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Authors: Devine-Wright, H (Placewise Ltd) & Godfrey, C (Cath Godfrey
An independent logitudinal evaluation of the impact of
The Wave Project on vulnerable young people 2013-2017
the long-term impact
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This report is the second detailed study produced
into the effects of The Wave Project surf therapy
programme on young people with social and
emotional challenges. The last report, published in
2014, was well received in respect of the short-
term impact of the course. But a peer-review by
the journal Community Practitioner, published in
January 2015, recommended a more longitudinal
follow-up study to assess the longer-term impact.
Community Practitioner wrote:
“The [Wave Project] intervention resulted in a significant and sustained increase in
wellbeing. One year later, 70% of clients regularly attend a surf club and many have
become trained as session volunteers. Parents and referrers noticed an increase in
positive attitude and better communication, as well as improved self-management and
analyzing at both home and school. It is concluded that the Wave Project provides a
demonstrable young people.”
But it went on to say that:
“Further service evaluation of accessibility and long-term outcomes is also
This report –Surf therapy: the long-term impact– has delivered on that recommendation.
Independent researchers Dr Hannah Devine-Wright, of Placewise Ltd, and Catherine
Godfrey MsC, of Cath Godfrey Evaluations, have been analyzing data from over 400 case
studies, collected by the charity between 2013-17. The evaluators also ran a series of
focus group interviews Wave Project participants and their parents from across the
charity’s projects in England, Wales and Scotland, to get a broad view of the impact surf
therapy has had on young people over time.
Their conclusions from this analysis are clear: surfing, when delivered in a supportive
environment, with opportunities for continuation and volunteering, provides profound
and long-term benefits on the wellbeing of children facing social and emotional isolation.
For the first time, independent research has confirmed what many of us engaged in surf
therapy have witnesses week in and week out: surf therapy works. I hope that this will be
the first of many studies from all over the world that strengthen this evidence.
The Wave Project
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This report represents a longitudinal analysis of the effectiveness of The Wave Project
over five years. It examines The Wave Project’s contribution to individual client wellbeing
over time, as The Wave Project evolved into a national surfing intervention for vulnerable
young people. The report includes an analysis of participants who subsequently joined a
follow-on Surf Club and/or became volunteers with The Wave Project.
This independent evaluation of The Wave Project and Surf Clubs has two aims:
• To measure the effect of participation on wellbeing in a robust manner;
• To examine the effect of participation across time.
Both quantitative and qualitative data is used to illustrate the effect of The Wave Project
on participants over time. The quantitative data is derived from a baseline and post-
intervention survey administered to all Wave Project clients since 2013. Each
questionnaire is a composite of bespoke items designed to capture personal information,
project-related data and measure wellbeing using validated questionnaire items.
Feedback from clients led to the survey being modified in 2017 to make it easier to
complete whilst retaining essential measures of wellbeing. This report focuses on an
analysis of survey data from 412 clients who completed both surveys in 2017, with
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previous years reported in more detail elsewhere (Devine-Wright & Godfrey, 2015;
Godfrey, Devine-Wright & Taylor, 2015).
Analyses of the questionnaire data reveals that The Wave Project consistently improves
the wellbeing of young people. In 2017, all health and behaviour-related measures
reported mean (average) improvements post-intervention. This means that The Wave
Project has had a significant positive impact on the wellbeing of vulnerable young people
year-on-year for five years.
To examine the effect of participation over time, a series of follow-up focus groups and
interviews were conducted with parents and participants in England, Scotland and Wales
in February 2018. Qualitative data from open-ended survey items and clients and their
parents who participated in focus groups or interviews shows a lasting, positive impact of
The Wave Project and follow-on Surf Club on both clients and their families. Confidence,
physical and mental health and wellbeing not only improved but this improvement was
sustained over time. Parents attributed positive and lasting improvements directly to
participation in The Wave Project and Surf Clubs rather than to child development per se.
‘He was a different child by the end of it’ (Parent, Cornwall), ‘I think it saved him to be
quite honest, I really do’ (Parent, Devon). For many participants and parents/carers, The
Wave Project is transformational; enhancing wellbeing, improving social interaction and
opening up opportunities for personal growth and development (including volunteering),
that were previously unimaginable. The Wave Project is a cost-effective, tailored, one-to-
one surfing intervention that brings about lasting positive change in vulnerable young
people. For many the impact is dramatic, as a parent in South Wales said, ‘[He] has
recently stated that he wants to volunteer with The Wave Project and become a mentor
himself - this is amazing and such a turnaround from the young lad who didn’t want to
come out of his room, didn’t want to live.’
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The Wave Project is a six-week intervention that seeks to improve the lives of vulnerable
young people. Between 2013-17, The Wave Project directly reached around 2000
(1,945) vulnerable young people aged 8-21 who experience physical and mental health
issues, social deprivation or social isolation. Amongst those facing social isolation are
young carers, who often report low self-esteem and high levels of stress, anxiety and
depression (Harden et al., 2006), and young people who have been bullied.
According to government statistics, around six per cent of children are disabled (Office
for Disability Issues, 2014). Amongst 11-15 year olds, almost one quarter (23%) report
that they have a long-term illness (e.g. asthma, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, epilepsy) or
disability (including learning disabilities, autism) (Institute of Health Equality, 2017). It is
estimated that mental health problems affect one in ten children and one in five young
adults. In 2012, the annual short-term costs of emotional, conduct and hyperkinetic
disorders among children aged 5–15 was estimated to be £1.58 billion whilst the annual
long-term costs were in the region of £2.35 billion (Annual Report of the Chief Medical
Officer, 2012). However, only a quarter of school-age children with a diagnosable mental
health problem receive any intervention at all, despite most parents of these children
seeking professional advice and those that do seek help often face lengthy delays (Khan,
On referral, around a third of Wave Project participants have diagnosed mental health
issues, a third suffer social deprivation or family breakdown and a third are socially
isolated because of a disability, being a young carer or being bullied. Most are not taking
part in other sporting or leisure activities, and all are vulnerable to further isolation.
Surfing is the aquatic sport at the heart of The Wave Project. Surfing is a highly aerobic
aquatic sport that can significantly improve the cardiorespiratory endurance and upper
body and core strength of children with disabilities (Armintano et al., 2015). Although
children with physical disabilities have the same activity requirements as all children
(WHO, 2012), they have less opportunities to participate in sport (Arminatano et al.,
2015). This can result in lower fitness levels and higher obesity levels (Murphy &
Carbone & the Council on Children with Disabilities, 2008) which puts them at increased
risk of secondary health problems in later life such as coronary heart disease and
diabetes (Fragala-Pinkham et al, 2008).
To enable people of all abilities to surf, The Wave Project uses specialist equipment, such
as sand buggies and adapted surfboards as required.
The benefits of aquatic sports can be more pronounced for disabled than able-bodied
children (Koury, 1996). The buoyancy provided by water can enable children with
impaired mobility on land to function independently without the assistance of mobility
devices. Beyond the physical, being able to move through water unassisted can enhance
self-esteem and self-awareness (Clapham et al., 2014). Swimming can strengthen
muscles that enhance postural stability during locomotor and object-control activities
and decrease stereotypical movements, such as spinning and swinging, associated with
autism (Yilmaz et al. 2004). Success at surfing requires repetition, determination and
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stamina (Clapham et al., 2014), attributes that many children with autism possess
(Delaney & Madigan, 2009).
Surfing is an outdoor activity that can be undertaken independently, without complicated
rules or close contact with others (Delaney & Madigan, 2009). Surfing is relatively
unstructured, exploratory and playful rather than achievement oriented. Having fun is
fundamental to the well-being of children as is having engaging things to do (UNICEF
report, 2011). As surfing is immersive, it can erode sense of time and lead the world to be
experienced as a place of ‘mystery, risk and adventure’ (Tonucci, 2005); it is characterized
by ‘stoke’, an intense awareness of the moment and being ‘at one’ with the environment
Although the aquatic, ‘blue’ environment can be hazardous, with drowning the third most
common cause of unintentional death globally (Grellier et al., 2017), surfing, like other
‘lifestyle’ sports, positively embrace and even fetishise notions of risk and danger
(Gilchrist & Wheaton, date unknown). Generally, children have an appetite for risk – they
search for places and experiences that give them a sense of freedom and autonomy, away
from adults, that provide challenge, excitement, discovery sometimes destruction and
fulfil a wish to have a place of their own (Child Accident Prevention Trust 2002). For
disabled children experiencing degrees of protection well beyond the norm (Gill, 2007),
aquatic sports like surfing can provide a rare opportunity to experience risk. Some
commentators have argued that if children are not allowed to take risks they may grow
up over cautious and/or become unable to judge potentially dangerous situations for
themselves (Gleave, 2008).
Risk-taking is a critical component of resilience, the capacity to recover from or adapt to,
challenging and adverse situations. Resilience is linked to ‘capabilities’, the capacity to do
and be that which people value, and ‘competence’, the ability to generate and capitalize
on opportunities in the environment (Allen, 2014). Sandseter et al (2011) provide
compelling evidence that taking risks in play is a natural coping mechanism, which helps
reduce fears, tackle phobias and reduce anxiety. As resilience is not fixed, it can build and
erode over time depending on the presence of ‘protective factors’ like self-efficacy, self-
esteem, social problem-solving skills and a positive outlook (Hartley-Brewer, 2001).
However, although being resilient is helpful, it is unlikely to be sufficient to counter
effects associated with adverse factors such as living in poverty or having little social
support (Allen, 2014).
Like resilience, being connected to others in social networks is a protective factor that
improves the chance of leading a healthy and successful life (McPherson et al., 2013).
Social exclusion and loneliness is known to effect people of all ages but according to the
2006/07 European Social Survey, 28.8% of people aged 15-25, more than any other age
category, reported that they felt lonely some of the time and 2.3% felt lonely all or almost
all the time. An inability to participate in normal relationships and activities available to
the majority of people in a society can affect both the quality of life of individuals and the
equity and cohesion of a society as a whole (Levitas et al., 2007).
Being discriminated against or bullied can reduce participation in social networks and
lead to greater social isolation. Being bullied is associated with higher levels of
psychological and physical ill-health and poorer life outcomes (Durcan and Bell, 2015).
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Children and young people who do not conform to local norms of appearance, language
or behaviour, are at higher risk of being bullied by peers (Levinson et al, 2013), as are
children living with a disability or a long-term health condition (Sentenac et al., 2013).
Although the literature on the link between friendships and resilience is limited (Allen,
2014) there is some evidence that peer contact can help to build young people’s
resilience (e.g. Hill et al., 2007; NCH/Action for Children, 2007) and wellbeing (Gutman
et al., 2010).
One of the ways in which social networks (Durcan & Bell, 2015), and time spent playing in
natural environments (Gleave & Cole-Hamilton, 2012) can enhance wellbeing, is through
fostering a sense of belonging and identity. Surfing, like play more generally, is
characterized by having its own language, rules and values, all of which contribute to the
development of identities (Casey 2010; Wheaton, 2007). Sociologists believe that it is
the embodied performance or ‘doing’ surfing that contributes to young peoples’
‘authentic’ selves (Wheaton & Beal, 2003).
At The Wave Project, clients ‘do’ surfing with the one-to-one assistance of a volunteer
overseen by a surf co-ordinator. The aim is to teach surfing in a way that young people
value, ‘genuine, warm, confidential, non-patronising, that co-produces solutions and
builds on strong relationships.’ (Khan, 2016). A follow-on Surf Club is available for clients
who wish to continue their surfing on a regular basis. There are also opportunities for
former clients (and other family members) to become surf volunteers. This is particularly
advantageous for disabled people as they are significantly less likely to take part in formal
volunteering (Office for Disability Issues, 2014). Although volunteering in surf projects
has not been extensively evaluated, akin to volunteering in nature conservation projects,
it is likely to significantly improve mental wellbeing and levels of physical activity
(Rogerson et al., 2017) as well as enhance the development of soft skills such as, integrity,
responsibility and leadership (Sport England, 2017).
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Wave Project clients participate in an initial 6 week surf course in a small group, led by
volunteers and a surf coordinator. After completing The Wave Project clients are invited
to become members of a follow-on Surf Club which is also staffed by volunteers.
Participants in both The Wave Project and the Surf Club are provided with one-to-one
support appropriate for their particular needs. The core ethos of both The Wave Project
and the Surf Club is acceptance and fun.
The Surf Club provides a flexible, accessible forum for young people to continue surfing
and socializing. Social events that take place throughout the year cater for both
participants and their families. Members of the Surf Club are asked to contribute £5 per
session, payable in arrears, for sessions they attend. The level of voluntary contribution
has remained the same since 2013 and equate to approximately a quarter of the cost. A
fee waiver policy applies for families facing financial hardship. While many families
arrange their own transport to the Surf Club, this can also be provided for those who
need it. Transport costs £5 per participant. Although the costs of participating in The
Wave Project and Surf Club are minimal there can be hidden costs for accompanying
adults, for example, car parking charges or the cost of refreshments.
From inception in 2010 as a volunteer-led pilot scheme for just 20 young people in
Cornwall, The Wave Project has become a charity with over 1,200 volunteers overseen
by 15 project coordinators. The Wave Project works with up to 200 children per week in
13 locations across 8 regions: Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Sussex, North Yorkshire, East
Lothian, South Wales and the Isle of Wight. There are currently 400 people on the
waiting list, with 10-15 new referrals coming in weekly from professional services. In
2017, 461 young people were referred to the surf therapy programme and 300 people
regularly took part in the Surf Club. An additional, 90 young people participated in Beach
School, a Wave Project education programme that was not evaluated in the current
A bespoke questionnaire designed by independent evaluators has been administered
over the last five years (2013-2017). The questionnaire examines wellbeing outcomes of
the initial 6 week surf course, from client, parent and referrer perspectives. In 2017,
questionnaire data was collected from 412 clients across ten sites (Mid, West and North
Cornwall, North and South Devon, Dorset, Isle of Wight, Scotland, South Wales and
Scarborough). This data was triangulated with qualitative feedback provided by 9
participants and 13 parents/carers in focus groups and interviews held in Cornwall,
Devon, Scotland and South Wales.
For the questionnaire data, wellbeing scales were constructed using the whole data set
with cases excluded if data was missing. Therefore, the number of cases can differ by type
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of analysis undertaken. Well-being was measured using a modified version of the Stirling
Children’s Well-being Scale (SCWBS), a holistic, positively worded measure of emotional
and psychological wellbeing developed for use with children aged 8-15 years (Liddle &
Carter, 2015). The six items in the positive functioning scale used in 2017 were: ‘I feel
good about my future’, ‘I can make choices easily’, ‘I can find fun activities to do’, ‘I feel
that I am good at some things’, ‘There are people in my life who really care about me’,
‘There are things I can be proud of’. In 2017, the alpha of the positive functioning scale
pre-intervention was 0.759 and post-intervention it was 0.814.
Comparisons between pre- and post-intervention for scaled items were calculated using
a paired sample t-test. The t-test calculated whether the difference in mean score across
the whole sample pre-intervention was significantly different from the mean score post-
intervention. A ‘very strong’ significant difference indicated that in 99 out of 100 cases
the difference in mean scores was caused by what was being measured i.e. the
intervention, rather than by chance. A ‘strong’ significant difference equated to 95 in 100
Focus group and interview data was fully transcribed and thematically analysed.
Throughout this report, quotations are used to support and illustrate results from the
The number of people participating in The Wave Project has increased dramatically. In
2014, 109 young people were referred to the project of whom one-third (n=36) were
female and two-thirds (N=73) were male. In 2017, 461 young people were referred to
the surf therapy programme projects across ten locations. Of the 412 clients who filled in
the survey, 347 completed the Stirling measure in the pre- and post-Wave Project. The
ratio of female to male participants has remained stable at 1:2 for five years.
In 2017, 218 (53%) of Wave Project participants’ parent/carer completed the post-
intervention survey which allowed data to be triangulated between clients and their
parent/carer. When the analysis concerned ‘hard outcomes’ e.g. joining a surf club, the
analysis was conducted with this sub-set.
Twenty-two people, 9 children and 13 adults, were interviewed either individually or in
small groups in February 2018. Of the children represented either in person or by their
parent/carer, one had been involved with The Wave Project since 2013, three since
2015, two since 2016 and seven had been referred to the project in 2017. All the
children had subsequently joined the Surf Club.
Data across all five years has shown a consistently strong and robust improvement for
boys and girls, across all locations and up to three months after intervention. Paired
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sample t-tests comparing pre- and post-intervention measures showed that The Wave
Project had a very strong effect on all aspects of wellbeing in 2017 (p<.000). As figure 1
shows, in 2017, there was a very strong increase in positive functioning (T1 (M=3.89
SD=.63), T2 (M=4.18, SD=.63); t(347)=-10.21, p<.000)) as measured using the Stirling
measure of well-being. However, in 2017, there were some gender differences
consistent with girls reporting lower subjective well-being/ satisfaction with themselves
pre-intervention than boys (Children’s Society, 2015; Hamblin, 2016).
Figure 1: Effect of The Wave Project on well-being (Stirling measure) in 2017
Stirling wellbeing 2017
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As figure 2. shows, The Wave Project has had a sustained impact on positive functioning
and other key aspects of well-being year on year.
Competence increased very strongly every year as measured by, ‘I feel that I am good at
some things’ (p<.000). In 2017, parents reported sustained behaviour change that had a
positive impact on the wider family, for example, ‘[My child became] less negative about
life in general. It had a huge impact at home, towards me, towards her brother. She’d get
more excited, ‘I’m going to Wave Project tomorrow’…rather than ‘uh’ [depressed]
‘everyone hates me’ ‘I’m rubbish at everything’, she got excited and ‘I can do this’.’
However, feedback from some parents in the focus groups indicated a potential conflict
between the non-competitive ethos of The Wave Project and parent’s desire for their
children to achieve and succeed. Whilst some parents concurred with The Wave Project
ethos, for example, ‘It’s not the surfing that counts, it’s the enjoying, the going, the
participating, the getting out there and being you’ (Sasha, Parent, Cornwall) others
expressed not only pride in their child’s achievements, for example, being able to stand up
on the board, surfing in big waves or succeeding in competitions outside The Wave
Project but satisfaction that their child was ‘better’ than others. Being ‘better’ took
various forms including: being chosen to represent The Wave Project at events or in the
media, being a ‘natural’ surfer or owning (expensive) surfing kit. ‘[My child] comes into
class and says, ‘I’ve been surfing at the weekend’ and who else surfs? Nobody puts their
hands up. It raises self-esteem and self-value and kids love that, the certificates, the
medals, she loves that you know. I’d love to see her being taught to surf to grow the skill
because she has the ability to be an ambassador for this type of project.’ (Parent, Devon)
This desire for competitive advantage and distinctiveness was surprising given that the
same parents a) acknowledged the importance of accepting and not judging for wellbeing,
‘It’s hard to find something that makes your child more confident, more outgoing…they
Positive functioning Competence Calmness Having fun
Effect of The Wave Project on key aspects of well-
being over time
Before 2013 After 2013 Before 2014 After 2014 Before 2017 After 2017
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are always being praised and encouraged at The Wave Project’ (Parent, Devon), and b)
the negative effect of being ostracized by parents in their local community, ‘In normal
everyday living when things aren’t right at school or mental health then your community
tends to do this [keeps you at arm’s length] because everyone is in competition for their
children to hang out with the brightest kids, give their children the push to be the best but
if your child can’t be part of that then suddenly I thought we must have developed a really
bad stench!...the nice thing about the [Wave Project] parties and the flow rider is that you
are finally going to be able to talk to people who don’t give you that funny look.’ (Parent,
In 2017, 98.2% of Wave Project participants (N=338) were positive about surfing, with
85.5% (N=289) rating surfing at least 9 out of 10. As figure 3. below shows, the word
most frequently associated with ‘surfing and me’ was fun.
Figure 3: Word cloud for ‘surfing and me’
The survey showed a very strong increase in ‘I can find fun activities to do’ between pre-
and post-intervention (p<.000, N=344) with 99.7% (N=343) of participants saying that
they ‘had fun’. Fun is essential. As a Surf Club member since 2015 in Scotland stressed,
‘Can’t go to something without having fun.’
The high frequency of ‘happy’ in the word cloud was mirrored in the survey in which 96%
of clients said they felt happier (N=323) with a very strong increase in ‘I feel happy’
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99% of clients said they felt better (N=330) and parents were equally positive: ‘I can’t
praise it enough’ (Parent, Devon), ‘It’s been brilliant’ (Parent, Scotland). ‘Even after the
first session it was like a switch flicked in her head, she got out and she was beaming, she
was a different child and it was because nobody was belittling her and she could do it and
she was being praised and she was being encouraged and she’d found something that she
was good at and she just wanted to keep doing it.’ (Parent, Cornwall)
As figure 4. shows, even when participants were asked to describe three things they
didn’t like about The Wave Project the results were overwhelmingly positive.
Figure 4: Word cloud for ‘What I like least about The Wave Project’
Risk and resilience
Children have an appetite for risk and The Wave Project enables young people of all
abilities to experience what a participant on the IOW called an ‘adrenilating’ sport. ‘I quite
like the feeling of going around in the water like a washing machine,’ (Participant,
Resilience was measured by a reliable three-item ‘resilience’ scale consisting of ‘I like
trying new things’, ‘I love learning new things’ and ‘I keep trying even when something is
difficult to do’. The alpha of the Resilience scale was .752 pre-Wave Project and .762
post-Wave Project. As figure 5. shows, there was a very strong increase in reported
resilience in 2017 (p<.000).
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Figure 5. Increase in reported resilience in 2017
‘[The Wave Project] taught him resilience. As part of his autism he doesn’t necessarily
cope with failure very well, but the encouragement and support he was provided with
enabled him to learn from the falling off etc.’ (Parent, South Wales) A parent of a child
who was pulled from the water by a life guard and taken to hospital with an injured foot
said, ‘It didn’t stop her whereas before if anything like that had happened at any of her
other clubs there’s no way on this earth she’d ever have gone back. She couldn’t wait to
get back in the water. She was so cross that she couldn’t go back in because she was on
crutches. It didn’t dent her enthusiasm at all!’ (Parent, Cornwall)
Accessing physical activities suitable for children with a range of abilities can be
challenging and parents welcomed the presence of a regular, affordable sporting activity.
‘It has built [my child’s] confidence. Having something to do on a Saturday accessing
things that she wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. When she was younger she did
riding for the disabled and then that came to an end and I couldn’t afford riding lessons
and I thought ‘I wonder what?’ and then amazingly this came along and it is on our
doorstep and I think you like it even more so it has been great.’ (Parent, Scotland)
Even children with a diagnosable mental health issue can find it difficult to access
interventions and there are often lengthy delays (Khan, 2016). The speed with which
children were referred to The Wave Project differed by location. For example, parents in
Scotland reporting that they had been referred very quickly whilst some parents in
Cornwall waited over a year to join The Wave Project.
Although parents welcomed their child being referred to The Wave Project, there were
differences across locations in terms of how the project was perceived by non-
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participants. For example, the long-standing Wave Project in North Devon has become
an integral part of the local place identity. By contrast, in Scotland, there was some
concern about how the referral process was perceived. ‘People know [my child] had done
Wave Project and they wondered how he got to do it. Sometimes you don’t want to have
to say, ‘Well my kid did it because of a, b or c.’ You don’t want to have to disclose that.’
Self-reported frequency of exercise increased very strongly (p<.000) for the 98
participants who completed the pre- and post- exercise question in 2017. Of these, 89%
(N=88) felt fitter post-intervention. All the clients (N=5) who rarely exercised felt fitter.
‘I’ve got more muscle tone in my legs and it has helped [with] everything.’ (Participant,
Scotland) This is important since children with disabilities have less opportunities to
participate in sport (Arminatano et al., 2015) and this can lead to lower fitness levels
(Murphy & Carbone & the Council on Children with Disabilities, 2008) which puts them
at increased risk of secondary health problems in later life such as coronary heart disease
and diabetes (Fragala-Pinkham et al, 2008).
Parents reported that The Wave Project had an indirect impact on their health and
wellbeing and, where applicable, the health of their other children, for example, because
they walked whilst their child was surfing. ‘It’s good for [my daughter who does not
attend The Wave Project] to play in the fresh air and get out there doing physical exercise
rather than sitting there in front of the TV or the x-box all day.’ (Parent, Scotland)
Feeling safe and supported as a context for decision making is an essential component of
wellbeing for young people (The Good Childhood 2015, p.14). Almost all participants
(99.5%) reported that they felt very or fairly safe, with only 2 people (0.5%) reporting
that they did not feel safe. The qualitative data suggested that it was physical
characteristics of the natural environment (sea, water, waves, cold) rather than the
activity of surfing that made them feel unsafe. As parents observed, ‘They give the level of
supervision that is appropriate for the kid and let them have the freedom as well.’ (Parent,
Scotland) and ‘The volunteers are just the right amount of encouraging but patient, bit of
a joke but not too much of a joke, they’ve got the balance right, I can’t praise it enough.’
Surfing as a form of therapy
It is difficult, and arguably unnecessary, to partial out the therapeutic contribution of
different components of The Wave Project and Surf Clubs, for example, the activity of
surfing, the aquatic environment or the presence of volunteers. As parents noted, ‘The
whole feel of it is that it is all very calm and chilled and at their pace… The whole sea thing,
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the water is therapy in itself…But it is down to the volunteers as well, they are absolutely
amazing, they are like angels or saints, they are so patient and nothing is too much trouble
for them.’ (Parents, Devon)
A sense of belonging is an integral part of feeling connected to other people and a
pathway to better health (Durcan & Bell, 2015). Social connectedness, getting along with
other people and feeling part of a group, increased very strongly post-intervention
(p<.000). ‘[My daughter] feels comfortable with the group and the people who help and
that is really positive.’ (Parent, Scotland) ‘[My son] just slid in there rather than edging his
way in. He just blended right in.’ (Parent, Scotland)
The importance of social connectedness is evident in Figure 6 in which words such as
‘people’, ‘volunteers’ and ‘friends’ are frequently associated with The Wave Project.
Figure 6: Word cloud for ‘What I like best about The Wave Project
Young people consistently prefer to seek help from friends, family and informal sources
rather than professionals (Hamblin, 2016). ‘It is not a relationship like a student-teacher,
it is like a friendship. When you see [the child and volunteer] in the water they are pulling
each other around and it is really, really beautiful to see.’ (Parent, Cornwall)
Unfortunately, the value of spectating is not well understood or researched (Sport
The empathic relationship between volunteers and their clients, and between the
participants themselves helps people to feel valued and accepted. ‘Some volunteers have
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mental health issues themselves that they have made public within the arena of the club. I
look at people like that who turn up and I feel quite emotional because [my child] sees
them and runs straight to them and throws her arms round them.’ (Parent, Devon) The
sense of belonging extended to parents/carers and other family members: ‘The
volunteers do go out of their way to make us feel welcome and wanted.’ (Parent,
Cornwall) Although most participants are not accompanied by a parent/carer on the
beach or in the sea, events organized by The Wave Project (such as the Christmas surf)
bring together parents/carers and staff and enable experiences to be shared. ‘What is
really special is that you end up in an environment where you talk to people who ‘get it’’
(Parent, Devon). ‘However, it is important to remember that social connectedness is not
important for everyone: ‘I just go there to surf.’ (Participant, Scotland)
Giving Back and Volunteering
All interviewees described feeling more connected to others, by making friends and/or
having regular access to the project. This illustrates a sustained impact of The Wave
Project: young people remain in the club and attend social gatherings and events and
many go on to become volunteers or surf instructors themselves and give their support
to other, newer Surf Club members. Some gain training and accreditation as part of this,
with positive implications for their future.
The positive impact of volunteering is well documented (Okenden and Stuart 2014) and
it is evident that The Wave Project, enables both young people and their parents/carers,
who might not otherwise have the opportunity to volunteer, to get involved. ‘I started
volunteering in the water towards the end of the summer [when my son] started. Next
[Wave Project intake] [my son] came along too and helped with some of the new students
and that was really good as well for him to chat to the new people.’ (Parent, Scotland).
Opportunities to meet and talk with other parents/carers helps to build wider community
relations and relationships with others (Gleave and Cole-Hamilton, 2012). This is
important since research has found that a sense of community can boost immune
systems, lower blood pressure and guard against cognitive decline, while joining a
community group can reduce risk of dying (Institute of Health Equality, 2017).
Survey data showed that soon after course completion, even if the majority do not intend
to go on to volunteer, this profile changes with time and many do ultimately volunteer. In
Cornwall, where the Surf Club has been running for over five years, the results are
impressive: around 60% of people attending the initial 6 week course have gone on to
join Surf Club expressed an interest in doing so, and 10 % of those who are over 14 and
able to do so, have become volunteer helpers with The Wave Project. In other locations
where the Surf Club is less well-established it is equally popular. In 2017, 74% of former
Wave Project participants who recorded a ‘hard outcome’ had either made friends, joined
a sports club or became a volunteer. This progression seems to be part of a
developmental journey rather than an expectation or achievement and as such it fits the
ethos of the project, of encouraging, accepting and allowing young people to ‘flourish’
(Good Childhood Report, 2015) and thereby improving life chances in all sorts of ways.
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However, the qualitative data revealed several barriers to (female) parents/carers
becoming surf volunteers including concern about their body image, a lack of time and
fear of water. Nevertheless, even parents/carers who could not volunteer in the water
found other ways to help out, for example, fundraising. ‘I’m doing a skydive to fundraise
for WP because I can’t volunteer in the water…this is just a way of giving something back
because they have given us so much, they have given me [my daughter] back.’ (Parent,
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The Wave Project is a bespoke surf therapy intervention that provides, a fun, physical,
outdoor, supported group activity for vulnerable young people. The particular
characteristics of the project are important: an ethos of acceptance, support and non-
competitive challenge and with this, the embodied experience of being in the sea and
surfing. This may be particularly valuable for those with sensory and neurological issues.
The Wave Project and follow-on Surf Club effectively widen participation in sporting
activities (Office for Disability Issues, 2014) and contribute to a greater sense of
wellbeing, confidence and resilience (Sacker et al, 2007 in Allen, 2014).
The Wave Project significantly improves life chances by enhancing physical and mental
wellbeing and increasing social connectedness. Benefits accrue not only to participants
but also to volunteers, some of whom also experience significant health issues,
parents/carers and other family members. Beyond this, The Wave Project acts as a hub
for volunteering and through its ambassadorial and social activities builds community,
not only at the local level but nationally and internationally. As societal awareness of The
Wave Project gathers momentum, there are wider benefit to beach and surfing
communities: The Wave Project is a beacon for inclusiveness and it promotes the
shoreline as a pleasurable, accessible place for recreation, learning and wellbeing.
Although difficult to quantify, The Wave Project appears cost effective. While there are
too many situational factors to report an accurate figure on costs saved, some costs have
been averted by the mode of delivery as well as the profile of Wave Project participants.
As the service is largely volunteer based, it provides a cost effective mode of delivery and
volunteers also develop wellbeing through their involvement and via training they
receive. Other preventative interventions such as school based emotional learning, have
been calculated to save £3,206 per child to the public sector over a ten year period
(Knapp et al 2011). By helping children to stay in school, costs of truancy, estimated to be
£1318 per year per child and costs of exclusion, in the region of £9748 in public value
benefits are averted with 89% of these savings benefiting the local community (HM
Treasury, 2014 in Allen, 2014).
With ADHD increasing by 842% between 1996-2007 (Hansard 2007 cited in
Conservative Party Childhood Review 2008) it is cost-effective to invest in activities in
the natural environment that reduce prescription medication. According to the Kings
Fund (2008) it costs £2,148 per person per annum to treat mental ill health in children. It
has been estimated that reducing the number of GP consultations provides a social
return on investment of £5.96 for every £1 invested (Family Action, 2014 in Durcan and
The initial six-week course costs approximately £300 per child and each follow-on Surf
Club session costs £20 per child. Assuming that a child attends 10 Surf Club sessions per
annum, the overall cost for a child to benefit from surf therapy provided by the Wave
Project is £500 per child, per year. Across time, as clients become surf volunteers they
may become ‘cost neutral’, experiencing additional benefit at no cost to the project at all.
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