There is growing interest in whether contact with ‘outdoor’ environments has a contribution to make to keeping Scotland’s population healthy. Although we know that people who spend time in such environments as children are more likely to continue doing so as adults, evidence about whether an introduction to such environments has an impact on the health and health-related behaviour and attitudes of younger people is currently lacking. There are good reasons to think that spending time outdoors might have an influence on young people’s health; spending time outdoors in natural environments such as parks or woods is an obvious route to greater physical activity and may have some independent beneficial effects on mental health.
The John Muir Award aims to encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to discover, enjoy and conserve the planet’s wild places through a structured yet adaptable scheme. The Award is the main educational initiative of the John Muir Trust and is delivered through partnerships with youth organisations, schools, clubs, local councils, outdoor centres etc. The John Muir Award is a framework that has found favour with groups and individuals who wouldn’t normally engage in the outdoor environment in a meaningful way.
The aim of this study,was to assess the impact of participation in the John Muir Award on the health-related behaviours, attitudes and ‘trajectories’ of 10-16 year olds from Scotland. The main research question was
Does participation in the John Muir Award significantly alter young people’s health-related attitudes, behaviours and trajectories, including and comprising: participation in sport; attitude to physical activity and sport; self reported fitness; self-esteem; attitudes to and intentions for the future; interest and participation in visiting ‘wild places’ and other outdoor environments?
The study also looked in detail at what the participants thought of their Award experience. Participants in this study were surveyed just before their Award began, just after it finished and then again an average of 18 months beyond that. Several other groups of participants took part in focus groups to discuss their experiences in more detail.
The key findings were:
- Nearly 1 in 10 of the respondents had never visited a wild place before their Award
- Those living in the poorest circumstances were over 6 times more likely than the rest of the Award participants to have had no previous experience of wild places. About 23% of Award participants from the poorest circumstances had no previous experience of wild places, compared with about 4% of the rest of the Award participants. There is gross socio-economic inequality in who is able to experience these environments.
- Those who had experienced wild environments before participating in their Award were already most likely to aspire to visiting the natural environments as adults.
- The vast majority of the respondents enjoyed their John Muir Award and felt they had achieved something by doing it. Conservation activities, the chance to do new things and the chance to mix with existing friends and make new ones were at the heart of their enjoyment.
- The majority of respondents reported that their Award made them want to spend more time outdoors and to visit natural environments more. This was sustained after the Award was completed. However, their experience had been provided in such a high quality way that it led some respondents to believe outdoor activities were not something they could carry on independently.
Rich Mitchell lead the study and undertook it, together with colleague Dr Rebecca Shaw. The study was funded by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health and we’re very grateful to them for their help. The study would not have been possible without the help and cooperation of the John Muir Award staff, delivery team and participants. Thanks to them too.