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The future is now, and outdoors

How are we going to engage in effective children’s and youth work so we reach the many who don’t have links with the faith? With a collective pause in activities from this last year, Jenni Osborn suggests an approach that will have traction in this next season. 

As we begin to emerge from this latest lockdown, around the same time as spring is springing into life, youth and children’s workers all around the country are considering, what next? How do we plan for what is still an uncertain, immediate future? Will everything go back to normal? Should it? 

The majority of programmes and organisations have gone through radical change and transformation in the last twelve months: shifting their work from in-person, indoor, high-intensity, last-minute, grab-a-game-from-the-cupboard work to video calls, doorstep deliveries, social distancing, new technology, rewriting risk assessments and safeguarding policies to enable ongoing contact. In among all of that is an organisation called KICK, whose mission is to see children and young people’s lives transformed, with God’s love, through sport and support. 
 
KICK offers four professional services in schools: physical education, street dance, solutions-focused mentoring and chaplaincy. There are 62 staff who come from a mix of backgrounds across sport, dance and education. They run PE curricula involving 20 different sports and twelve different dance disciplines, and offer mentoring and chaplaincy in infant, primary and secondary schools, pupil referral units and private and special schools. Alongside this they train church volunteers to run KICK Academies – extended coaching with a gospel element built in. 

In March 2020, when the schools closed to all but the keyworker children, everyone up and down the country with any connection to children, young people and schools took a sharp intake of breath and began asking what it meant for them? KICK was no different, but after calling every head teacher on their books it became clear that the majority of school leaders valued its presence in school highly enough to continue their contracts and, in one particular school, they were asked to increase their provision! Throughout the first lockdown, KICK has worked with 58 out of 70 schools with whom they had prior involvement. 
 
As we are now emerging from a third period of lockdown in England, KICK is still in 95 percent of its schools. The delivery of sports sessions to key worker children has been usually outside, while the chaplaincy and mentoring has all happened remotely. CEO Joe Lowther says: “Young people have faced many hardships but one of them in particular is being locked in during lockdown. They need to be out and about. Physical well-being is so connected to the mental and spiritual well-being of young people. Physical activity enables you to process your emotions, anxieties and frustrations of your daily life. It is so important to actively release energy building up for young people.” 

KICK in schools near you? 

In spite of all the challenges, KICK has made a decision to expand into new regions, including the West Midlands, East Midlands and east of England from September. The north west and north east will follow in September 2022. It is planning to deliver high volume of holiday provision this June half term and again in the summer through KICK Camps, which will operate as physical summer schools in London and further afield. 

It is also preparing to begin training churches to run KICK Academies in March and June. A KICK Academy is where local churches are trained to engage young people through sports coaching, with an inspirational thought from the Bible before matches, routines or applications. KICK Academies are being equipped to operate in four pathways: football, multi-sport, street dance and running. 
 
KICK is an excellent example of an organisation that has a very specific and relevant aim, wonderful relationships with the schools it works in and an approach that brings real, tangible benefits to young people and children. 

The trend of outdoor ministry 

KICK was featured in the book I have written about youth work in the COVID-era and beyond called From Isolation to Community. I also spoke to a number of different youth-work organisations about the work they have been doing during this pandemic. So many of them have done youth work outdoors in the last year and so many of them have made new connections with young people along the way. As we consider how to continue this year it seems clear that we will still have some online work – being able to attend online groups or events has been a real blessing to so many who might struggle to attend in-person gatherings for one reason or another – but also that getting outdoors when it is permitted will also be absolutely essential. 

Of course, there are youth organisations whom we might naturally think of as being the ‘outdoor’ experts, including Scouts and Guides, Woodcraft Folk, and even Outward Bound, the residential adventure charity who take young people from urban homes into the wild spaces of the UK for the adventure of their lives. In fact, it’s fairly likely that your young people also belong to a uniformed organisation group or perhaps have been on an Outward Bound trip in the past. As a youth worker you might feel rather daunted by the prospect of taking your youth group meetings outdoors, after all, it requires some Bear Grylls type techniques and experience, doesn’t it?  
 
Well, let’s first examine outdoor working more closely. That getting outdoors is good for us is not a new idea by – even during the times of the tightest restrictions here in the UK we were allowed to go outside. However, the pandemic may have raised the level of anxiety for some about going outdoors, whether that’s with the intention of going to the post office or grocery shopping, or just to take a walk. We’ve been told for the last twelve months that we should be staying at home, not meeting in large numbers, and that even when we do come across people outdoors, we need to keep our distance. So even just the act of being outside has become fraught with potential problems! However, let’s remind ourselves of the benefits of being outdoors:  

It’s good for mental health and well-being

Connecting with creation creates spiritual experiences. Being in nature is a great way to calm anxious minds and hearts, it is recommended by all the mental health charities and even has a therapeutic title of ‘Ecotherapy’. We all know how good it is for us to be outside, for adults and young people who have become fearful of going anywhere because of the pandemic, it’s really crucial to encourage them, and what better time than as we head into spring? The temperature warms up, flowers begin to emerge and trees start to bloom. 

It’s good for physical health and fitness 

As Joe Lowther of KICK says, reclaiming some level of fitness is going to be crucial for many of our young people who have lost even the ‘residual’ fitness that getting themselves to school daily, walking around school and regular PE lessons would have given them. Walking, scooting, kicking a football about, cycling, running, playing wide games or any games at all that move the body are all really good to do outdoors, and many can be done even just one-to-one if that is all that is possible within restrictions. Walking side by side with a young person in surroundings that are different to their home can lead to interesting conversations. Being outdoors in green spaces creates a quiet and relaxed mind. And the very act of walking creates an energy that can help to sort tangled thoughts and even bring new ideas to the surface. 

It’s good for growing confidence 

Some new skills cannot be taught in the classroom. And we need to remember that it’s OK to be outdoors and enjoying nature, and offer the opportunity to talk openly about risk, and how young people can keep themselves safe without letting fear stop them from enjoying challenging activities. 

It’s good for building relationships 

Walking, discovering, achieving, talking, playing are all good for building relationships, and there is something different about doing these things outdoors! In her book Love 2.0, Barbara Frederickson’s overarching theory is that although we usually think about love as something that is either romantic or consists of strong connections between family members or friends who are like family, in actual fact love can be experienced in all sorts of places, with all sorts of people. A micro-moment then, is a moment of connection with another human being, two or more people who co-experience emotions in a moment are experiencing what it means to be connected into something bigger than themselves. We are made for community and connection and outdoor activities are a great way to make those connections.  

It’s been a long, hard winter. There were many changes to the restrictions during the autumn and then the almost daily changes in the week or so leading up to Christmas, followed by a new year lockdown and we are all rung out. We are existing rather than thriving, we are tired and finding it hard to motivate ourselves let alone any of the young people we care for. And that’s OK. To plod through this toughest of winters rather than sprint is perfectly acceptable. We’ve been in a marathon and need to allow ourselves to walk for a bit rather than run, whatever it takes to keep moving. I have good news however! Spring is just around the corner, so close we can almost touch it. 

Time to imagine

What if we don’t approach this spring as just a run-of-the-mill, business-as-usual period? What if, we get to tear up the rule book, to reimagine what our youth work practice might look like if we took it ALL outside? We absolutely do not need to be Bear Grylls to do it! 

Muddy Church is an organisation which is all about making the most of opportunities to engage outdoors and share the gospel despite restrictions. It offers resources and support for seeing generations wandering and wondering in your local community, in green spaces near you, whether those are vast areas of land or your local park. Here is another organisation who are promoting interactions and relationship building in an outdoor setting, not only because the chance of transmission of COVID-19 is small enough to be negligible but also because it is good for our souls!  
 
In From Isolation to Community it is clear that nearly all the youth work organisations and people I spoke to have been doing much more outdoors than they usually do, with the exception of those for whom this is their normal practice. This is great to hear about and I’m sure that we will see more of this in the coming spring and summer as restrictions ease and the weather warms up.  
 
I cover four main values that have always been important in youth work, but will become all the more so in the immediate future. We are not only entertaining our young people and facilitating them enjoying themselves, we are also offering hope, sanctuary, community and stability.  
 
These are the essentials of a life that is rich and fulfilled which I think have been highlighted during this pandemic. Our children were already struggling with hope for the future, with issues like Brexit, the climate emergency and an education system that increasingly feels like a ‘one size fits all’ system. Now the future looks bleak indeed, we are right in the middle of one of the biggest periods of upheaval and change since WW2 and it’s hard to see what the future might hold. But we have a hope to share, we have community to offer, we can extend sanctuary and create stability at a time when uncertainty is a constant buzz.  
 
Never before has it been so clear that the future is now, today. What will we do today to offer hope to the young people around us?

YCW DIGITAL


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