09 December 2013 by Elly Hannigan Popp
They say it’s difficult to engage young people in the outdoors. They say there are so many other ‘cool’ things that children and young people get up to these days. Smartphone’s connect us to our virtual family and the world; television and video games entertain us all day long. Why would we possibly need to venture into the outdoors and tear ourselves away from our cosy sofas? It’s true to say that there’s a high probability that we will get wet, muddy, or even lost!
Well contrary to this my niece Natasha absolutely loves the chance to get outdoors, she’s always drawn to puddles, streams and the odd rock pool! Every so often I get a Facebook message asking when we can go walking next. Not typical of most young people?
Getting lost seems to be a regular occurrence on our walks; most recently our seven mile walk in the Vale of Glamorgan that turned into 10 miles. We had to kindly ask a farmer to let us walk through his field and point us in the right direction. At about mile nine, and after an hour of me saying, "not that far now", Tasha didn’t see the funny side. Although she did find a good stick that she would not have come across if we hadn’t got lost.
In my time working for Ramblers Cymru I have been looking at how as an organisation we could engage young people in walking. Some may say I have an easy job visiting places like Stackpole in Pembrokeshire and walking up and down the Monmouth and Brecon canal scoping out walks and activities to include in our family walking packs. I must admit on days out like that, I tend to agree!
Unfortunately I’m not always walking, exploring new places and conjuring up new activities. Report writing can be a bit of a thump back down to reality and a reminder that this is actually work; but it really makes you think about how to get these young people outdoors.
To be honest it appears to be really simple, some of which I have tried and tested myself.
Firstly you need to have a purpose or something to motivate young people; who wants to just go for a walk?! How about going on an adventure? Leilah (Natasha’s sister) and Callum (their cousin) are not so fascinated by walking and it takes a little more effort to enthuse them. So, while visiting Stackpole in the summer, we visited the quay and I explained to Leilah & Callum that the only way to the next beach - aka Barafundle Bay - is by foot. “No cars can get there and you have to climb up over the next mountain to get there,” I told them - a little white lie as it's not quite a mountain - and their eyes lit up!
Well I was rather amazed that this little theory worked for me. So I used it again. This time we went on the Toddle Waddle, one of the walks I helped develop in partnership with the National Trust. We had to hunt for ten paw prints to find out which animal they belonged to. "Who can find the next one the fastest?” I issued the challenge and they were off like a shot! After this much fun at Stackpole, thankfully, they had no problem dropping off to sleep in the tent later that evening.
Secondly, I found that the support and influence of your relatives, friends, teachers or youth workers can have a positive impact on getting young people out walking, whether that’s children or teenagers.
This was certainly the case with Leilah; she wants to climb Pen y Fan after I took Tasha up a few years ago. To test her endurance I thought climbing the Yat at Symonds Yat would be nice, it has quite a bit of an incline but it doesn’t take too long to get to the top and you get to see some amazing views. Needless to say after about a minute of walking Leilah was already asking are we nearly there yet and Tasha was asking her how she could possibly want to Climb Pen y Fan. Regular stops along the way and discussions about how there may really be a bear, living in the very small ‘cave’ we discovered on the way, got us up there.
When we were back down and sipping lemonade along the river, Leilah announced, “I want to live here”. I responded with a quick, “You may want to ask your mum and dad about that one!" All in all I feel she had a positive experience that was very much supported by her sister’s influence and encouragement along the way. Maybe we will get up Pen Y Fan next year...
You may say that teenagers are not so susceptible to this type of subtle encouragement, and maybe they’re not, I certainly wouldn’t have been. My last key point on how to engage young people in walking particularly applies to the ‘older’ young person, perhaps a teenager or student.
Research shows that giving young people the opportunity to gain a skill, qualification or experience that can help them in their future careers can be appealing. It is with this knowledge I have been working with the Duke of Edinburgh Award in Wales, to develop a pedometer challenge that can support the physical element of their award. This is about to be piloted in the coming months and we already have groups that are keen to get going.
I hope the combination of purpose, support and the contribution the challenge will make towards their award will prove that carefully thought-out walking activities we could offer young people in the future will encourage them to get out walking more.
I have promised Natasha we WILL go up Snowdon in 2014, and then she wants to climb Kilimanjaro and Everest!
Elly Hannigan Popp is the Ramblers youth engagement project officer. You can follow her on twitter via @LetsWalkCymru.