Nick Liley enthuses about outdoor activity residential experiences for schools and families.

Short breaks and holidays can be a lifesaver for many young people with disabilities and their families. As our holiday choices open up again, increasing numbers of people are turning to specialist residential outdoor activity centres for a truly unique and memorable experience. Schools access these organisations for educational purposes while families visit for a short break or holiday. Whichever group you’re visiting with, these experiences offer benefits beyond what we get from a standard short break or holiday for both disabled and non-disabled people alike. 

Outdoor residentials usually involve going away for a weekend or week and taking part in adventurous outdoor activities throughout the stay. Centres often have on-site activities such as archery, a zip wire or a climbing wall, but others will also use accessible minibuses to provide adventurous activities in the countryside, such as outdoor climbing, caving or canoeing.

Going to an outdoor centre can be a bit like going to a hotel. There are family rooms, cleaners and meals are provided. However, it is a little different. There is often a sense of community living, and everyone is encouraged to muck in and help out where they can. There might be dining tables to lay, tidying up to do, kit to collect or a round of tea to be made. 

Whatever you’re doing during your visit, whether on activity or relaxing, there are numerous benefits to be had from visiting a specialist outdoor centre. In this article, I’ll outline the three main reasons that I see why going on an adventurous outdoor activity break should be an essential part of anyone’s life experience, no matter who you are. 

Connecting with nature 
Most of us spend too much time indoors, particularly young people. Most young people spend less time outdoors than someone serving a prison sentence. This is a shocking statistic, particularly because it is widely accepted that getting outdoors significantly boosts our mental health and wellbeing. I suspect the figures have risen since the pandemic, most especially for young people with disabilities. We know that being outdoors in nature has real benefits, a real calming effect. It is a place where we can escape screens and technology and focus on something different, something natural. It gives our brains downtime, and time to switch off from our everyday lives. This is essential for all members of the family, not just the young. 

As well as the calming effect of being outdoors, daylight has also been found to be a key factor in helping our sleep, our mood and our overall mental health and wellbeing. Unless we live in a greenhouse (unlikely), opting to undertake our leisure activities outside rather than indoors should certainly contribute to maintaining good mental health and wellbeing. 

We also hear about the sensory benefits of being outdoors. If you have a child or student who benefits from using a sensory room, then I would recommend spending some time outside; some would say it’s the best natural sensory room there is.  With the wind in your hair, things to touch and unusual smells to explore, nature stimulates the senses.   

Whether you have a disability or not, I would encourage everyone to get outdoors, feel the sun, wind or rain on your face, and breathe. Breathing is the best stress buster there is.

Young people with disabilities lead more sheltered lives compared to their non—disabled peers. This can be due to many reasons, but I believe it’s essential that we give all young people the best opportunities we can to prepare them for adult life. 

Putting young people in a position where they can flex their independence muscle is vitally important.  Enabling people to choose how or whether they participate in certain activities can be incredibly empowering and can help prepare them for making other decisions in life. 

As well as independent decision making, learning how to manage risk is a skill that many young people with disabilities miss out on. Risk is a word that often scares people or puts them off.  This is perfectly understandable coming from a parent who, for example, has had to be risk-averse because of the nature of their child’s medical needs. Learning how to manage risk is however an essential part of growing up and well managed outdoor activities can provide this.  

If a young person can enter an environment which could be perceived as ‘risky’ but is also carefully managed by the activity provider, it can be a profoundly beneficial experience. Climbing up a climbing wall or canoeing on a lake can be totally out of someone’s comfort zone, but with the right support and safety measures in place, it can be truly rewarding for the young person and their parent or teacher. 

To me, the adventure element of outdoor activity breaks means undertaking an activity where there is an uncertain outcome. It requires courage, resilience, effort and determination. When young people overcome their challenges in the right social environment, they begin to believe that they can achieve far more in life than they thought possible before, whether it be at home, at school or in a social setting.  

Can this change their long term aspirations in life? I believe it can, and that’s why we undertake these challenging activities. Experiences that are outside the norm and the comfort zone of young people can help them develop their self-belief and self-esteem. These things are key to enabling someone to lead a happy and fulfilling life.

Sharing stories, connecting and having fun
Disabled people are generally at higher risk from chronic loneliness, and I frequently hear that the most beneficial time for people during an activity residential is the evenings. This is the unstructured activity time where young people, teachers and parents can discuss their day, share their adventure stories and laugh about any mishaps there might have been. Being able to go away and have a shared experience with people can be an amazing tonic for helping manage the challenges we face day to day.  

Meeting new people who are in a similar situation to ourselves can be profound. It helps to be reminded that we are not alone, that there are other people out there who share our struggles and have similar difficulties to ours. It’s also a great opportunity to discuss solutions to problems, to build new networks and make friends, which can help us in day-to-day living. 

For families, this opportunity to spend true, quality time together is a strengthening experience. In families where one of the family members has a disability, being able to have a shared experience and have fun together can be momentous.  I hear of families not being able to go away and do leisure activities together, at the same time, due to a lack of skills, equipment or provision. There is always someone having to sit out. This often leads to frustration and disappointment. Inevitably, certain activities will be accessible to some, but not others, but I believe that families and schools should have access to organisations where there is meaningful participation available to everyone. This can simply be down to finding the right providers.

So many choices
So where are all these wonderful places where life-changing events take place each week? There are plenty of outdoor centres across the UK doing exceptional work, but there are a smaller number of specialist centres that predominantly work with people with disabilities. These organisations are well placed to ensure that the outcomes I have talked about can be delivered. Specialised centres can provide the added reassurance that they are well equipped and have the experience to cater for disabled and non-disabled people equally. Or perhaps the attraction of meeting other people in similar circumstances can make these places more appealing. 

When we see all the benefits that outdoor activities can bring, a love for the outdoors is something that we want to instil in all our young people. We want them to nurture this and take it into adulthood in the hope that it will help them lead happier, healthier lives.

Nick Liley
Author: Nick Liley

Nick Liley
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Nick Liley is the Centre Director at Bendrigg. He first came as a volunteer in 1995.



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