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Blog post Part of series: Wellbeing and being outdoors

Ageing in nature: Outdoor learning as lifelong learning

Barbara Humberstone, Buckinghamshire New University Di Collins Geoff Cooper

MIND (2021) has adopted the New Economic Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing and underscores that ‘keeping learning’ is one of the foundations of maintaining one’s wellbeing. In this blog post, we argue that the outdoors is an effective setting for lifelong learning, as nature provides many opportunities to inspire our curiosity and interest.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, older people, specifically the over-70s, have been defined as vulnerable (NHS, 2021). This can lead to a deficiency view of ageing, suggesting that older people require additional support. This negative perception of older folk by government created a storm of criticism from many older people as well as organisations researching or advocating for them. The British Society of Gerontology (BSG, 2020) sent a statement to the UK government arguing that many are fit and healthy, and providing evidence of the many contributions that people aged over 70 make to society. Current research by Collins, Cooper and Humberstone (2021) highlights that it is a continuing connection with the outdoors that can be the basis for many of the older people in their research to develop flexibility, resilience and healthy lifestyles. There are many opportunities for lifelong learning through the outdoors. Humberstone (2021) draws attention to these connections with nature.

While some researchers may refer to the subjective benefits of a connection with the outdoors (see for example Houge Mackenzie & Hodge, 2019; Orr et al., 2016), there is little reference to the specific impacts of lifelong learning on physical and emotional wellbeing later in life. However, the ESRC seminar ‘Outdoor natural environments: A suitable place for the older adult?’ provides evidence to the contrary.[1]

‘While some researchers may refer to the subjective benefits of a connection with the outdoors, there is little reference to the specific impacts of lifelong learning on physical and emotional wellbeing later in life.’

Being active in the outdoors and engaging in activities requires ongoing learning, ranging from planning routes, to maintaining and developing such skills as evaluating relevant safety and access considerations. It can also support an interest in outdoor-related issues, such as conservation and the impacts of climate change. Many people mentioned their increased interest in nature during the lockdown of spring 2020. As well as connecting within nature on personal levels (physical, emotional, embodied and spiritual), there are social and environmental dimensions, which may contribute to social capital. Boyes (2013 and 2016) points out that through clubs and outdoor experiences, older people are able to share their considerable outdoor skills. We suggest that many older outdoor participants and educators continue their learning as an aspect of their ongoing personal and professional involvement. Older volunteers all aged over 65 continue to update their qualifications whether related to Duke of Edinburgh Award assessing or Scouts or community walking leadership. Other educational activities involving continuing professional development in and through the outdoors are mentoring and coaching people to gain qualifications; writing and reviewing publications; examining PhDs; and active involvement in national and international organisations. A special issue of Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning collated a number of studies that explore the participation of older people in outdoor experiences that also suggest the benefits of being in blue and/or green spaces (Hickman & Stokes, 2019).

When considering education and learning, it is easy to forget informal and nonformal settings such as the outdoors and to ignore the importance of continuing learning to our wellbeing. In addition, stereotyping older people undermines the ongoing contributions of older people to society. We argue that the outdoors not only performs a critical function in the physical, mental, spiritual and social wellbeing of older people, but also older people contribute significantly to learning and education in the outdoors.

Barbara Humberstone, Bucks New University
Di Collins
Geoff Cooper


[1] A full list and content of seven seminars can be found at seminars.ecehh.org.
‘Outdoor natural environments: A suitable place for the older adult?’ specifically relates to the outdoors.

References

Boyes, M. (2013). Outdoor adventure and successful ageing. Ageing & Society, 33(4), 644–665. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X12000165

Boyes, M. (2016). Age and the outdoors. In B. Humberstone, H. Prince, & K. Henderson (Eds.), International handbook of outdoor studies. Routledge. 369–377.

British Society of Gerontology [BSG]. (2020). BSG statement on COVID-19. https://www.britishgerontology.org/publications/bsg-statements-on-covid-19/statement-one

Collins, D., Cooper, G., & Humberstone, B. (2021) The impact of childhood experiences on ageing outdoor enthusiasts. Horizons, 93, 25–27.

Hickman, M., & Stokes, P. (2019). Ageing, adventure and the outdoors: Issues, context, perspectives and learning. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 19(2), 97–100. https://doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2019.1588759

Houge Mackenzie, S., & Hodge, K. (2020). Adventure recreation and subjective well-being: A conceptual framework. Leisure Studies, 39(1), 26–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/02614367.2019.1577478

Humberstone, B. (2021). Ageing, agers and outdoor re-creation: Being old and active outdoors in the time of COVID: An autoethnographic tale of different wor(l)ds: ‘I’m not vulnerable?’ Annals of Leisure Research. https://doi.org/10.1080/11745398.2021.1878380

MIND. (2021). Five ways to well-being. https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/

National Health Service [NHS]. (2021). Who’s at higher risk from coronavirus? https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/people-at-higher-risk/

Orr, N., Wagstaffe, A., Briscoe, S., & Garside, R. (2016). How do older people describe their sensory experiences of the natural world? A systematic review of the qualitative evidence. BMC geriatrics, 16(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12877-016-0288-0