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Pathways from childhood outdoor experiences to engagement in later life – the view from older outdoor enthusiasts

Authors: Geoff Cooper Published:

This paper is based on the life stories of 28 older outdoor enthusiasts who reflect on their engagement with a range of outdoor activities during their lives. Their stories reveal that there are particular pathways from early years through middle age that help them to keep their interest and enthusiasm for the outdoors.


There is general acceptance of the health and well-being benefits of active outdoor experiences for older people but with ageing many face constraints in participating.

This paper is based on the life stories of 28 older outdoor enthusiasts who reflect on their engagement with a range of outdoor activities during their lives. Their stories reveal that there are particular pathways from early years through middle age that help them to keep their interest and enthusiasm for the outdoors. There are suggestions for how interventions can encourage participation.


Older people can gain many benefits from participating in outdoor recreation.

Humberstone and Konstantaki (2016) present a wide variety of ways to healthy ageing that are facilitated by different forms of, and approaches to, physical activity, exercise and recreation. Research shows how spending time outdoors, especially in natural environments, can improve both mental and physical health. These benefits result from a mixture of physical exercise (Christensen et al. 2013, Kuh, et al. 2014), contact with nature (Twohig-Bennett, C., Jones, A. 2018, White, et al. 2019) and social interaction with friends during outdoor recreation (Economic and Social Research Council, 2013). Boyes (2013) states that most research treats these as separate entities but shows through a survey of an older age outdoor adventure group in New Zealand that there is an interplay of health, social, community and environmental benefits resulting from their outdoor activities.

If we consider the New Economic Foundation’s “ Five ways to Wellbeing” (2010) that has been adopted by the National Health Service in the UK, then outdoor recreation can be a means of meeting all five requirements. “Being active and “connecting with others” are at the core and there are opportunities through outdoor activities to “take notice” and “keep learning” and these experiences can lead to “giving” by supporting friends, family and the local community. The benefits gained from spending time outdoors has become apparent during Covid lockdowns and frequent comments have been made on the growing awareness of the seasons, the weather, birdsong, wildflowers and other changes in nature and the positive effects on people’s wellbeing.

If we accept these gains in wellbeing through outdoor recreation then how can we encourage a lifelong engagement? This paper investigates the outdoor life stories of 28 older people who are still outdoor enthusiasts. It considers their interest in nature and the outdoors from an early age and how many have maintained their activities through their lives. By examining their “pathways” it may be possible to identify key happenings that have supported their outdoor interests that have in most cases led to wellbeing and healthy lifestyles. This may suggest the most appropriate interventions and when to make them to encourage a lifelong interest in the outdoors.


A range of elderly (65+ years) outdoor enthusiasts across the UK were approached to undertake the survey through the varied professional and recreational connections of the authors. These included members of a mountaineering club and watersports and fell walking groups as well as independent participants. Although this sample represents adults who grew up in poorer areas of the inner city, the suburbs and rural areas, there is undoubtedly a bias towards well-educated, middle class adults. Ethnic minority groups are not represented.

A variety of methods were used to record these outdoor peoples’ stories. Most, on receiving an invitation to take part in this research responded by submitting their written thoughts prompted by a set of questions. Some selected personally significant photographs that illustrated and gave insights into what was important to them at particular life stages (photo elicitation).  Others chose to respond to face-to-face interviews that focused on their reflections and insights on their participation in the outdoors. Names have been changed to support anonymity.

The analysis of the research in this paper adopts a life course perspective. This approach was developed in the 1960s as a means of investigating how events, opportunities and choices earlier in life can influence behaviours in later years (Elder, 1974, Hertzman, & Power, 2011). Early experiences can set a person on a particular trajectory towards later behaviours and outcomes unless other events intervene. For example, a child starting life in a household with low socio-economic status (SES) has a much greater chance of becoming overweight and obese in later life than those in higher SES homes (Olson, Bove & Miller 2005). Life course approaches have been used in a wide range of research from crime (Sampson & Laub, 1993) to environmentalism (Chawla, 1998, Wells & Lekies, 2006). Pretty et al. (2009) state that important longitudinal studies indicate clearly that many of the social and environmental conditions of childhood predict or track adult health status. They illustrate healthy and unhealthy living pathways starting in childhood and related to activity levels, nature contact, social contacts and choice of diets. There is little research on how outdoor activities can develop and change throughout life but two studies, both using qualitative life histories approaches, offer pointers to and comparisons with our current study. Colley, Currie and Irvine (2017) interviewed 27 men and women over 66 years who were involved in organisations running activities for older people to investigate how key stages in a person’s life influence their outdoor participation. Loeffler (2019) considered the stories of 13 older participants in outdoor expeditions that looked back on their earlier influences and continued active life. The research presented here asks a wider group of outdoor enthusiasts who have followed different chosen outdoor activities to reflect on changes in their interests and activities through ageing and the importance of their outdoor lives to their wellbeing.

Early childhood experiences in the outdoors

Many of the respondents in the study give clear memories of positive outdoor experiences from their early childhood. The comments demonstrate their level of freedom and independence and that they were allowed to play and explore without the watchful eye of parents.

Anne enjoyed the freedom to go outside and wander.  She says, “The beach, clay cliffs, small woods, stream, a wilder bit of coast at “The Point” were all there to explore with my brother and local friends”.  Likewise Neil with his younger brother and sister, and sometimes with friends, “ranged up to a kilometre away and would visit two parks and a patch of waste ground known to us as the dump.  We would catch sticklebacks and minnows”.  George describes moving to a new home on the edge of the city at the age of six, “it was a stone’s throw from the River Alt, across it lay open fields and to me what seemed like endless countryside. This was a great place to explore with friends; we often trespassed, as there were few footpaths. We climbed fences and pushed through hedgerows and without knowledge of maps or compasses enjoyed the uncertainty of finding our way home”.  Rob & Mary both roamed some distance from home with friends.  Rob says “as a kid I was given plenty of freedom to roam and would meet with friends to play football up to 2 miles from home”.  Stan’s interest in the outdoors was “climbing a disused air raid shelter… getting stuck on the roof and having to be rescued by the milkman”. For Mary “being able to roam on foot or on our bicycles wherever we wanted, unsupervised by parents” was important. Callum describes his outdoor world in Essex, “there were fields, saltings and marshes, creeks that harboured derelict boats that I clambered on; big skies and birdsong”.

As a child in the 1950s and 1960s there were many opportunities to play outside and explore both in towns and in the countryside. Parents had less leisure time to organise children’s play and they were less concerned with today’s perceived threats from traffic and strangers. Only a few mentioned parents introducing outdoor activities. Emily states, “my parents thought that fresh air was good for us, and we were taken on a walk every day” whilst Jim says, “my Dad inspired me…. and we went camping in the Arrochar Alps”. But both of Chris’s parents had physical disabilities and his outdoor activities with them were limited. Many of the stories show independent children with an adventurous streak and encouragement and support from parents and siblings.

Loeffler (2019) in her study of older participants in outdoor adventure expeditions notes the importance most give to memories of their free-range childhood experiences. The situation today is quite different and the young person’s world is shrinking. Basic outdoor activities like going to the shops, crossing the road, building dens on waste land or playing in the local park are being denied or supervised by parents. Cooper (2003), Louv (2005), Palmer (2006) and Gill (2007) describe how children’s freedoms to explore and roam have diminished over time. Some of the respondents comment on this, for example Jane states, “I regret the ever increasing loss of freedom given to children by their parents as they grow up”.

Influences in the teenage years

Some respondents mentioned books and stories that influenced their outdoor adventures. Neil remembers a Rupert annual that made a great impression on him. “Rupert is exploring a cave by the sea: Rupert slips and down he slides to where dark water glints and glides”. Neil says: ”This captured for me the magical feeling of exploring the sea cliffs, the mystery, the feeling of being out on a limb, the pristine rocks washed clean by the sea.” Emily was inspired by the Arthur Ransome books, Deb by David Attenborough on the TV and Gerald Durrell books, while Colin’s boyhood hero was Scott of the Antarctic.

Joining the Guides and Scouts was a common feature of the outdoor life stories. Some mentioned that particular leaders in youth organisations and at school inspired them. Sam remembers Dennis, his cub leader who arrived on a motorbike and sidecar to the enthusiastic cheers of the waiting cubs. These youth groups gave some respondents their first taste of camping and visiting wilder parts of the country.

Youth hostels were an important means of extending outdoor experiences. At the age of 14 Kate went with three other girls on town bikes to North Wales stopping at youth hostels. At 16 she hitch hiked and hostelled in Scotland. As a teenager Anne organised hostelling trips with friends to the Yorkshire Dales and Cornwall. Chris mentions joining the YHA in his early teens and taking part in a YHA pony trekking holiday around Pendle Hill. Later, he had his first skiing experience through the YHA at Aviemore. After a trip along the Pilgrim’s Way to Winchester, Ray describes youth hostelling opening up further outdoor possibilities. Sam gives an extensive description of the influence of youth hostelling, “staying at hostels, we would meet people who were hill walking, canoeing or rock-climbing. We became aware of this whole new ‘outdoor world’, of the possibilities of participating in these activities and of being immersed in these new environments”. He goes on to say, “the YHA and all the potential it provided was very much a window upon another world, a world so very different to the greater suburbia in which I lived. I joined the local YHA group where although most of the members were older than me, they were always very encouraging and supportive. It was through this group that I met my first girlfriend”.

Most of these accounts are based on youth hostelling in the 1960s when the atmosphere in these simple buildings was quite different from today’s hostels. Most people arrived on foot or by bike, you were given duties such as chopping wood and brushing dormitories, it was a chance to meet young people from other parts of the country and you often gained knowledge about the locality from wardens and older members. Youth hostelling undoubtedly played a formative role in developing young people’s outdoor interests and extending opportunities.

There are evidence-based studies of the value of outdoor education centres and their impact on young people Kendall and Rodger (2015), Baird et al. (2020). Prince (2020) uses evidence from four retrospective research studies of adventurous residential outdoor education to identify three key lasting impacts for participants, namely, self-confidence, independence and communication. She also suggests that these residential experiences result in the take up of new opportunities and activities. Cooper (1996) describes the findings from 30 teachers and leaders commenting on the benefits gained by young people staying at two residential outdoor centres. He suggests that centres can act as “stepping stones” where positive experiences of new outdoor activities and environments open up other outdoor and environmental possibilities. There are examples of young people joining canoeing, orienteering and climbing clubs and bird watching groups as a result of outdoor centre experiences. Comments from some of the respondents in this survey confirm this.

Outdoor experiences as adults

Our survey revealed that many of our participants were involved in the outdoors from early in their lives. The collection of life stories in the survey demonstrate early “pathways” into the outdoors through family support, early freedom to explore, and taking part in youth groups, camping, youth hostelling and outdoor centres. Clearly there are many who do not have these experiences but take up outdoor activities later in life.  How is their interest and involvement initiated and maintained? The narratives from the survey provide further clues.

Working in the outdoors and participating in training courses was for some a way of developing their outdoor interests. Chris says that a month spent as a volunteer at Outward Bound, Eskdale was a key event in his outdoor life as it introduced him to rock climbing guided by experienced instructors. Jane did an Outward Bound course at Rhowniar and says, “I learnt so many skills which have stayed with me all my life”. It led to her joining female expeditions to Lyngen, Peru and Nepal. Deb enjoyed field study courses at Dale Fort in Pembrokeshire and Juniper Hall on the North Downs that strengthened her love of nature and environmental interests. As an apprentice, Callum was sent on an Outward Bound course in the 1950s and describes it in detail, “a character-forming experience of twenty-eight days altogether, tramping the hills, bivvying under a nine by nine foot tarpaulin in the rain and snow, sometimes on the tops, sometimes in the valleys; learning to cook on a Primus stove”. But it was the opportunity he had to climb that left its mark, ”what I remember as if it was yesterday is the buzz and exhilaration of those first rock climbs on Shepherds Crag, never before had I stood on tiptoes over a sheer drop, looking down past my feet at the broken rocks and the road below. I was led up into the heights and delights of a vertical world of exposure and spectacular views. I was hooked”.

There are many examples from the life stories of how outdoor participation has been maintained by individuals joining clubs. Rob joined the West Bromwich Mountaineering Club where he met a lifelong climbing partner leading to many climbs in Britain and the Alps. Kevin joined a caving club that led to trips in the Mendips and South Wales.  Some joined outdoor clubs at college and university and like Jean and Chris later transferred to clubs nearer their home. Ian and Jim continued their outdoor interests through the Army and Army Reserves. For others the outdoors became an essential part of their work. Sue and Deb became youth workers and introduced young people and mothers with babies to the outdoors. Deb comments on the sense of achievement in leading women’s groups in Wales and being at the forefront in finding ways to get more women into the outdoors. Rob’s continuing participation in the outdoors was maintained through membership of a Mountain Rescue Team and the opportunities to meet climbing partners. George and Sam worked in outdoor education centres, where they kept their interests alive with teaching young people and developing their own outdoor skills through national governing body qualifications.

Wharton (2018) made an in depth study of 14 middle-aged women who joined an outdoor activities club in Scotland. Middle-aged women often attribute the demands of life, lack of time for outdoor activities and not having someone to accompany them as contributing to low participation (Im et al. 2008). Wharton found that the group became “a potent force in their lives, providing the opportunities to challenge themselves, but also a powerful social resource offering support and companionship”.  There was a noticeable improvement in self confidence and many of the women went on to organise their own outdoor activities.

Although the majority of respondents in our survey maintained their outdoor activities through clubs, walking groups or work, a few have continued their lifelong interests mainly independently of others. Bob at 70 still enjoys solo fell walking, cycling and swimming. He also says, “ I can and do enjoy the outdoors while being physically still. So I can sit with a book, a pair of binoculars, a brandy and cigar outside at home”. Jane describes how before retirement much of her time was spent teaching and helping others enjoy and succeed in the outdoors and adds, “now it’s more back to doing things for myself”. But clearly knowing like-minded friends who enjoy the outdoors and having the support of an activity group are strong factors in maintain and continuing pursuits.

Constraints on older people participating in the outdoors

 Crombie et al. (2004) provide evidence of the decline in the level of physical activity for many as they age. Currie, Colley and Irvine (2021) identify three sets of constraints reported by older people for not participating in outdoor recreation. Some barriers were “intrapersonal” such as concerns with health, mobility and motivation, some “interpersonal” connected with lack of opportunities with friends and commitments to family, whilst there were also “structural” constraints such as access to outdoor spaces and inclement weather. There is evidence to suggest that transitions in a person’s life course such as starting a family, children leaving home or retirement can lead to changes in habits (Verplanken, B., & Wood, W. 2006, Burningham, K. et al. 2014). These disruptions may offer opportunities to encourage outdoor recreation.

Implications from youth to old age

Life course studies demonstrate the importance of positive, healthy conditions and activities in childhood influencing situations and behaviours in later life.

For example, there is considerable evidence that shows that early physical activity in childhood and adolescence predicts a physically active lifestyle in adulthood (Telama, 2009).  It is clear that both the stimuli for a young person starting an outdoor life and the support to maintain it through life are likely to be more limited than for our respondents growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. The freedom for children to have outdoor adventures alone or with friends has been curtailed. Encouragement through school clubs and outdoor visits has diminished in the UK as the education system has faced tighter controls on the curriculum and testing. The Covid pandemic during 2020-1 saw outdoor opportunities dramatically decrease as lockdowns have led to the closure of centres, other outdoor facilities and staff redundancies.

There is a strong case for Government action to support the many social structures, such as youth and outdoor clubs, summer camps and outdoor education programmes to encourage young people to enjoy the outdoors. There is also a need to free up an education system based on acquiring and presenting knowledge to one that encourages health and wellbeing through social skills and an active lifestyle.

There are many obstacles for adults wishing to engage in outdoor recreation. Ethnic minorities are often underrepresented and the ease of access and the cost of reaching outdoor spaces limits families and individuals on low incomes. If greater outdoor participation is to be achieved for older people then more consideration should be given to supporting structures, such as outdoor activity clubs, guided walks and outdoor events to attract people at different stages of their lives. Comments from this survey demonstrate the importance of social interaction and support that is gained from sharing outdoor experiences in clubs and with friends.

There is evidence to show that offering opportunities at transitions in the lifespan targeted for example at young mothers or recently retired people could prove effective. It is clear that the physical and mental health benefits gained from increased outdoor participation will far outweigh the expenditure of setting up such support.



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Geoff Cooper worked as a teacher, teacher trainer and for the Peak National Park before developing Wigan Council’s two residential outdoor education centres in the English Lake District. He is a board member of the European Outdoor Educators’ Network and Fellow of the Institute for Outdoor Learning. Show all articles by Geoff Cooper
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