How can we support our young people

I had a long, unexpected conversation with one of my colleagues today. It seems we all are experiencing the stress of the current third round of lock-down measures- and whatever your take on the science and the rationale behind lock-downs, its seems we can all unite in stress. Phhhhheeewwwww!!!

While we have been forced to close, we had been advocating to stay open for one main reason- the health and well-being of young people we serve. As a social enterprise, we exist for two aims- to help people develop through outdoor recreation, and to look after the environment. Not just to turn a profit. So closing the doors goes right against our instincts.

When people have voted with their feet, and indeed their bathing costumes, en-masse to return to nature since the pandemic started in March 2020, it has been seen as healthy and almost essential to spend time outdoors to counter the stress, and, of course, to be in a well-ventilated environment where cross-contamination seems highly unlikely.

We are relatively lucky to live in a community where access to green space is relatively easy- however I’m continually reminded that transport and other structural issues often debar young people from availing of the same ‘nature’ that grown-ups can.

Going back to my colleague- he was highlighting the way young people have taken the issue into their own hands by finding hide-aways in the main urban park in the city. These features are generally hidden inside a rhododendron bush or down a slope in a wooded, neglected area, and if you follow the trial of Boost bottles and other clues, it doesn’t take long to discover one near you. A wee log or fallen tree, a tree-stump or boulder defines these marginal places. They look like an abandoned den, so you have to imagine for yourself coming here in the twilight hours or under cover of darkness.

Perhaps it doesn’t take long for us to forget our adolescence and what it felt like growing up and not always fitting in. You ran with a few friends, and in my case at least, got up to as much mischief as you dared- or were dared to by those you ran with. I can’t imagine what it would have felt like for a teenage me to live under Covid 19: how apocalyptic or otherwise it may have felt. I’m just glad I didn’t have to, as it’s stressful enough as an adult and parent.

So these little refuges in the park are the safe havens our next generations have decided to inhabit, as one response to the predicament. They are their equivalent of the bath-holes and beach walks the older folks with their own cars can enjoy. And yet they seem marginal, illicit and furtive. A problem set aside. Best not looked at or examined.

Those of us with grown-up decisions to make as adults, in organisations, institutions or businesses are following a fairly strict top-down set of guidelines that are passed down the chain of command from ministerial level. It appears that there isn’t much room for, appetite for or patience with debate. Whether this is a good or bad thing in the longer term remains to be seen. But 1 year on from the onset of Covid19 in our communities, it still smacks of emergency style thinking.

The last thing you currently hear calls for is for young people’s input into these big decisions, although some youth advocacy agencies in England have done exactly that. The problem remains that actions taken within a black or white; do or don’t do; stop or go type decision-making framework just can’t cope with the subtleties required when it comes to the needs of our young people, and so they are being largely ignored.

Meanwhile young people are expected to obey, and flex. People like us engaged with young people are having to engage on-line, and after a year of cajoling, there is a dramatic drop-off in interest and engagement- unless completely necessary.

‘It Takes a Community to Raise a Child’, is a maxim you have no doubt heard and agree with if you come from this part of the world, where neighbourliness and extended family still play a vital role in the lives and lifestyles of our kids. Likewise it takes a community to make decisions about how to care for our young people in these exceptional times- Black/White style decision-making doesn’t cut it for ever- and will lead to an increasing number of young people falling through the proverbial cracks.

I’m not saying the decisions aren’t difficult, they always are when faced with risk and benefit. It’s a factor we face everyday when we take people on an outdoor adventure. However doing nothing is not an option. Opening the outdoors as a safe place to recreate and remain healthy is increasingly important and urgent, and the restrictions need to be reviewed for the numbers of people allowed to gather for healthy recreation.

So I ask you please to think back in your own life to when your safe place with your friends was down an alley-way, across a field, in a woods, or in another hidden part of the area you come from. Where you could be alone with your closest friends, the people who got you, the best support in many ways you had in troubled times. What would you be feeling now? Any how would you want the adults in the room to act?

Lorcan McBride is a Director of Far and Wild




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