You are here

Think outside; forget the box

Belinda Kirk with icicles on her eye lashes
Copyrights: Belinda Kirk/Explorers Connect

Think outside; forget the box

The first Adventure Mind conference showed that the role adventurous physical activity can play in facing a mental health crisis shouldn’t be ignored.

It all changed for me seventeen years ago standing in a queue on a grey day outside the iconic Royal Geographical Society. I had just led an expedition of young people to the Amazon that summer and we were gathering again to present our reports.

A woman approached me and asked “What did you do to my daughter?” I wasn’t expecting such a direct criticism, especially before we’d even entered the building. But before I could answer she hugged me. She explained she was Alice’s mother and the penny finally dropped. Alice* had been one of my toughest challenges on the expedition. A 17 year old young woman from the Midlands, who had a history of self harm and had been struggling academically and socially. At the start of the expedition she was the least engaged. I tried several approaches including giving her small but important responsibilities; this pushed her to interact with everyone in the group but also, little-by-little, proved that she was a valuable member of the team. That she and her contribution were important.

Over the weeks her social skills and confidence grew. From the outside there was no mistaking the transformation; the girl who had joined the expedition and the young woman who returned to her family in Britain were strikingly different. However, I’d never considered how deep this transformation might be and how long it might last once we’d all returned to ‘real life’.  It appears some real changes endured; six months later here was her mother hugging me in the rain, describing how she now helps out at home, has shown improvement at school and maybe most importantly had a couple of new friends.

For all my memories of that wonderful expedition, this is still the one that remains in my head with the most clarity.

Because it was at that moment that I came to fully believe in the power of adventure to change lives for the better. 

After that moment, adventure for me has been more about understanding and putting into practice the ways that I can make a positive impact on the world around me. Over the years I’ve spent more and more time looking into the research and noticing how adventure makes it impact. How can we harness this power better both for ourselves and for others? 

The role that adventurous activity can play in a society facing a mental health crisis shouldn’t be ignored. Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. What we need is a bit more of thinking outside; forget the box.

I believe that taking part in adventurous physical activity has the potential to enhance a participant’s life in ways that cannot be achieved elsewhere, and I’m not the only one. 

Each year more evidence emerges supporting the efficacy of adventure on well-being including positive life transformations, enhanced quality of life, emotional regulation, development of emotional agency in interpersonal relationships, joy, social connections, escape from boredom, pushing personal boundaries, overcoming fear… I could go on.

For example, studies investigating the health benefits of outdoor adventure programs for at-risk youth have found long-term benefits including enhancements in self-concept (the beliefs you hold about yourself). Or the effective role of adventure for recovery amongst military personnel with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This led me to wanting to get researchers in the field together - to see how we can make their work more accessible and help more adventure practitioners put it into practice in the field. This has evolved into a new concept: the Adventure Mind conference. Adventure Mind aims to improve the way adventure is delivered in UK to positively impact mental health.

The conference is about finding ways to help ourselves and others be the best that we can be through adventurous activity. It’s about providing opportunities for all of us to know ourselves, find out what we are capable of and grow.

The first Adventure Mind conference was held from 27-28 February 2020, and saw outdoor professionals, outdoor organisations, researchers and individual adventurers get together to access the latest research, build improved networks and share resources.

Photo: Belinda Kirk at the Adventure Mind Conference 2020

A first-hand account of the conference has been documented in a blog from HeadRightOut.

We are also now inviting people to register their interest in joining us for Adventure Mind 2021. If you would like to keep in the loop about the next in the Adventure Mind conference series, fill in your details on the conference website.

Belinda Kirk is an expert expedition leader and has pioneered inclusive expeditions for people with disabilities, and led dozens of youth development expeditions around the world. She holds a Guinness World Record for rowing unsupported around Britain. Belinda launched Explorers Connect in 2009; a community of 28,000+ open to everyone from total beginners to experienced explorers to link up with adventures, team-mates and adventure industry jobs. 

Visit the Adventure Mind website for more information.


Article type



Belinda Kirk


Monday, March 16, 2020 - 14:58