Outdoor education: all-female activities boost confidence

Outdoors education almost always takes place in a mixed-gender setting – but all-female activities such as mountain biking and trekking have been shown to enhance body image, boost confidence and help with the formation of important relationships, write Catherine Dunn and Jack Reed
10th January 2020, 12:04am
Why Girls Need To Be Outsiders
Catherine Dunn & Jack Reed


Outdoor education: all-female activities boost confidence


It is 9am on a Friday morning and the hum of mountain bike tyres fills the air as the group of pupils leaves the school grounds for their outdoor education class. Soon after, you can just about hear the "click, click, click" of the gears engaging as the group catches sight of the trail ahead of them. Disc brakes then whine as the riders drop down to the valley floor, gracefully moving between roots and rocks, laughing, joking, racing, thriving. The leader glances back at her mud- and sweat-covered group: "Come on, girls", she shouts, "let's go again!"

Outdoor education has always been presented as a male activity, while the idea of single-sex outdoor education is almost unheard of outside of single-sex schools (and the assumption is often that all-girls schools would never do something as "physical" as the above).

And yet, this is exactly the kind of thing we think should be happening in every school. Single-sex outdoor education classes may not only be a way to ensure fair access for female pupils to outdoor education, but also a way we can begin to rid ourselves of the gender stereotypes that drip from every soggy raincoat in the sector.

So, strap on your crampons, get yourself a walking fleece and smuggle away some Kendall mint cake: we're off on a little journey into the sexist core of outdoor ed.

While outdoor education covers a spectrum of approaches and outcomes, for the purposes of this piece, we are defining it as the use of outdoor activities to promote interdisciplinary learning and personal development.

It's getting increasingly popular in schools: the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence has embraced learning out-of-doors and explicitly states that all aspects of the curriculum offer opportunities for outdoor education.

Meanwhile, outdoor and adventurous education features in both the English and Welsh physical education curricula, focusing on personal and teamwork skills, and conservation and sustainable development, respectively.

Unwelcoming environment

For the most part, children complete this part of the curriculum in their class groups. As a result, the vast majority of their experience is in a mixed-sex environment. Despite the fact that physical education in the UK is generally delivered in single-sex environments, there appears to be reluctance and even resistance to adopting similar methods in outdoor education.

Part of the issue is historical: outdoor education has often been seen to quash emotion and vulnerability, and belittle the physicality of the female body, implicitly teaching women and girls that they do not belong in the outdoors. This can often serve to compound body-image and self-confidence issues.

Is part of that about not believing a female-only group is appropriate or viable? Certainly there is evidence that outdoor ed suffers from extremely sexist assumptions.

Indeed, Slater and Tiggemann (2010) directly attribute the alarming decline in adolescent girls' participation in outdoor and physical activity to such harmful gender dynamics. (Of course, this argument is not exclusive to girls; boys who do not conform to traditional, or hegemonic, forms of masculinity are just as susceptible to negative impacts.)

Another issue is that the instructors for outdoor education are predominantly male. Indeed, the disparity between male and female outdoor leaders was captured in a recent report by The Outward Bound Trust (2018). It revealed that, in the UK, only 18 per cent of those with a "summer mountain leader" qualification (often a prerequisite for hillwalking in outdoor education) were women, despite women making up 46 per cent of all outdoor participants (The Outdoor Foundation, 2017).

Where are the female role models? Where is the space for girls to engage with outdoor education without the baggage of lazy stereotypes or patriarchal hierarchies?

We would propose that the way we begin to fix all this is through all-female outdoor education.

All-female environments for older women are fast becoming an established area of the outdoor sector. A growing body of research demonstrates the endless benefits it could offer, including enhanced body image, increased confidence and the formation of profoundly important relationships (Barr-Wilson and Roberts, 2016; Whittington and Mack, 2010; Sammet, 2010). Not having men there leads to the issues noted above disappearing or at least being minimised.

Returning to the short narrative at the beginning of this piece, we can see how these benefits play out in practice. For example, the girls were not constrained by ability, expectation or pressure when mountain biking in an all-girls group. They were free to express themselves through "laughing, joking, racing" or however else they wished. Moreover, the powerful yet understated impact of the female leader must be acknowledged. She was jointly modelling female physicality and humility.

Caution must be exercised when translating such benefits from women to adolescent girls, but if all-female outdoor spaces can change the lives of older women, then it must be the duty of education to see if we can pass on these benefits to younger girls.

So, what is stopping us making it happen? The biggest barrier to all-girls outdoor education is the scepticism with which it is treated by those within and beyond the learning community. Educators and parents often favour the traditional mixed-gender environments that are assumed beneficial and inclusive for all.

To change their minds, we would need to better capture and disseminate the outcomes of all-girls outdoor education. Unfortunately, though, measuring the benefits is inherently challenging as outcomes are often unspoken or not realised until later life. In a school environment in which success is measured through results and percentage gain, educational endeavours with unquantifiable benefits become less of a priority.

Opening the door

So, let's use a different metric. Creative outlets such as story writing, podcasts or filmmaking may give girls a more tangible opportunity to express themselves while capturing narratives of progression and growth.

If that does open the door to schools trying this approach, we then need to make sure it has the best chance of success. That would require us to challenge the very strict ideas about gender that many in schools hold, both pupils and teachers: if we are to conform to gender stereotypes in these all-girl groups, then we won't really have achieved anything.

So, the all-girls space must be intentionally designed to champion a spectrum of gender identities and promote positive relations between girls. By intentionally focusing on relationships, educators can reduce the risk of hierarchy and power structures forming, facilitating a space in which no one is marginalised and no one is privileged.

Furthermore, by covering a breadth of activities, from mountain biking to bush craft to wandering, educators can shift the emphasis from ability and demonstrate the outdoors as a genderless terrain where everyone can thrive.

We are not expecting the transition to be easy. All-girls outdoor environments continue to divide the outdoor education community, and schools - with timetables, staffing issues and costs to consider - are arguably a trickier group to convert. Our hope is that this article may tempt teachers into at least giving it a try: if that happens, we are convinced the benefits all-girls outdoor education offers will be allowed to speak for themselves.

Catherine Dunn is a postgraduate student studying for an MSc in outdoor education. Her current research assesses the impact of all-female outdoor experiences on the life narratives of adolescent girls. Jack Reed is a postgraduate student studying an MSc in outdoor education, with his current research exploring the presence and impact of fear in outdoor learning

This article originally appeared in the 10 January 2020 issue under the headline "Why girls need to be 'outsiders'"

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