We use a hashtag sometimes #outdoorsisfree because it is; but outdoor gear is expensive. In my opinion, a decent pair of boots are worth spending several hundred quid on, but they’ll last for years. Coupled with a good pair of socks, you’ll get many happy memories and not sore feet. However for a long time I’ve felt that the outdoors industry has had an ‘ours only’ kind of attitude that is not only snobbish but also sexist. A wealthy boys club for folk with money to burn on down jackets and every piece of overpriced equipment under the sun. Or rain clouds.
This socio/economic divide was written about recently by a friend of mine on her blog. You can read it here. https://loveoutdoorlearning.com/featured/inclusivity-socio-economics-and-the-outdoors/ I had wanted to interview her for a while and during our chat, these issues became apparent, not just in her job now, but also in her upbringing and initial love of the outdoors. Read on to find out why.
“I was really lucky. I went to school at Craigroyston in Edinburgh, I grew up in Muirhouse.”
Not really a sentence you hear a lot. I know the area. The school is mentioned in Trainspotting. Spud went there; it comes up during his job interview. But these are the words of Carol Murdoch, double business owner. One of them is Love Outdoor Learning, a West Lothian based outdoor learning provider and educational consultants. As well as being a regular Last Wolf contributor, Carol is also a former primary school teacher; we’ll get to that, but I’m initially intrigued how growing up in one of the more deprived areas of Edinburgh developed a love of the great outdoors. And why she deems it ‘lucky’.
“Back then university wasn’t considered as being an option for us. For my year group, it wasn’t really talked about, but it meant that the school was able to invest money in different ways. We therefore had the best outdoor education department in Edinburgh. It was amazing. For one week in every term we’d spend the whole time going outside and doing rock climbing, abseiling, cross country skiing, canoeing, kayaking all this stuff every single year throughout school.”
All the kinds of activities you’d maybe associate with the capitals more elite schools. Not an area like Muirhouse, 25 years ago.
“The science teacher ran the skiing club and canoeing club and kept everything at really low cost. It was brilliant. Even in primary school there was a skiing club. We had these brilliant activities that most kids wouldn’t have got access to in the same way. And then I was in air cadets, so I got even more through that.”
The outdoors hit Carol then from an early age and as an adult, she gravitated towards specifics, skiing, snowboarding and various water based activities, even renting kayaks and going camping for her 30th birthday. But it’s a big leap, going from an enthusiast to running a business. I also knew that she had previously been a teacher for many years. I was intrigued to know how and why someone would leave a fairly comfortable career to take such a risk.
“I always loved the outdoors but if you told me I’d be working in it I’d have laughed at you. The first CPD I did as a teacher I hand on heart hated it. I was Friday afternoon, it was wild, it was wet, it was windy and I had to go outside and do outdoor learning for the afternoon. I was not amused. So if you told me back then that I’d be doing this now, I wouldn’t have believed you. And if you’d told me I’d have my own business, I wouldn’t have believed you either.”
This just makes her eventual career choice all the more bizarre, and yet intriguing.
“Let’s just say that the politics of teaching wasn’t for me. I had some bad classroom experiences, not from pupils, but I felt I wasn’t supported by management. If you’re not valued, you don’t want to hang around. I needed out of teaching even though I loved it. I love seeing kids learn, but enough was enough and I just couldn’t stay in a school anymore.”
By this point though, Carol had been specialising in outdoor lessons with her class for years and was now enjoying it. The memory of that first CPD suitably in the past, within a month of quitting teaching full time she had gone on supply, applied to do a master’s degree in outdoor learning, and started her own tutoring business. It was Carol’s Tutoring that paid for Love Outdoor Learning, but that was never the plan.
“We do a lot of mindset and well-being with the tutoring kids, so the families got to know about this. The adults started talking about how they wanted an outdoor group for their kids to go to. So I thought ok, I’ll start that. It started it as a hobby that tied in with my degree. It came about by chance; parents suggested it and I said aye, I’ll give it a go. And that’s how Love Outdoor Learning was born, pure fluke.”
I disagree. The suggestion may have been by chance but the decision to act on it was no fluke. It takes a certain person to be able to take on that role, and that risk, and make something of it. Quite plainly, it takes balls to do something that big. I put this to Carol, who agreed, although somewhat reluctantly.
“I am one of four kids, but the only one with a business, and if it was as simple as that they would be doing the same. I still haven’t worked out the full answer to it but I feel I am getting closer. Why was I so bloody minded enough to do it? I did get into teaching later and had a career before it. I suppose I realised that there are other ways to do things and there is always other options.”
And where does this drive come from?
“My mum set that example. My mum was awesome. She was a force of nature; five foot and half an inch, that half inch was always important to her. If she saw something needed doing, she would do it.”
Carol’s mum was a carer for her dad back when being a carer wasn’t a recognised thing. She used this experience to set up a carers’ group in Edinburgh that still goes and she was involved with it up until her death. She volunteered in the Boys Brigade and ran an air cadet squadron. She was a member of every parent and school council groups for all of her four children. It’s therefore easy for me to see now where Carol gets it from. To her getting up and doing something is just what you do. Because that’s what her mum did.
However, a can do attitude may be half the battle but starting any business can be daunting and no doubt every single one struggles to begin with. Carol’s struggles were within herself, although the teaching part came naturally.
“It wasn’t delivering the activities. I was a teacher, I knew I could do that with my eyes shut. It was more confidence and self-belief; was I good enough to do it, did I have enough knowledge, did people want it? All those sorts of big questions that can hold you back. Self-worth and self-belief, that’s where the difficulties were.”
But Mum’s confidence and ability to just get on with it shone through and the business grew by just doing what felt right and reacting to what the parents wanted. Sessions were booked out and people would ask for specifics.
“As Love Outdoor Learning grew, we needed staff and that became the challenge. How do I find more staff? How do I do books? These are things you don’t do as a teacher, you don’t do hiring, finance, maternity leave, things like that was so different. It is a steep learning curve, but we always tried to meet the demand if someone asked for it and just gave it a go. This is how the Fledgling Sessions started.”
A knock on from the sessions for younger children was the effect it had on parents, showing them the magic that children bring to the outdoors. For some people, this doesn’t come naturally and being shown how to access the outdoors has literally changed their lives.
“We hear quite often ‘I don’t know how to do it, I was never taken outdoors as a kid’ from parents. But we can support this. Wee ones bring an absolute magic with them, they’re looking for the Gruffalo, and it’s contagious, even for parents who aren’t used to spending that time in the outdoors. When they come back and tell me they went out last weekend, you know it a big thing for them. They are developing the confidence to take their kids out too. It’s brilliant. The common theme is realising the magic that people have in them and doing things they didn’t do before. What I do is no rocket science; anyone can do this, but that’s part of the magic.”
We talk about teaching for a while. It is, after all, my profession as well and Carol has some cool things to say about education. How does she help within schools?
“Quite often it’s a school that doesn’t do outdoor learning and wants to know how to do it. They come to me and ask where they should start. We can provide access to our online portal, training, deliver talks, whatever they need to help them through the process. Every school is in a different place with outdoor learning and they’re all trying to get something different out of it. Also, every school has different grounds. We always encourage to use what’s available so any teacher can do it.”
Carol uses her experience of Friday afternoon CAT sessions to know how best to deliver advice. Sessions are usually split into theory/safety, and actual outdoor activities. Staff experience what the children will learn. Acknowledging teacher gripes, and there are many at 3:00pm on a Friday, and telling them how she struggled with outdoor learning is a way in.
“I can see right away which ones are buying into it and which ones are hating it straight away and they are the ones I target. I go for the haters, they’re the ones I need to win over. I tell them I had a mental health breakdown. I hated outdoor learning, but it helped me stay in the classroom by getting outside of it. It massively helped my health and well-being. I probably would’ve quit teaching way before had it not been for outdoor education but I wouldn’t have known what to do. Teachers don’t tend to talk about this.”
And just in case you’ve got this far and are unaware of the benefits the outdoors has on your child, I offer that question to Carol.
“Well, it helps their learning, their confidence and resilience It aids health, decreases their anxiety, helps sleep, it forges better family connections, it does all of that. It develops the immune systems and problem solving skills, creativity, social skills, it helps all kids in all kinds of ways, and we don’t use it enough.”
And what, in your opinion is the most important of those skills you’ve just listed. This is off the top of her head by the way, this isn’t pre-planned.
“Confidence. If you’ve got confidence you’ve got good mental health and you will go out and try other stuff. As a teacher it’s something we all want, it’s one of the four capacities*. Let them fail and make mistakes, because when they realise that they can pick themselves up and do things they never thought they could, it’s like magic”
“You can build relationships outdoors that you can’t do in classroom. We see it time and time again. By removing the pressures of the classroom and of the school building, children can be who they are and not who they are expected to be. The self-fulfilling prophecy, they don’t need to be that person anymore. It removes all barriers. It takes guts as a teacher, especially if you have a high tariff class, but you tend to get far less behavioural issues out of class than you would in it. Put them in a different environment, in THE environment and let them shine.”
*The four capacities of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence are:
Currently listening to the Dread March of Solemn Gods, the new NINKHARSAG album.
Big Yellow Taxi by Counting Crows
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