Physical and Social Stereotypes: Understanding Why University Students May Not Participate in Outdoor Recreation

Physical and Social Stereotypes: Understanding Why University Students May Not Participate in Outdoor Recreation
Submitted by Iris Buchanan, Wilderness Guide, Student

In our National Parks and in wilderness programs across the United States, people with certain physical attributes and social standings are commonly excluded from participating in outdoor activities. Outdoor communities that are filled with outdoor enthusiasts tend to be inherently exclusive, despite their best efforts and due to various stereotypes attached to these groups and programs that include how they should look and how they should act.

At a small liberal arts university in upstate New York, the outdoor community thrives with many outdoor recreation opportunities close to campus. This fun and energetic community also plays a major role in the university’s social life by hosting a number of events year round, yet, it remains small and exclusive in nature.  Despite its efforts to be inclusive to all students, it is inherently exclusive due to these stereotypes that have been created by the greater society of America. Students not directly involved in the program feel incapable of joining due to these factors and other barriers, such as the expense for proper equipment or feeling inferior due to lack of previous experience.

To better understand why students do not feel welcome to participate in outdoor activities on campus, a survey was designed and electronically released to the student population. The survey received 263 responses. A majority of the individuals that responded were white, female, and from the east coast of America. 94% of respondents stated that they participate in outdoor recreation outside of university sponsored events. Despite this, 70% identified barriers that prevent them from feeling adequate and capable while participating in outdoor activities at the university. A common thread was that the individuals felt that they did not fit into the expected image of an outdoor enthusiast. One of the questions specificlly asked individuals about how they felt their outdoor skill was questioned by others. Figure 1 shows that gender was referenced 25% of the time, as well as a general response referring to one's physical appearance was referenced 23% of the time. Another question asked individuals how they felt they needed to change their appearance in order to participate in outdoor activities at this university. Figure 2 depicts how physical appearance, fitness, and which brand names and gear they use impacts how people feel they need to change in order to participate in outdoor activities. These results, complied with the entire survey found that many people felt excluded from outdoor activities and communities based on their gender and other physical attributes, including clothing, assumed fitness level, and gear used.

Figure 1. Categorical results for Question 13 of the survey: How do you feel that people question your outdoor skill?
Fig 1

Figure 2. Categorical results for Question 16 of the survey: How do you feel you need to change your appearance in order to participate in outdoor activities with the outdoor community at St. Lawrence University?Fig 2

These findings show that the stereotypical image of the outdoor community may have a much more powerful effect on students than previously thought. This is particularly interesting due to the highly homogenous demographic results of participants. Although many of the subjects share a similar race, gender, and hometown geography, they still found outward appearance to be a highly exclusive factor to participation in outdoor activities. Participant responses to open-ended questions in the survey also revealed that specific slang, clothing, and level of athleticism also made people feel excluded.

Part of what makes tight, close-knit communities so special is an element of common interests and morals, and this is also true of outdoor communities. However, when designing programming meant to reach a broad and diverse population, it is important to understand how these elements could make others feel left out and dismissed from participating in outdoor activities. One solution could be a redefinition of what outdoor recreation includes. Based upon analysis of survey responses, it is clear that many respondents thought of outdoor recreation as a heavily technical, intense, and athletic activity that required experience and a strong level of fitness. However, outdoor recreation also includes less strenuous and uncomfortable activities such as throwing a frisbee on the campus quad or going for a swim in the local river. More programming that is closer to home and more comfortable for a broader group of people could open the outdoors to more students.

So how are you helping to ensure that your outdoor education or recreation program is welcoming and inclusive to those who feel they might not belong?  Reply in the comments section to share your thoughts!

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Comments on "Physical and Social Stereotypes: Understanding Why University Students May Not Participate in Outdoor Recreation"

Comments 0-5 of 2

Abigail Drescher - Thursday, September 27, 2018

Students might enjoy following the instagram group unlikelyhikers as a visual representation of diversity in the outdoor community.

Abigail Drescher - Thursday, September 27, 2018

I very much appreciate this article!

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