IT’S like a forest of waving hands at the moment, as every Covid-puggled sector seeks the saving attention of government, whether Scottish or British. Yet one arm that shot aloft this week particularly caught my own attention, and heart.

Two notable Scottish adventurers – Mollie Hughes, the youngest woman to surmount both sides of Mount Everest and to ski solo to the South Pole, and Mark Beaumont, the world-record holder for cycling around the planet (79 days) – have allied themselves to “A Vision for Young People”.

This is the title of a joint aspiration statement from Outward Bound, Scouts Scotland and many other outdoors and educational bodies. They assert that “every single young person has the right to progressive outdoor learning, including the immersive, residential experiences”.

The promotional images carry the message better. Girls and boys are building cairns on beaches, attaching themselves to climbing ropes, carrying canoe paddles before them, contemplating a ridiculously beautiful sky, sitting round a fire they’ve made, standing triumphant before a sea. As a parent, or as the child within the adult, some strong memories will undoubtedly be stirred.

In Mollie’s words: “At a time where the lives of young people have been shaped by staying at home to protect their communities, it is crucial that we create future opportunities that give them a chance to spread their wings, foster confidence and resilience, build new friendships and develop an attachment and respect for nature. This is unachievable in any other environment.”

To my ears, the sell is easy. But like every other enterprise whose premise is social and physical contact, among people whose connections across diverse backgrounds are now an infectious worry more than an enriching encounter, residential outdoor learning is in trouble from the pandemic.

Truth be told, it was in trouble before. Just before the lockdowns began in early 2020, research by the University of Stirling reported 123 residential centres in 1982, more than 70 of them run by local authorities. This had fallen to 64 centres by 2018, with fewer than a dozen owned publicly. In March 2020, Glasgow City Council’s plans to close its Blairvadach centre was clumsily reversed, faced with more than 10,000 petition signatures.

So I admire this vision’s pro-active approach. They’re right to suggest that their services need to be maintained, even strengthened. Particularly given their relevance to one of the most worrying aspects of Covid: the sharp increase in mental health problems among young people.

The Scottish reports on youth mental health (from YouthLink and the Children’s Parliament) are from the first half of the pandemic. But even then, a third to two-fifths of kids surveyed were deeply fretting about their futures, reporting increased levels of worry and loneliness. Educational psychologists in England noted an increase in fights, and a decrease in fitness, when kids returned to school after the first lockdown.

There’s no doubt that a straightforward restoring of the rough-and-tumble of the playground, school recess or public park, bouncing madly away off your equally daft pals, would shift these mental health numbers. But I think it’s right to see outdoor learning, residential or not, as an accelerant on this path towards full recovery.

Whether it’s plowtering about in forest schools for the young ones, or the full shoot-the-rapids experience for older kids, there’s a solid block of research showing that outdoor learning (as the Vision summarises) “makes kids healthier, happier, more confident, more resilient, more optimistic, better connected to nature, with improved life chances. They achieve and attain more.”

It may not be too difficult for this sector to defend themselves – and with £15 million from the Scottish Government being distributed to local authorities to support children and young people’s mental health issues, they certainly have buns to fight for. Yet their case opens up a much wider and deeper discussion about the role of play in Scottish (and global) learning.

According to the academic group PlayFirstUK, this summer (if the pandemic calms down) should be “a summer of play” for children. The groups are pushing back against UK Government plans to introduce supplementary lessons, catch-up summer schools and extended school days.

“As part of a wider recovery process, children should be encouraged and supported to spend time outdoors, playing with other children and being physically active,” say PlayFirstUK. “This is not an either-or decision. Social connection and play offer myriad learning opportunities and are positively associated with children’s academic attainment and literacy.”

So what balance – between restorative play and the grind of catch-up – will Scottish teachers strike, when children return to school this Monday? Sue Palmer, the indefatigable founder of – which campaigns for a play-based, three to seven years kindergarten in Scotland – wants us to recognise that the challenge has deep roots.

“If we don’t have children actively playing outside from an early age, it can be difficult to persuade them to get outdoors later,” Sue writes to me. “There are many problems with the young early-years workforce. They don’t want to do ‘forest school’ with the kids because they themselves have been reared in captivity and are frightened of the outdoors.”

Sue and I share an interest in evolutionary biology and psychology – and what it tells us about how vigorous, social play strengthens and centres our children. Play experiences, conducted away from the incessant monitoring of “helicopter” parents, make kids more capable of pursuing their purposes and harnessing their turbulent emotions in later adult life. “Everything starts in early childhood,” says Sue.

PARTLY due to Sue’s relentless advocacy, the Gradgrind/anti-play tendencies in Scottish education have been somewhat suppressed. In 2020, the tests-and-targets approach to under-7s was abandoned, and a new “practice guidance” was introduced for Scottish early-years education, under the title Realising The Ambition: Being Me. This has a major and well-informed section on “the importance of play”.

Palmer has edited a book, Play Is The Way, to support the Realising the Ambition agenda. Some of the chapters report the most beautiful stuff. Take the Secret Garden kindergarten near Letham in Fife. There, kids “coory in and listen to the wind howling around”, in leafy locations called the Moon Den, the Cooking Tree or Where the Dragons Live.

Also inspiring is Suzanne Zeedyk’s chapter on “relationships, play and learning in Scottish identity”. Zeedyk believes we should all know more about John Bowlby’s attachment theory: the idea that children grow best by means of love, contact and play.

She reprints a graphic showing Bowlby’s “Circle of Security”, which is particularly moving. A happy kid runs in a circle. At one side of it, she departs from a cupped hand, which represents “a secure base”. She heads for and leaps wildly onto a tree, in which her “exploration” is “supported”. Then she runs back to the second cupped hand, named “a safe haven”. Jumping to the other hand, she departs for the tree again.

We literally see our kids perform this circle down the park. But it also reminds me of the political philosopher Tony Judt’s definition of the welfare state under social democracy. This provides a level of predictable services, quips Judt, to support our right to live unpredictable lives.

To build a circle of security, balancing human dependence and independence, feels like it has a wider, more political application in Scotland than merely theories of child development (though as Sue says, there’s really nothing “mere” about that).

We are often here, in these pages, making a case for Scotland being “outward bound” as a constitutional option. But it would be a delight to imagine that the strength and intention to make this happen could draw inspiration from an unexpected place.

That is, the spectacle of our children, ravelling themselves together through play (and adventure) in nature.

Play Is The Way: Child Development, Early Years And The Future Of Scottish Education is edited by Sue Palmer (CCWB Press, £10.00)