124. Neil Wightwick: Transforming lives through nature’s classroom

In episode 124 we delve into the world of outdoor education with Neil Wightwick, a leading figure in driving national policy in Scotland to make outdoor education accessible to all. Discover how outdoor environments can become powerful classrooms and how physical challenges can foster growth and curiosity in students. Neil shares his passion for varied outdoor activities and recounts his own experiences, such as rowing across the Atlantic, which taught him the importance of resilience and the power of nature. Neil also discusses with host, Sue Stockdale, his work in enabling young people to engage with the outdoors, particularly those from marginalised communities.

About Neil Wightwick 

Neil Wightwick is a modern-day explorer and tireless advocate for adventurous education, whose remarkable adventures have taken him to the farthest reaches of the globe. With a resume that includes rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, scaling unclimbed peaks in Patagonia, and crossing the vast expanse of the Kalahari Desert on foot, Neil’s thirst for adventure knows no bounds. Throughout his career, Neil has been driven by a deep-seated belief in the transformative power of outdoor experiences, particularly for young people. He is currently serving as the CEO of the Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education and Head of Glasgow City Council’s Outdoor Education Services. Through his leadership roles, he is shaping the landscape of outdoor education, ensuring that future generations have the chance to explore, learn, and grow through adventurous experiences in the great outdoors. Connect with Neil via LinkedIn.

Time Stamps

[00:02:15] Adventure in everyday life.
[00:06:03] Adventurous education and experiential learning.
[00:09:24] Outdoors as a mental tonic.
[00:13:55] Impact of adventurous learning.
[00:17:13] Outdoor education impact on society.
[00:25:35] Digital detox in expeditions.
[00:29:23] Small steps lead to adventures.
[00:30:52] Adventure and environmental impact.

Key Quotes

“I like to have variety, and I like to learn from all of those different experiences.”
“The solutions and the challenges of today and tomorrow aren’t going to be solved by students who have learned how to regurgitate information in a test.”
“If I don’t get outside and I don’t have some kind of physical activity, it does start to affect my mental well-being.”
“There are a number of ways that outdoor learning and adventurous education can interact in really positive ways with the digital world.”
“We’re always coming full circle to appreciating the value of silence and conversation and experience in present time rather than looking at technology at the same time.”

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Episode 40, Karen Espley – The Accidental Adventurer 

Neil Wightwick Transcription

Sue:   Welcome to Access to Inspiration, the podcast where we uncover the stories of inspiring people who are making an impact in the world. I’m delighted to have you join us for today’s episode 124, as we explore the transformative power of outdoor education. Close your eyes and envision a classroom without walls, where nature itself becomes the teacher and every challenge is an opportunity for growth. But what does it take to bring education beyond the confines of traditional classrooms to ignite curiosity and a sense of wonder in the students? Well, today I’m joined by Neil Wightwick, a trailblazer in the realm of outdoor education. Neil is at the forefront of driving forward national policy in Scotland to ensure that outdoor education opportunities are accessible to all, regardless of background or circumstance. I’m sure it’s going to be a fascinating conversation. Welcome to the podcast, Neil. It’s lovely to speak to you today.

Neil: Thank you very much, Sue. Thanks for inviting me on. I’m looking forward to speaking with you today.

Sue:  Now, you’re a real outdoors person, an advocate of adventurous education. So my first question really has to be, what is your favourite outdoor environment, Neil?

Neil: I’m going to come back and say, well, I don’t really have one, Sue. I don’t have a favourite place. I’ve got a really short attention span. And so what I like to do is have a variety of activities and locations. Expeditions I’ve done in the past, certainly things like rowing across the Atlantic, I got out of that boat after spending so much time on the water in an amazing environment, but certainly didn’t want to get back into that environment for quite some time. And that rationale goes for many of the other environments that I’ve done expeditions in, whether it be mountains or desert. I like to move around, I like to have variety, and I like to learn from all of those different experiences.

Sue:  So variety is the norm for you. You’re also just reminding me, I think it’s Alastair Humphreys that has this concept of micro adventures, where we don’t have to do a mega expedition or a voyage across the Atlantic. We can have really small adventures. I’m wondering what you make of that and whether that also is something that’s relevant for your work and how you encourage other people?

Adventure in everyday life

Neil: Absolutely. And adventure is Many things to many different people. And for me, exploration and certainly adventurous education, if you like, which is my area of expertise at the moment, is not always about going to far flung places or extreme environments. The biggest adventure for me at the moment in my life is, is bringing up my young, young children and learning alongside them, but trying to make them into the responsible people that we need in society going forward and trying to do the best thing as many parents are out there trying to do the best thing for them. We do have our own adventures as a family now. And that’s one of the beauties of having children is sharing those experiences with them and getting outdoors and hopefully giving them some memories that will last a lifetime.

But I think that yeah, adventure, as I say, is, is different to many different people. What constitutes an adventure for me might be the most boring experience for another person. And I certainly put myself in the white male privilege bracket and certainly in the world that I live in now working with a very deprived community in inner city Glasgow, I may construct an adventure to maintain a certain identity, but actually for people living in different circumstances, they might have no desire to kind of augment their life with uncertainty and risk. And so it really is definitely an individual concept adventure.

Sue:  So given that you have been and are a doer, a participant, how did you move from being a doer to an enabler, working with young people and encouraging others to be embarking on adventurous education?

Neil: Well, I suppose like many things in my life, I think I’ve been really fortunate in either life choices, people say make your own luck. But actually, I think I have been quite fortunate in that I’ve always pursued things that I’ve enjoyed. And if I haven’t enjoyed it, I’ve stopped doing it. And it’s led me into a career that has put me in a position now with a local government who have a strong emphasis on wider achievement for young people. And so I’ve been able to build up a service that enables young people to get into as many outdoor activities and as many wild places as as possible. And that’s supported financially by the local government, which I do recognize. Again, that’s a fortunate position to be in, because given the economic crisis that many countries are in now, that is fairly unique thing.

Sue:   Just as you’re saying that, Neil, I want to dig a little bit deeper because my experience of the outdoors and what it gives to people in terms of their well-being, mental health, physical exercise, many of the things that can help people to really flourish in today’s society, to me, it’s almost a must-have rather than a nice-to-have. It sounds like the local authority that you are working with, engaging with, have a sense of supporting that.

Adventurous education and experiential learning

Neil: Absolutely, and that is an important position to be in. I think it’s becoming more and more evident, certainly through COVID. We certainly started to see that being outdoors was more beneficial for our mental health and our physical well-being. Doing activity outdoors and being physically active had those additional benefits. And in the part of Scotland I live in, we have an abundance of natural environment to get out into and enjoy. And so, yes, it needs to be recognized. I think it comes back down to our education system. If you’ve read a book by Ritzer, The McDonaldization of the World, and McDonaldization of the education system, where we’ve got standard outcomes and standard processes for people to go through. That just hasn’t worked for the one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t work for everybody.

And the solutions and the challenges of today and tomorrow aren’t going to be solved by students who have learned how to regurgitate information in a test. And so I think adventurous education gives that dynamic environment for experiential learning. that goes well beyond the confines of the classroom. And the beauty of that type of learning is it’s completely immersive. And we don’t have to be up in the mountains in these far-flung places. This could be something as simple as taking your learning outside to learn angles in primary school. Why do that in the classroom and sit and look at a piece of paper? Let’s get out into the playground and look at the angles on the roofs. Let’s get the angles on the car park and all of these types of things, really simple transitions. But we know that people respond better outdoors. And we know that if they’ve been immersed in that experience, that they learn better. We just need to move that forward.

Sue:  So given that the outdoors can be a great learning environment, What does a typical week for you look like? Are you doing these things? Are you speaking to other people so they enable these things? What does a week look like for you?

Neil: Now, a typical week for me is a blend of operations. So making sure that the operations within the service that I’m responsible for keep going. And just to give you a sample of that, we have a residential outdoor education centre where people come for extended periods of time and five days, three days, and are immersed in an outdoor education experience. And it is part of their school, part of their educational journey. We have a inner city water sports center where people can come for the day and undertake field studies based from watercraft. So again, this is about coming and learning to canoe and kayak, but also we’re doing some kind of environmental project whilst that’s ongoing. And we have what we call our care experience team who are delivering therapeutic outdoor education to those young people who are in care or not engaged with school.

We also have a large contingent of Duke of Edinburgh Awards provision across the city as well. So it’s making sure all that ticks and keeps delivering. And that equates to somewhere in the region of 13,000 young people each year having an experience within the city. So it’s quite high numbers. So making sure that ticks, but on a daily basis, I mean, this morning as an example, I was on calls regarding national licensing schemes across the country about how adventure activities should be licensed and how we include all of the sector providers in that licensing scheme. So a bit of strategic locally, a bit of political on a wider basis. So it’s very diverse, I would say, but all focused on trying to encourage more people to get outside more often.

Sue:  And then I’m imagining then you go back home and have an opportunity to have an adventure with your children.

Outdoors as a mental tonic

Neil: I try to, every day, we try to do something. You know, it might be 10 minutes, it might be two hours. We’re always trying to do something and be outside. And again, fortunate to live in a place where that’s really quite easy for us to do.

Sue:   What does being outside do for you, Neil?

Neil: It’s a tonic. Many people say this and I fall into the bracket is if I don’t get outside and I don’t have some kind of physical activity, it does start to affect my mental well-being. I’m not as happy. I have darker thoughts. I’m not saying I’m depressed or anything like that, but my thoughts aren’t as happy and as motivated. Certainly the glass half empty rather than half full if I don’t get my fix.

Sue:   So you know the value of the outdoors and having adventure, as we’ve been talking about here. For some of those pupils in the area that you’re working in, that may be from a marginalised or an underrepresented group, to them, maybe the outdoors is cold, wet, it requires exercise, it’s not appealing at all. How do you and the people that you’re engaging with motivate, inspire or encourage young people who maybe don’t see themselves as an outdoor person to get into the outdoors and experience it?

Neil:  I suppose we don’t see the young people very often that find it miserable being outside. The perception might be that, that you’re standing out in the rain and standing out in the cold or whatever it might be, or falling into the cold water. Actually, once young people are taking part in these activities and these experiences, then those elements just don’t come into it. It’s all fun. It doesn’t matter whether that experience is happening in the May, June, when the weather’s great, or whether it’s happening in December. And in fact, the harsher elements can add more to the experience than when everything’s going nice and rosy with the sun out.

But I think in terms of how do we engage with them, it’s about removing as many barriers as possible and normalizing outdoor learning as part of that education experience. And so one of the things we’ve worked really hard on in my current position is making sure that from early years, so you’ve probably heard of outdoor nurseries and forest schools and that type of thing from early years all the way through to secondary there is progressive exposure to being outdoors and so it might be that nursery piece in early years all the way through to international expeditions in secondary school and we’re trying to encourage that more importantly fund that as much as possible and actually people think it’s ever so expensive it’s no more expensive than mainstream education. And if we place so much value on young people having these experiences, then it’s just, it can substitute some of that, what we call at the moment, classroom time as well. And if we do really want to create these opportunities, then we have to put our money where our mouth is to deliver that.

Sue:  So therefore, at the other end of that experience, if an investment is made, How is it measured? How is success measured, Neil?

Neil: Well, that is the million dollar question. It really is. And if you’re not aware at the moment, actually, England, Scotland and Wales all have bills going through their parliaments at the moment to try and make things like an experience, an outdoor education, residential experience, a statutory part of the education journey. The big fall down of this piece of work at the moment is that evidence because we all know, Sue, you know that we’ve seen it anecdotally that young people thrive in these environments and it builds what we used to call character. That term’s coming back in now. Build character, build these rounded individuals that will be confident to contribute to society in future. Measuring that is really quite tricky and one of the easy ways to bring that into focus is if we’re going to measure it you need to have a control group actually that don’t have those experiences so you can show that it’s beneficial. So there’s some moral questions to be answered around how do you go about creating that experiment but there are pieces of work out there now that have attempted to measure But driving these bills through Parliament, I’m quite involved in the Scottish version of it, is a challenge because the evidence isn’t there, the hard evidence isn’t there, but everybody who sits around the tables cross-party support saying yeah we understand that it does work but we need to be able to evidence it. So that’s a tricky one and if it was an easy one I think it would have been done a long time ago and there are attempts ongoing at the moment to try and pull together some really good evidence.

Sue:   What you were saying there Neil about the hard evidence that doesn’t exist, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that it is of value. I’m wondering if you’ve got stories where you know that a young person has been positively impacted by Adventurous Learning?

Impact of adventurous learning

Neil: The one that jumps out at me. I see it week in, week out. We see young people who are removed from their normal lives and sometimes removed from helicopter parents who do everything for them and are so worried about them being away, but actually the young person thrives when they’re given the space and the ability to be responsible for themselves. They absolutely thrive. But I was mentioning sort of the areas of service that we deliver. And one of the most challenging areas is the care experience sector. And some of the young people that we work with there come from the most chaotic of backgrounds. They’re in care, very tenuous security in terms of life security, in terms of where they live, how they live, parental guidance, anything like that. And we had one boy who was one of the first people we had on the program that we started three years ago. And he was on the program for two years, not engaged with school. He was working one day a week with one of our instructors, and eventually, over time, he engaged back with school. And part of his exit strategy from our program was that he would join the Duke of Edinburgh Award. And that in itself is a great thing, but what it means for him is he needs to be engaged with school to be part of that program. And he was very excited about that. So he did start to engage back.

And then last October, each year in October, we have an awards ceremony for those people who have accomplished their Duke of Edinburgh Award. We have about 1,800 people a year who are successful in that arena. And unbeknown to us and the instructor that had been working with him, this young lad was up on the stage to receive his Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award. And an absolute shiver went up my spine when I saw him and the instructor was close to tears because it’s an absolute success story. And not only was he being successful there, but he was going on to the next stage of the award as well, which means that he is engaging with school continuously and that without a shadow of a doubt has absolutely changed his path in life and given him and continued to increase his life chances. And so an absolute direct result of that process. And even today, just talking about it right now, it gives me shivers up my spine just to think the change it’s had in that young person’s life.

Sue:  The Access to Inspiration podcast is a free to listen to podcast, but it’s not free to make, but we think it’s worth it. So if you’re enjoying this episode, then why not buy me a coffee? Just click on the link you’ll find on the website against this episode. And then I can enjoy that coffee when I’m working on future episodes to bring you more inspiration. Now back to our guest. What a wonderful story to share with us. And I can sense in that ripple effect that helped one young person change their life, then they may go on to influence and inspire those around them.

Neil: Absolutely. It has that knock on effect. Also, politically and economically, we have to recognise that we do, you know, in that one case, could that person have gone on to not be engaged with school, be requiring to be supported by the state in their life, potentially incarcerated, all of these costs to society that we potentially, obviously, this is anecdotal, could we have managed to go past and instead we’ve got a hopefully a successful citizen that will contribute to society, And that’s exactly what outdoor education and outdoor learning can do. And it’s not just outdoor education. There are other ways of doing it, but the two go hand in hand. The outdoors and personal social development just marry up so well. You can do it with music, you can do it with dance. I believe it’s outdoor education that fits the best.

Sue:  Such a lovely way you described it there, Neil. So back to your own personal story for a moment. How did you come to realise and engage with the outdoors as being something that was going to be your path?

Neil: Again, I’ve been really fortunate. I had parents that exposed me to the outdoors from a young age and it was a bug that got inside me and it never went away and to this day burns brightly. And if I didn’t have a young family, I’m sure I would be away for these long expeditions like I used to be. I anticipate that they will come back. I suppose as you get involved with these expeditions and these experiences, you want to see what else is possible. And for me, that was the drive in that, why do I want to do them? Well, just to see if I can, to broaden my own horizons, to learn new skills. And as I said, I do have quite a short attention span. So I decided to try a project called Sun, Sea and Snow, which was a self driven project, but it was about human-powered journeys in the different environments, so ocean, desert, Arctic, and that sort of drove me forward to get to these places and have different ways of experiencing those locations.

Sue:  And what did you learn from that experience?

Outdoor education impact on society

Neil: Well certainly from the ocean one, going back to the spending time in the ocean and any maritime or mariner that’s been out there will certainly know that it’s relentless. The ocean is utterly relentless. It never stops changing. You can’t hide from the elements, especially when you’re in a very small boat for seven weeks. You’re in there and you need to deal with the elements. You can’t just step off and have a break. If you’ve got five days of storm, you’re in five days of storm and you’ve just got to do the best you can for that. You get thrown around like you’re in a washing machine. And I suppose that brings you back to the reality that Mother Nature’s in charge. It puts perspective on everything and that you are quite a small insignificant item on this planet. You’ve got to take what comes, take the good and the bad. And after those kinds of experience, when the good does come, you really appreciate it. And what did I learn? Well, you can take that lesson into any part of your life, whether it be, you know, mountain biking locally, or you’ve got to cycle up the hill to have the fun of coming back down again.

On a personal and social level, those experiences taught me that one of the, again, this is on a personal basis, because other people think very differently. I’m aware of that. Having these experiences, they are so much more valuable if you’re doing them with somebody else. To share that experience for me, is really quite a high priority. I have looked at going and doing expeditions on my own in the past, but I feel that I would lose so much of that experience by not being able to share it with somebody. Mentally, what it has taught me is to, there’s a book that I quite like by Dr. Steve Peters, The Chimp Paradox, I don’t know if you’ve come across it, an Olympic, he was an Olympic psychologist, and he talks about the chimp part of the brain that tells you, you can’t do it, you need to stop, you need to have a rest, Um, controlling the chimp part of your brain is something that I think these, these experiences has taught me and making sure that yes, you can, you can keep going and you can do that. You just need to control the chimp.

Sue:   I’m imagining that your, your day to day work in influencing change amongst a number of stakeholders probably does require a bit of resilience and managing the chimp brain.

Neil: Oh, it does. I mean, it’s local government. You can imagine the bureaucracies that you come up against. And it does. You have to take a deep breath, never give up, just keep going. You know what you’re doing is right and have conviction and go for it. So, yeah, it is put to use in that respect as well.

Sue:  Take a kind of slightly different turn on our conversation, Neil, because one of the things I think that we would all recognise about society today is the increasing role that technology plays in our lives. You only have to look at a person walking along the street and most people are holding some sort of device in their hands and looking at it. Is there a role for technology in facilitating adventurous education, outdoor learning experiences?

Digital detox in expeditions

Neil: Before I completely answer that, I’m going to say that there is a place in society for complete digital detox, and I’m a huge advocate of that. However, yes, I think there is a place for it. And there are a number of ways that outdoor learning and adventurous education can interact in really positive ways with the digital world. We’re working on a project at the moment with young people. I’ll go back to the Duke of Edinburgh award. It’s a really good example. We’ve got young people who are confined to wards in a hospital for many different reasons and they can actually go through their Duke of Edinburgh award by doing virtual expeditions. So we might use virtual headsets and you might think yeah but that’s that’s not the same as getting up into the mountains but it is as much of a challenge for what I would call a mainstream pupil to be going up into the mountains as it is a challenge for these people who are confined to bed to actually go on these virtual expeditions and share that information, share that journey, share that learning with their peers or whether they’re with their nurses or their carers and that type of thing. Absolutely, there’s a place, there’s one place, virtual reality, for inclusion and being involved. I think there are some great platforms now, gamification, that’s what the word is used, for extending experiences and planning for experiences.

So I know you’ve been into the polar regions an awful lot. Well, you can get online now and experience that kind of in virtual reality. You can play games in the environment. So you can nearly prepare for your expedition before you’re there. And I suppose you could take it a step further and go and do that in a walk-in freezer or something if you wanted to as well. But there’s the obvious ones like mapping and navigation tools that people are using all the time. And I think more importantly, we do some expeditions now away with young people to international areas. And it’s not just those young people who are on the ground climbing the mountain. They are interacting with their peers back in the classroom. with information on what’s going on. They might be getting rooted by the people back in the classroom. They’ll certainly be sharing weather information and all of that type of thing. So it’s including more and more people in the experience. So I think there is a place for it, but go back to right at the start. I think there’s also a wonderful time to put all those things aside and just be in nature.

Sue:  expeditions now are digital detox so anyone participating leaves their phone to the side when they engage in the outdoors. So interesting that we’re always coming full circle to appreciating the value of silence and conversation and experience in present time rather than looking at technology at the same time.

Neil: Absolutely, no I think it’s really healthy to actually get away from it and going back to one of my pieces of service is the residential centre and we have secondary school pupils who will come in age of 14 or 15 and we do request that they hand in their mobile phone and that’s for child protection reasons but actually it’s the detox value to it as well but it is literally like removing a limb from them when they come in and some of them get wind of it before they arrive and they bring their burner phone and hand that in and they get found out a few days later that actually they’ve got another phone that they’re using. I personally at the right time in the year a few times a year phone goes away and I just get away from it. I just find that so it revives me and we used to have that all the time and I don’t know how we’ve just we’ve gone away from it. And the early expeditions I did as well, you know, going back to the late nineties, early two thousands. Once you were away, you were away, you know, you might have a VHF with you. Satellite phones were available then, but they were way too expensive for the expeditions I was doing. So I remember being dropped off in Patagonia and saying to the boatman, yeah, come and pick me up in six weeks. We’ll have a three day window to come and pick us up and we’ll be here. We won’t hear from them in between.

Small steps lead to adventures

Sue:   You just got on with it. So finally Neil. What advice or tips would you give to somebody who wants to be more adventurous, enjoy the outdoors a little bit more? But it could be a parent, could be somebody in an organisation that maybe thinks the outdoors could benefit their members of staff. How would you encourage people to embrace the outdoors and that kind of opportunity for adventurous learning?

Neil: I think, first of all, that going back to right at the start, adventure is what you want it to be. It doesn’t have to be the big exciting discovery journey that we hear about on the news and these types of things. It’s whatever you decide you want it to be, and you choose your own risk and you choose your own adventure threshold in that. So making it something that’s initially achievable, small steps, if you’re new into it, and build it up from there, it takes an awful lot. There are lots of inspiring people out there who jump off the couch and decide to go and run seven marathons in a week or something. And my hat’s off to them. I think that’s great. But that’s not for everybody. It’s about making something that is absolutely achievable for yourself and then building on those goals over time. And in terms of getting out and doing it, Sue, you were talking locally recently in Helensborough, where I live, and you asked about questions at the end of your talk. And I’m more inspired by a lady who asked a question of you right at the end, who was maybe in her early 50s, late 40s, and she said, I want to get off the couch and I want to go and do these things. What inspires me is giving opportunities to people like that, that recognize the benefits and want to go and do it. And if we can get them out doing it, great. And that’s what excites me and inspires me. And it doesn’t have to be that big journey. It can be a walk up their local hill to get them started.

Sue:  I think what I’m hearing you say, Neil, is every big journey potentially starts with a small journey and we just have to take the first step.

Neil: Yeah, absolutely. But there’s no boundaries. There’s a group of ladies local to us who came to our outdoor centre just recently and they were all over 80 and they were off on a cruise up into Norway. And they knocked on the door and they said, we’re going on a cruise. And they’ve said that if we can kayak, we’ll be able to go kayaking out in the fjords. So early eighties, all three of them were learning to sea kayak with one of our instructors. And it just fills your heart with warmth. We had to do things differently to make sure they could do it. But yeah, no, there are no boundaries. The only boundaries we set are ourselves setting them. And if we can tailor that adventure to our abilities, then there’s no stopping us.

Sue:   Well, it’s been lovely to speak to you today, Neil. I wish you well with your mission to encourage even more people within the environment of Glasgow and beyond to get into the outdoors and do adventurous things. If people do want to find out more about the work you’re doing and connect with you, how might they be able to do that?

Neil: The best way to get in contact with me is through LinkedIn, and you’ll have my full name there. There aren’t many Neil Wightwicks out there, but yeah, through LinkedIn is the best way.

Sue:   We’ll put a link to that in our show notes so people can follow up on the conversation with you. Thank you again today, Neil, and I hope you can go off later and enjoy a little adventure.

Neil: I will do. The sun’s come out, so we’ll be certainly outside later on today. Thank you very much for inviting me, Sue.

Sue:   Well, thanks to our guest today, Neil Wightwick. And do get in touch and let us know what your reflections were, as we do love to get your feedback. Now, next week, we will continue this theme and talk to two people involved in an organisation, Raleigh International, that has changed thousands of lives over the last three decades by giving young people an opportunity to experience expeditions with purpose. I look forward to connecting with you then.

Producer: Sue Stockdale
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra