The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused major disruptions to daily life. Young people are feeling these changes deeply. For the current generation of students, never have their lives suffered such collective disruption. As the virus continues to shake our world, educators, parents, academics, and mental health professionals endeavour to combat the impacts COVID-19 has had on the mental health and wellbeing of young people.
In recent times, our world has felt out of our control. For young Australians, this has meant living through one of the most tumultuous periods in modern times and having to adapt and deal with unprecedented changes in how they live and learn.
Kids Helpline and the Australian Human Rights Commission have co-authored a report on the impacts of COVID-19 on children and young people who contact Kids Helpline. The report examines the types of COVID-19-related concerns that children and young people aged 5 to 25 years raised with Kids Helpline counsellors between January and the end of April 2020. There were 2,567 contacts from children and young people who raised COVID-19 during this time period. All top five concerns related to COVID-19 raised by these children and young people were:
Mental health concerns resulting from COVID-19 were the top concerns for females, males, and transgender or gender diverse aged 5-11 years in cities and inner regional areas. Education impacts were the top concern for females and transgender or gender diverse aged 11-17 years; in cities, regional and remote areas.
Results from a YouthInsight survey of young people aged 14 to 25 years regarding their sentiments on COVID-19 indicated 74% were concerned about the health of their family, and the longer-term impact COVID-19 may have on their schooling.
In Victoria, research has found more than 10% of Victorian students from disadvantaged schools were absent during the state's first period of remote learning — compared to 4% in advantaged schools.
Fams, the peak body for non-government organisations working with vulnerable children in Sydney recently reported more than 3,000 public school students in NSW have not returned to their classrooms since the remote learning period ended in May.
According to UNESCO, COVID-19 has affected an estimated 1.5 billion learners (or 91.3% of total enrolled learners) worldwide at its peak and it has had a catastrophic impact, and caused trauma, to school communities across the world.
A national survey exploring the impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning across all educational sectors was undertaken by researchers at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. This research has recorded a snapshot in time during the height of the pandemic restrictions in Australia.
3 out of 4 of the primary and secondary school teachers surveyed were of the view that remote learning negatively affects student's emotional wellbeing to some degree. This manifests through anxiety (including obsessive-compulsive disorder related to personal cleanliness), feelings of disconnection, withdrawal from interacting with others, and missing friends.
After a period of lockdowns, isolation, increased screen-time and a lack of access to nature, outdoor education is more vital than ever; it is an integral part of the recovery of our nation.
Outdoor education provides grounding for young people in the face of this uncertainty. The physical and mental health benefits of simply being in the natural world are increasingly understood and accepted by governments locally and around the world.
Needing Trees – The Nature of Happiness report commissioned by Planet Ark found that people who regularly engage in activities outdoors are significantly happier than people who do not. Exposing young people to natural environments reduces stress and increases wellbeing.
Time spent in nature benefits those suffering from depression. Studies had shown people suffering from mild to major depressive disorders showed significant mood elevation when exposed to nature. Not only that, but they also felt more motivated and energised to recover and return to normalcy.
Schools are central to wellbeing for students. A focus on social capital in schools creates a sense of belonging and connectedness, which is essential for students of all ages. A carefully designed outdoor education program builds community and culture and develops positive associations around school. It provides a space for quiet reflection - revitalising relationships between peers and trusted adults within the school community.
Critical in these times, outdoor education programs provide a source of empowerment. In many models of outdoor education, young people are encouraged to take responsibility for tangible outcomes such as food, water, shelter and relationships.
We cook because we must eat.
We carefully navigate because we want to get to camp by dark.
We pay attention while our teammates make their way up the climbing tower because we are part of their support system.
We care for others because if we don't, the group doesn't thrive.
We close our tent screens, or we accept mosquitos in our ears at 2 am.
Outside connections are minimal because everything we need is right within our group. Our successes are localised, satisfying and within our own control. Mistakes are accepted, reflected upon and overcome. We feel the effects of our own actions on a personal scale and are empowered by them.
St Michael's Grammar teacher, Zoey Collings joined her students on program at Camp Eildon, Victoria in November of 2020. Zoey said, "After spending almost 2 Terms online learning and socially distanced from friends, it was literally a breath of fresh air for Year 7 students to participate in the Outdoor Education Group program. Students could no longer rely on their devices for entertainment or communication, and instead, I witnessed their creative thinking, teamwork and leadership skills come to the fore. Outdoor Ed has certainly unearthed an adventurous spirit in many and cultivated deeper relationships with their peers."
Outdoor education can support students in navigating some of the complicated emotions they may be facing after their individual experiences during 2020. By reconnecting them to each other and the natural world, they become re-energise and have the opportunity to create new and meaningful memories.
COVID-19 has turned the lives of young people upside down. Many have had to change their way of life dramatically. But, for a time, a young person experiencing outdoor education program can take a breath and a break from a world of adult concerns. They can explore the endless benefits the natural world has to offer them. They can experience their power within their sphere of influence. The physical and mental demands they encounter provide the emotional space to rest, reflect and ready themselves to face the world they will inherit with a restored sense of power and hope.
By partnering with a trusted outdoor education provider, schools can provide regeneration and reconnection in a meaningful and memorable way.