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Nurturing the ‘new normal’ through outdoor learning and play

As we move out of lockdown, embracing our outside spaces can help society recover and build resilience for the future, writes Thrive Outdoors Programme Manager Rachel Cowper.

The online algorithms must be getting to know my reading habits of late, because I have come across many articles over the last few days discussing what the ‘new normal’ will be.

These include pieces and papers from Public Health Scotland to The Guardian, from George Monbiot to Scottish Government – even from external Infrastructure Property Agencies – many of which I have also had the privilege of being involved with or have contributed to.

The common thread running through them all is the notion that what has worked before will not work the same way in the future. One notable example is the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Framework for Decision Making document, which sets out the challenges we face transitioning out of lockdown. As one passage on adjusting to the ‘new normal’ notes:

Before this crisis we were focussed on our mission of making Scotland a greener, fairer, and more prosperous country and this has not changed. But the place from where we are starting has.

In other words, despite the last few extraordinary months, our needs as humans remain the same. So, consider this: what do we really need to do to feed, educate and employ people in our society? And is there the opportunity to support the ‘new normal’ through innovative decision-making and building on the sense of collaboration and community that has developed?

Building on unintended consequences

At a time when much media is focussed on children, particularly when they go back to school and what this might look like, could it be time to think instead about the unintended consequences of lockdown, and build on the positive potential?

A prime case in point from a health perspective is obesity – an issue often exacerbated by sedentary behaviours and poor diet. Yet during lockdown, we have become used to seeing people out walking and engaging in their local communities. Could it be that when people are denied access to something that is ‘taken for granted’, its true value becomes clear?

If this collective desire to get outside means that increased value is being placed on outdoor time, could this be embraced to enhance learning and play opportunities for our children? Might it be used to aid health and wellbeing, and provide the space to help with recovery and resilience?

Coming out of lockdown and embracing the outdoors

Outdoor educators know that you do not need four walls to teach children. Rather, you need passionate, knowledgeable, enthusiastic teachers and leaders. You only need look at the volumes of research available, much of which is summarised in Scotland’s national position statement on outdoor play and learning.

As we move out of lockdown, the use of the outdoors at schools can provide space for social distancing and opportunities for learning. Moving more can address sedentary behaviours and improve physical health. Outdoor and natural spaces benefit our mental health, particularly salient as we mark Mental Health Awareness Week. These are surely things we all want while we look to recover as a society and build resilience for the future.

If there is an emerging acceptance that what has worked in the past will not necessarily be good for the future, then now is the time to decide whether we need to return to the ‘old normal’. Clearly, where outdoor spaces are concerned, the ‘new normal’ has the potential to be so much better.

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