This article was originally featured in The Geographer: The Great Outdoors 

By Sal Montgomery

When I was asked why outdoor education and adventure were important, I started to imagine a world without these things. It also got me thinking about how different my life would have been.

I’m fortunate enough to call myself an expedition kayaker and adventurer. Me and my kayak have travelled the world, exploring unknown canyons, tackling serious whitewater rapids and paddling off big waterfalls. I’ve even starred in documentaries with legends such as Steve Backshall. How I got here might surprise you though.

My wonderful family were and still are incredibly supportive, despite thinking that I’m absolutely bonkers. Growing up, I’ve always been the odd-ball of the family – literally a water baby in a family of non-swimmers! Hyperactive, obsessed with water and the outdoors in general, I wanted to spend every minute of every day playing and exploring.

It wasn’t a big shock that I loved PE, or any kind of field trip at school, but my tendency to switch off as soon as we’d go indoors was quite problematic. My teachers even sent me to the local hospital for specialist hearing tests, as they thought this could explain why I seemed disconnected during lessons. The consultant confirmed, however, that my hearing was fine and I was simply just not listening. Much to the annoyance of my parents and teachers!

Out of the classroom and into the woods, however, I was a girl full of curiosity, intrigue, energy, excitement and, most of all, happiness. The hours would pass by as my childhood pal Harriet and I would run around searching for different plants or insects, building dens and pretending to be wilderness explorers. I’d count down the days until the summer holidays. Not only as it meant a whole six weeks out of the classroom, but also because it meant Summer Camp.

For my parents, these camps meant periods of respite from my energetic nature, but for me this meant freedom. Shelter-making, team games, campfires, bush craft, star gazing, climbing, assault courses, raft building – and kayaking! I was in my element and I never wanted to leave.

Little did I know that these camps would introduce me to a sport that would become my career, as well as teach me vital survival skills that I’d use all over the world. My first big kayaking trip to Nepal would have been a disaster if I hadn’t been able to make a shelter or start a fire. I wouldn’t have even known how to put up a tent if it wasn’t for these camps.

My days of summer camp now come in the form of international expeditions and adventures, but the two share many similarities. Whilst involved in any kind of outdoor education or outdoor adventure, we’re constantly learning and experiencing new things. Seeing with our own eyes and doing with our own hands. No textbooks or classroom lessons can ever replicate those things, or have anywhere near as much impact.

Many of my lessons were spent staring out of the window, but through exploring, adventuring and kayaking, I’ve enthusiastically learnt tremendous amounts about geology, hydrodynamics, weather systems, astronomy, tides and nature. Whilst also taking in the history, traditions and cultures surrounding me, and picking up some basic foreign language skills everywhere I go.

At school, I was withdrawn, uninterested and disconnected. I was different and didn’t fit in with my peers. But the outdoors gave me the space to be myself, and to strive. Confidence, people skills, team work, and a well-developed ability to communicate with a range of people in a variety of circumstances have all come from adventure, but have helped me in every other part of my life also.

Without even realising, interchangeable skills such as organising, planning, researching and time management are continuously being utilised and strengthened. As the adventures have gotten bigger and I’ve become responsible for teams, things like managing and assessing risk, responding to ever-changing situations and reacting accordingly, have all become second nature.

Outdoor education and adventure have helped to build a solid foundation of skills and experience, allowing me to push myself and my abilities further than anyone, including myself, expected.

Sadly, the opportunities I was fortunate enough to experience may not be possible for children in the future. A significant number of outdoor education organisations have not survived the pandemic, with many more being at risk of closure. Organisations that were already lacking support prior to the pandemic were then hit incredibly hard when restrictions on reopening and restarting of activities were in place for so long. Many people felt the restrictions could have been lifted much sooner, as adaptions could have been put in place. However, outdoor centres were not seen as a priority. This left many unable to recover and consequently closing their doors for good.

A huge number of people worldwide have found great benefit from the outdoors these last 12 months. The media has been full of people’s success stories of reconnecting with nature, using the outdoors as an escape from daily stresses, finding space, becoming more active and taking up new hobbies or interests. The benefits of being outdoors are not new discoveries, but maybe it took a pandemic for us all to remember how essential the great outdoors is.

A world without outdoor education and adventure? No outdoor learning and discovering, no connecting with nature and our environment, no playful exploration, fun or excitement. I don’t know about anyone else, but to me that’s a world not worth thinking about!