Adventure Mind 2023

Small Adventures, Big Impact

Belinda Kirk standing in front of a projector screen holding her left hand upwards towards the conference title, Adventure Mind
Belinda Kirk introducing Adventure Mind 2023

What better way to launch the Adventure Mind Conference 2023, than with the founder’s statement. Her most important moments in adventure is “when she knows she can be a little piece of change in someone’s life”. She knows the value of adventure. We know the value of adventure. The children, young people, and adults who have experienced days, or even weeks of outdoor challenges, however brutal. They also know the value of adventure. Belinda Kirk holds countless experience and expertise in the field of adventure. There’s her book Adventure Revolution, her academic background, her research contacts, her expeditions. She has three Adventure Mind conferences under her belt now too. She gave the following question a great deal of thought. We all know the power that adventure brings to individuals. If we were to define it, what is the REAL value of adventure?

Belinda believes the value of adventure is to inspire, to heal, to grow, to grow up and to face our fears. She indicated it was also about strengthening relationships, tapping into joy and discovering meaning to our lives. In short, it’s a vehicle for becoming the best version of ourselves. These areas encompass so much of what great mental health, wellbeing, and lifelong happiness is all about. After drawing this conclusion, as she puts it: Why aren’t we valuing adventure?

Indeed, why the hell aren’t we?

From Adventure Mind to Adventure Revolution

As an aside, if you have never read Belinda’s book Adventure Revolution, published in 2021, here I am, banging the recommendation drum. It blew my mind, (or should I say, it blew my Adventure Mind…!) Her words make so much sense. If heard and acted upon by the policy makers, perhaps we could do more to help ourselves, our communities and dare I say it, save our NHS money. In her introduction, Belinda shares that Adventure Revolution stood only as the first argument for the importance and power of adventure. She admits that there is so much more research and evidence out there. Adventure Revolution is the result of the wider argument and designed for a popular audience.

If only we could find a way to measure the value of adventure with evidence in the form of data. It may give more weight to the overall mission to encourage more people and organisations to use adventure. It could serve well as a first port-of-call for the benefits to mental health and wellbeing. Belinda has a goal along with the many practitioners, therapists, adventurers, and researchers who attend Adventure Mind. The mission is to find a way to join up the industry, therapies, and outdoor opportunities available. All this in the hope towards achieving a more positive language around adventure. Over the years, it’s had a battering of stereotyping… testosterone-filled, white, middle-class, expensive, and frivolous. We need to reach an overall understanding in our society that adventure is far from frivolous and in fact essential. Again, Belinda’s words – and, of course, a room full of people nodding in agreement.

My Third Adventure Mind Conference

Zoe stands on a railway station platform, with a beaming grin, next to her pale blue trolley case.
Waiting for the train at Abergavenny

Over the last few months, my anticipation grew, knowing I’d be attending the third Adventure Mind Conference. As a delegate at the very first conference back in March 2020, I remain proud. I kicked a bout of severe imposter syndrome out of the ring to even get myself there. After days of worry, it took seconds to realise I was welcome. Of course I didn’t need to justify why I’d bought a ticket. (You can read about my experience of the first Adventure Mind here).

Adventure Mind and Me

Since that first event, I have grown to love and look forward to the inspiring speakers, the familiar faces, and the new connections I know I’ll make. I still battle with imposter syndrome, particularly as I don’t carry any outdoor qualifications. I have no wellbeing, or therapy competencies – and I’m not researching for academic studies either. However, I’ve discovered I’m more able to manage this side of my mental health these days. The crowd at Adventure Mind are so incredibly warm. They always show a genuine interest in what I have to offer with HeadRightOut too.

What have I gleaned from this year’s conference? The speakers and workshop presenters were tip top. I mean, they always are, but this year, I felt they were well selected. They all resonated with the theme of the conference: ‘Small Adventures, Big Impact’. In a nutshell, that’s my level of adventure in more recent years, to be honest. Since early 2018, my elderly family members have needed greater levels of support from me. This resulted in the choice not to take longer trips away from home. In previous years, I’d spent weeks at a time walking and wild camping along various trails. I knew the time had come to find smaller adventures. Challenges that would satisfy my need outdoors but still flood me with the same physical benefits and great brain chemicals.

I come to the Adventure Mind Conference to fill my cup full of adventure inspiration, supporting my development of HeadRightOut. My aim is to help other midlife women in their ‘sandwich years’ and beyond. We all need to know about midlife opportunities. The chance for supported perimenopause in the outdoors and the option of a positive retirement. In other words, we don’t have to retreat indoors as we get older.

A l’il note…

This snapshot of the Adventure Mind Conference 2023 is from my perspective only. Other delegates may have written blogs, social media posts or recorded podcast episodes too, about their experiences. As I discover these, I’ll add links to the bottom of the page.

Adventure Mind Day One

With the white Adventure Mind pop-up stand in the background, Belinda Kirk holds a microphone, while Israh Goodall holds her right hand to her chest and clutches a glass of water in her left hand. Two members of the audience are visible in the foreground.
Israh Goodall with Belinda Kirk during her post-presentation Q&A

Day One opened with Israh Goodall, talking about Outdoor Adventure as a Rite of Passage. Perfect as an opening speaker, Israh gave us a little background into her professional life and her own participation in a powerful rite of passage ritual in the wilderness, across four days and four nights. As an advocate for adventure, the surge of change Israh described didn’t surprise me, and from the outset, I connected 150% with everything she said. She shared the importance of rite of passage for young people and adults alike, as a transition between our many life stages. In an instant, I found myself transported back to 2011, on the South West Coast Path and my own admission to all who wanted to hear why I was undertaking this 630 miles National Trail. “It’s my perfect rite of passage into middle age”, I told them.

In moments of stretching our comfort zone, we may face challenges, decision-making, pain, and fear. Coming through these experiences, all those who undertake a rite of passage experience find themselves in a place where they are more able to discover who they are and who they want to be. It gives them the opportunity to transition into a new, developed version of themselves. Emotionally resilient, the ability to foster gratitude, and a discovery of their unrealised gifts and skills. Oh, and remember, adventure is not exclusively for young people… just saying.

A Resilience Walkshop

Martin Murphy stands on a patch of grass, next to the T-junction of a pathway. The backdrop is bushes and trees and there is a three-way blue signpost to his right and six people clothed in colourful hats, coats and headbands, visible in the group listening to him at Adventure Mind
Martin Murphy bringing perspective to our Resilience Walkshop

My practical session on the first day took me on a Resilience Walkshop with Martin Murphy. As a group, we walked, talked, and received regular input on the impact of nature and outdoor challenge on our wellbeing. The area around Conisbrough is rich with mining history and there are now many trails, cycleways, and wooded walks to be enjoyed. The side-by-side style of sharing conversation with strangers is empowering, and as walks go, I could have carried on for another hour, easily. Connections made with Kayleigh Clay from The Towers Active Learning Centre, and Helen Gough of Elemental Challenge meant our time outdoors flew by.

A brief HeadRightOut Moment

Kayleigh Clay, Helen Gough and Zoe Langley-Wathen stand in front of an outdoor backdrop wearing warm jackets, colourful scarves and hats or headbands. All three are smiling for a selfie.
L-R: Kayleigh Clay, Helen Gough & Zoe Langley-Wathen

Back inside the venue again, I valued the short introductions to authors and workshop leaders, all pitching their interests and invitations to meet with them in dedicated spaces around the building. Each pitch was no longer than around five minutes, and this gave us all a great snapshot of our fellow delegates. I had a HeadRightOut moment when Belinda invited anyone else in the room to stand up and share who they are and what they do. Although I am a speaker, and I love what I do, I still get nervous in the moments before putting myself out there. I knew that if I didn’t take this opportunity, I’d hide (and regret it later!), so I shot my hand up and despite my heart pounding for the few minutes beforehand, I found myself in full flow for two whole minutes.

Believe it or not, it’s harder to get up and speak for just two minutes than it is for an hour – and it’s all about learning the art of being succinct! Get your point across in a few words. I reckon I must have succeeded as I had a queue of people wanting to speak to me afterwards. The connections made because of that two minutes alone are of great value to me. There are many people I could have missed out on meeting if I’d not stood up and introduced myself. Yaaay, go me. Each time I do this, it gets easier. Others also stood up to share their businesses and interests. I loved hearing all about their adventure and wellbeing niches and made myself a long list of people to seek out later.

An Awesome Pink Nicky Marketing Workshop with Nicky Chisholm

Nicky Chisholm is wearing a fuchsia pink blouse and pink trainers with denim-look trousers. She holds her left hand up as she explains part of the workshop she presents. To her right is a presentation screen and the wall is made of large cobbles, held into place with wire.
Nicky Chisholm, ‘Pink Nicky’, the marketing and events queen presenting a vibrant workshop

Even with all those people wanting to chat with me, I also did not want to miss the marketing workshop with Nicky Chisholm – aka Pink Nicky. “Shine light on you and your business in 2024” she said in her pitch. “It’ll be a fast, fun and pacey workshop…” Sold! Time had been allocated for us to choose two workshops. Although there was another workshop I also wanted to attend, I made the decision to only go to Nicky’s, making myself available to network with all those wonderful people who wanted to connect with me, afterwards. Good choice – with events being her bread and butter in a past life, Nicky is a marketing queen! Check her out.

Anita Grant on Adventure Play

Anita Grant wears a loose turtle neck jumper and black trousers with a backdrop of brick wall and white Adventure Mind pop-up display screen. She looks up wistfully to her left, as she shares her talk holding an A4 sheet of paper in one hand.
Passionate words from Anita Grant about the importance of adventure playgrounds in a child’s development.

Anita Grant’s late afternoon presentation featured the importance of adventure play for children. Amongst many hats of experience, she is the Chair of Play England and Assistant Chief Officer for Trust and Legitimacy in Sussex Police. What’s amazing is that she’s in her fifties and only just landed that role. She’s also the winner of the 2023 Asian Women of Achievement for Public Service award. If you could see me now – I’ve raised my hands again with a huge applause for Anita right here. Inspirational is an understatement.

Junk Playgrounds and Choice

A slide from a presentation that shows a black and white photograph of how junk playgrounds used to look in the 1950s. Tyres hang from wooden beams and children climb across the top as other children play below on makeshift swings.
A slide from Anita Grant’s presentation showing a junk playground

Adventure playgrounds built from the rubbish and rubble of 1950s post-war Britain proved to be a space for free play and resilience-building, full of imagination and risk.

Anita grew up in Camden Town in a mixed-race area. With substances in her family and perhaps other issues too, her local adventure playground became an important place for her. A notable point I picked up from Anita; all the childhood adventures don’t necessarily need to happen in the wild, in the woods, or in the Himalayas. Adventures happen for children when they get to CHOOSE! That’s utter gold.

Another point Anita made that struck me (no pun intended but there it is!) is that if your child is pushing others out of the way, it’s important to allow them to do that, as they work it out. Wow. Just that statement made me sit up and think, ‘Would I have done that? Would I have the courage not to intervene and let my child work it out with the other kids?’ I mean, my child is no longer a child but has one of her own now! I’m sure I did step in from time to time when I probably didn’t need to. At the same time, I think I did give her as much freedom outdoors as I could too.

How children work it out for themselves

Anita flashed many powerful quotes onto the screen and many more spoken. ‘Children access a different state when they are not navigating other adult’s neuroses.’ – Bob Hughes. There is so much truth in that statement alone. How many of us have a fear of heights, a fear of spiders, a fear of strangers, or a fear of our child falling from a slide. How many of us have followed our children around saying ‘be careful, don’t fall, watch out?’ I believe I was careful to avoid this as much as possible, but my daughter may argue this otherwise!

Adventure Mind Networking

Zoe Langley-Wathen wears a peaked woolly hat, smiling for a selfie with Amanda Gordon on the right of the picture, wearing glasses and hair tied back.
Zoe with Amanda Gordon

When the bar opened, Nicky Chisholm waved to me and a few others to join her in a glass of bubbly. The day before, we’d arrived at the railway station at the same time and so went for dinner together, along with Amanda who is really a kayaking coach, under cover as a business analyst. In between more outdoor adventure conversations, smished in with some talk of HeadRightOut, my walks, the podcast and the book, Nicky caught up with me for a third time, squeaking ‘BUBBLY!’ my way… I didn’t want to miss a glass, so gratefully filled up and carried on with meeting more amazing people.

How lucky are we at Adventure Mind?

Imagine having all these folks under one roof at the same time. Walkers, authors, activists, other podcasters, ocean rowers, life coaches, a burnout coach, running coaches, a channel swimmer, mountain guides and a super lovely surf lifesaver, qualifying as a nurse in June, who I met while filling my hot water bottle in the dorm kitchen just before bed! That’s just a small handful of them – I didn’t get to chat with everyone. Those I did talk to have given me such valuable advice, conversation, connection and a feeling of togetherness through a united understanding. We all get it. We’ve experienced the power of adventure and the potency of outside medicine.

Elise Holmes smiles for the camera wearing a black down jacket, orange hoodie and tilting her head to the right. She holds a napkin with the tips of her fingers and thumbs with multiple stick people drawn on it in biro. Each stick person has been named by its artist and the hashtag Adventure Mind titles the napkin.
Evidence that collaboration DOES work…!

Day One Empowerment and Inspo

Zoe Langley-Wathen smiles for a close-up selfie with Sally Kettle. Sally wears a black fleece jacket with a Girl Guiding badge embroidered on the left, a red lanyard and her hair is tied back. Zoe has a pink scarf, red lanyard and blue waterproof jacket. Her hair is loose.
My room buddy for the two days and all-round inspiring woman – Sally Kettle

I came away from Day One feeling empowered and reinspired to make the biz work, not just for me but for all the midlife women who have discovered HeadRightOut.

Not only did I get to have dinner the night before the conference with two fabulous women, Nicky and Amanda, but I also got to room buddy with none other than Sally Kettle. She’s an author, world record ocean rower, adventurer, keynote speaker, resilience coach and the day before all the Adventure Mind Conference shenanigans, she’d been awarded the role of Deputy Chief Guide of the Girl Guides. That’s a BIG deal!! Flipping honoured to be a roomie with Sally. As one of the first guests on the Tough Girl Podcast, I recognised her name immediately when she told me who she was. I think I said something along the lines of ‘we’ve got to send Sarah [Williams] a photo – she won’t believe this!

Adventure Mind Day Two

An offset angled photo of a large forecourt with overhanging porch with grilles. The sun is rising in the background creating an ambient glow through the sparse winter trees. There are a handful of cars parked in the centre background of the image and a plain building to the left.
Kingswood Dearne Valley, as the sun rose welcoming us all to breakfast on Day Two

Day Two began with an online presentation all the way from New Zealand. Professor Susan Houge Mackenzie shared how we can redesign adventure for best impact on wellbeing. Her talk covered areas of her research which I don’t feel qualified to recount or give justice to. It covered topics of wellbeing outcomes of nature-based adventure, the problematic assumptions about adventures in general and the basic psychological needs when we’re adventuring. This latter point caught my attention as Susan directed us to the three factors of Autonomy (having agency or choice about what we do), Competence (learning that we are good at what we do), and Relatedness (achieving a sense of belonging to the environment in which we’ve undertaken the activities).

Susan highlighted another factor too, lighting giant sparks in my brain: Beneficence (having a positive effect on others). This really is how HeadRightOut came about. For a few years, I participated in my own adventures and challenges without realising the positive impact it was having on those around me. As time progressed this stretched to those within my online community. It’s a two-way street when you receive feedback that you have inspired someone else. In this moment, it lifts your wellbeing too, so everybody benefits.

Unhappy with the stereotypical definition of adventure

I thought long about Susan’s question of how we go about rebranding or broadening the definition of adventure. As we surf the edges of misadventure and drama, how do we stop or change the narrative of adventure as elitist? Those misadventures make for great storytelling, but those stories often seem to attract a certain sort of person, especially in books. Rugged, gritty men. With beards. And it’s always about achievement or at the edge of death adventure. I’m not sure what the answer is – except that perhaps we just need more adventure memoirs by women. Cue Zoe Langley-Wathen… OK, I’ll hurry up and get that book out!

The final takeaway from Susan’s presentation is this: ‘Allow for time and space, for silence and awe. In doing so, you will pave the way for connection to the natural environment and transcendence’. This isn’t a direct quote – just my summary from a moment of inspiration.

First practical session on Day Two – Explore and Play

Gill Erskine and Andrew Telfer wear navy blue sweaters and blue/black trousers. They stand in front of a white wall, presenting to a small group of people wearing colourful outdoor clothing. There is a flip chart resting against the wall between them, with a page of informative words written on it.
Gill Erskine and Andrew Telfer of Wildstrong, delivering their Explore & Play activity

My morning practical session gave me lots to think about. Delivered by Gill Erskine and Andrew Telfer of WildStrong, they explained the emphasis of embedding outdoor movement in a community setting, as opposed to the option of exercising alone. They gave us fun activities to suit adults and children alike. For example, chalking shapes on the ground – each shape means a specific movement. One person chalks down the instructional pathway. The partner follows the directions. It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when there are reverse jumps, slides, and a pair of ‘laser beam’ bamboo canes involved.

Social Prescribing

Before lunch, three speakers gave three different experiences of acquiring funding and how to make social prescribing work. Until 2020, I had never even heard of the term ‘social prescribing’. But once I had, it made SO much sense. As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I still can’t understand why we’re not taking advantage of the benefits that adventure is evidenced to have on development, mental health and well-being, and the enormous savings this would gift our National Health Service.

Experiential Learning to support Good Mental Health

Delane Lim rests against a table as he presents a workshop. The background is made up of cobbles behind wire and a projector monitor. Delane wears a black polo shirt with long-sleeved white t-shirt underneath, a pair of grey trousers and grey and black trainers.
Delane Lim on ‘Facilitating Coping Mechanisms through Experiential Learning’

The last practical sessions of the conference arrived, and I had been allocated a spot with Professor Delane Lim all the way from Singapore. I couldn’t believe my luck as I had read about his work and knew I wanted to hear more.

Delane delivered a practical, experiential learning workshop on ‘Facilitating Coping Mechanisms’ to support good mental health. Each activity instilled a series of emotions such as fun, frustration, confusion, and often comedy. At the end of each activity, Delane gave us the synopsis of its importance, what we had learnt, and how we could use it in future.

Something Delane said made an impression on me. It went a little like this: ‘While we all have different roles and responsibilities in promoting a safe space for mental health and for young people to make good decisions in safe spaces… we have a duty to take care of our own character, soul and mental health.’ Amen! It’s hard sometimes but yes, we do. I’m the worst at this. I fly the flag for others to look after themselves, get outside, adventure, yada-yada, and yet often neglect my own wellbeing. Guilty as charged m’lord.

Be more observant

We learnt the importance of stepping out of our comfort zones, listening – I mean really listening, and observing subtle changes. It’s in these moments that as educators or facilitators we may be able to detect a difference in a young person that could affect the course of their life. Delane shared examples of students he had taught who had difficulties with temper or mood. He suggested tools we could use to help a person or student to calm down and slow their breathing. I was delighted to ‘win’ one of his books and we all brought home a QR code wheel – another excellent opportunity for us to harness his generous knowledge and skills advice.

The Final Panel Discussion

Five people sit on chairs in a semi-circle for a talking panel. There is a projector screen behind them that zooms in on the speakers. The background wall is brick and there is a white Adventure Mind pop-up display screen behind the left-hand person.
The final panel, L-R: Belinda Kirk, Andrew Telfer, Kelvyn James, Nadia Weigh & Andrew Higson

The final Panel before the closing address from Belinda, looked at ‘How communities can turn intention into lifestyle change and everyday adventures.’ First to respond, Andrew from WildStrong gave the suggestion that it’s not all about gym, running, exercises or certificates. It’s simply about moving outside. For a community, that could mean working on the allotment, gardening, or litter picking. The magic is being outside in a sustainable way that benefits the community.

Nadia, who took over the leadership of Adventure Queens two and a half years ago, made a great point that if people feel they are getting value from a community, they will want to give back. If they believe in what you do, they will want to turn up.

Andy, from Black Dog Outdoors shared the story of a woman who turned up to one of his events but was so traumatised by past experiences that she couldn’t get out of her car, to take part. The next time she turned up to an event, he managed to coax her out with Haribo sweets. 6 – 12 months on and she’s now supporting others on the Black Dog Outdoors events. That’s the power of the outdoors (laced with a little jelly sweet bribery…).

A selection of questions for the panel

The audience dug deep, asking fabulous questions. Emma, who came to the conference all the way from Oregon, made a great point, rather than a question, to the discussion about the idea of confidence vs vulnerability being complimentary, not contradictory. She said ‘Vulnerability sets a benchmark for where progress starts from. People are then able to adjust to adventure. It’s empowering for them to know that mistakes, lack of confidence, and impostor syndrome happens to us all.’

Sara, who works in palliative care, asked ‘how do you protect yourselves and volunteers from the vicarious trauma you hear or listen to?’ I’m not sure who answered this question, but the response was that for the most part the community takes on the burden, but it would be a good idea to get mental health first aid training too.

That’s a wrap!

Looking forward to mid-November 2024 already… and if you think you might be interested in coming next year, keep an eye on the Explorers Connect website or subscribe to the newsletter for updates.

Belinda wrapped up the conference by summarising the key areas discussed, with a reminder to talk about adventure in a different way to the usual themes of masculine, elitist, gnarly challenges. She thanked the speakers, the workshop leaders and the amazing behind-the-scenes crew and once we’d all grinned our way into the obligatory gargantuan group selfie, it was all over for another year.

Zoe Langley-Wathen smiles for a selfie wearing a peaked woolly hat, loose curly hair, a chunky pink scarf and blue waterproof jacket. She stands in front of a grassed area, with wooden two-storey buildings in the background, trees, golden glow of sunrise and a full moon still in the sky above her hat.
An early selfie on Day Two on my way to breakfast… spot the full moon still high in the background!
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