing physical wellbeing and new skills.
As an experienced teacher, I have observed young people in difficult situations but I know that even the most challenging behaviours can be turned around with a positive approach. Being outdoors, co-operating with each other, is about empowering young people in a real context.
Annan Academy is a comprehensive state secondary school in a mixed rural area which has taken a significant knock recently due to the closure of a big factory. The loss of many jobs has adversely affected our families. Our school is very much a part of the community and what we do in school to enhance students’ wellbeing is likely to carry into their adult lives, so we are aware of how important it is to get this right.
Our school values “Care, Effort, Resilience” are embedded in all that we do. School offers experiences where young people can move from a “fixed” to an “open” mindset, where they can truly believe in themselves and their own potential. Part of this is learning from active “doing”, including trying again when things go wrong. For us, empowering young people to develop resilience is fundamental to mental wellness. Many young people spend large amounts of time on social media and yet their face to face collaboration is much reduced.
The link between physical and mental wellness is not new. It was at the core of what the educationalist and co-founder of The Outward Bound Trust, Kurt Hahn, believed when he set up the movement in 1941. His four key pillars of meaningful education: physical fitness, challenging adventures, self-reliance and compassion through service are as relevant today as they were then.
At school, we know it’s important to link physical and mental wellness so we work with Outward Bound, sending S3 students on outdoor residential courses, funding those who couldn’t afford to attend, so no child is held back. We target groups exhibiting challenging behaviours and we have extended the offer to S1 students experiencing transition difficulties from primary school.
The residential experience is about working together, learning to lead and resolving conflict. It’s challenging, but the students benefit enormously. Instructors work with us to ensure that the experience is meaningful, as we continuously make links back to school and community life.
It’s a fully engaging process. I remember clearly how I felt attempting a challenge involving crawling through tunnels, something I found scary. The students wouldn’t go in until I did, but I wouldn’t go any further in until they took the hand I extended to them and joined me. This is a good metaphor for the way the courses work: there is no standing on the sidelines.
These students fundamentally didn’t believe they could do anything. They needed so much encouragement and the barrier was their own lack of self-belief, because they were terrified of failing in front of their peers. But they did succeed. We all did.
Now we are looking to quantify the impact of these valuable experiences and reviewing how our students transfer their learnings into their future, in school and beyond. I will be talking about student mental wellness at a teacher taster course at Outward Bound’s Loch Eil centre on 8 and 9 March. The event is free for teachers to attend. I’d encourage others to come along to try this approach and explore for themselves the multiple benefits of experiential outdoor learning. To find out more go to www.outwardbound.org.uk/tasters.
Jamie Brand, principal teacher in expressive arts at Annan Academy