School Travel Organiser spoke to new YHA Ambassador Alex Staniforth about his experience of outdoor learning and how getting outside helped him overcome anxiety and depression.
Last month young adventurer Alex Staniforth was appointed ambassador for YHA England and Wales.
The 20-year old endurance adventurer, author, charity fundraiser, athlete and motivational speaker from Cheshire made the headlines last year when he was caught in the avalanche on Mount Everest which tragically killed three of his team-mates.
His experience has been documented in his recent book Icefall. Later this year he’ll return to the Himalayas to climb Cho-Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world and is using youth hostels throughout England and Wales as ‘natural training ground’ for the forthcoming challenge.
Alex, who was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was nine and has also had to overcome a bad stammer, credits the outdoors with helping him manage the panic attacks, anxiety, depression, low self-confidence, bullying and low self-esteem, which the conditions triggered.
It’s because of this that’s he’s a champion of outdoor experiences for everyone, from families to schools.
How exactly did being outdoors growing up help you with your low self-esteem?
In terms of the low self-confidence and the anxiety that came with my epilepsy and my stammer, I think it was originally the outdoors that gave me the opportunity to fight back and to really prove myself and prove the bullies wrong. I was badly bullied at school.
I signed myself up to try paragliding and it’s that one experience that made me realize that I had all this confidence and drive that had been locked inside me for all those years.
I guess the outdoors can help young people realize what they’re capable of achieving. It can really boost them, and that’s what happened to me, and that’s how I kind of started pursuing these outdoor challenges and eventually Everest.
Did you have many opportunities to learn outside the classroom when you were in school?
There were certainly a few, and the earliest I remember was going to a hostel in Snowdonia, in Primary school. That was a YHA.
It was a long time ago now, probably nearly 12 to 14 years ago, but I do recall that having an effect on me.
There were some things that we did, such as going into the local forests and going away on trips that definitely shaped me in some way. The experiences were memorable for me.
My first experience on a mountain was with YHA, on that trip, and although that didn’t necessarily ignite what I did next, it certainly played a part in that journey.
Can you think of any other benefits of outdoor learning?
Besides the confidence and the sense of achievement and all that, I think just general fitness and wellbeing, as well as mental health.
Being outdoors can be a massive help. Most people know that if you’re having a bad day, sometimes just going out into the fresh air, whether that’s to the local park or whether that’s in the forest or to the beach, it’s all relevant.
And I think with general wellbeing and physical health, the outdoors doesn’t have to be sport related or exercise, it can just be a nice easy walk somewhere. I think in general it’s an escape from daily life and obstacles that we all face and the outdoors is accessible for everybody in different ways.
Another thing I think is true is that the confidence you build outside can then be applied everywhere. I think that’s one of the key things as well, when we’re stretched beyond the comfort zones, I think that’s when the outdoors is most important and helps that mental resilience that I think a lot of young people lack.
Do you have any advice for schools wary of taking schools on trips outside of the classroom to learn?
There’s a lot of health and safety checks nowadays which is a shame. I think it’s difficult for schools because they have to check with an organisation but I think my advice to them would just be not to be wary.
Although sometimes there’s bad experiences with outdoor learning, I just think it’s absolutely vital and I think with the right planning and the right effort and time, I think outdoor learning can be extremely successful, it can be extremely rewarding and have a really positive impact on people, even if it’s just a local trip.
It doesn’t have to be in the mountains, it can be anything really but I think it will have a greater reward. It’s definitely, definitely worth any potential hassle.
Which is your favourite youth hostel that you’ve stayed in?
My favourite that I’ve been to so far is probably Pen-y-Pass which is in Snowdonia. It’s really special because it’s so isolated, although it’s on a main road, there’s no signal.
You’re really cut off from the shops whereas a lot of the other hostels are in villages or they’re in towns. I kind of like the idea of being perched away on a hill, right in the mountains and I think because it’s kind of high up, you have the escape element.
Also if you go out the front door, straight away you’re in the main part of Snowdonia, if you go out the backdoor then you get up into the next range of mountains.
I think it’s just that there’s just so much on the doorstep. I think if you’re into mountains it just couldn’t be a better place. And the staff are always really friendly, I think it’s just the way it’s tucked away, it’s just an adventure hub really.
Finally, do you have any advice for teachers who may have pupils suffering from depression or anxiety?
That’s a difficult one I think. I think it’s definitely a growing problem in schools and I think schools need to be equipped for that. I think the outdoors could definitely help. Outdoor education is absolutely essential really because it can give young people a focus - it gives them a purpose. I think when they have that, I think that’s the best way to really prevent anxiety and depression.
I think my advice would be to take it seriously. One thing I found when I had it at school, was that there’s not a lot of understanding about it and the general attitude can be just, ‘it’s not that bad, what have you got to feel bad about?’. That kind of ‘cheer up’ attitude can be quite confusing for the pupil.
So I guess really my advice would be to get parents involved and really try to promote outdoor learning.
And in general just try to promote some sort of purpose, whether that’s the outdoors or whether that’s something else in school.