Outdoor education

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Outdoor education is organized learning that takes place in the outdoors. Outdoor education programs sometimes involve residential or journey wilderness-based experiences in which students participate in a variety of adventurous challenges and outdoor activities such as hiking, climbing, canoeing, ropes courses and group games. Outdoor education draws upon the philosophy, theory, and practices of experiential education and environmental education.


A group of Outward Bound participants with physical disabilities after completing a ropes course, c. 1996. CircleOfFriends.jpg
A group of Outward Bound participants with physical disabilities after completing a ropes course, c. 1996.


Outdoor education has diverse goals and practices, but always involves learning about, in, and through the outdoors.


Outdoor education can be simply defined as experiential learning in, for, or about the outdoors. The term 'outdoor education', however, is used broadly to refer to a range of organized activities that take place in a variety of ways in predominantly outdoor environments. Common definitions of outdoor education are difficult to achieve because interpretations vary according to culture, philosophy, and local conditions. [1]

Outdoor education is often referred to as synonymous with outdoor learning, outdoor school, forest schools and wilderness education. Outdoor education often uses or draws upon related elements and/or informs related areas. The hallmark of outdoor education is its focus on the "outdoor" side of this education; whereas adventure education would focus on the adventure side and environmental education would focus on environmental. Expeditionary education involves expeditions into wilderness "where man is but a visitor." All of these activities typically involve experiential education.

Education outside the classroom

"Education outside the classroom" describes school curriculum learning, other than with a class of students sitting in a room with a teacher and books. It encompasses biology field trips and searching for insects in the school garden, as well as indoor activities like observing stock control in a local shop, or visiting a museum. It is a concept currently enjoying a revival because of the recognition of benefits from the more active style. The Education and Skills Committee [2] of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom has reported that it brings history and art to life, develops social skills, and clearly enhances geography and science.,. [3] There are key policies in place for outdoor learning in "England, [4] "Scotland [5] and Wales.

Despite the evidence supporting an extension of outdoor learning for children, there are a number of obstacles in the way. One of these obstacles is risk aversion amongst teachers, parents and others, raising reluctance to such diverse and physical tasks. The journalist Tim Gill has written about parental and institutional risk aversion affecting many activities with children in his book "No Fear". [6] Another obstacle is the perceived high cost of facilitating outdoor learning. Creating an outdoor learning environment needn't cost a great deal, however. The UK Early Years Framework Stage, which outlines best practice in Early Years teaching, asserts that: "Outdoor learning is more effective when adults focus on what children need to be able to do rather than what children need to have. An approach that considers experiences rather than equipment places children at the centre of learning and ensures that individual children's learning and developmental needs are taken account of and met effectively" [7]

Linda Tallent, a UK-based educational consultant who has worked extensively with schools to develop their outdoor spaces into learning environments, agrees. She believes that by focussing on activities and skill development, it is possible to develop an outdoor learning curriculum on a 'shoe string'. [8] She cites a comment by Will Nixon, who reminds readers that 'Using the real world is the way learning has happened for 99.9% of human existence. Only in the last hundred years have we put it into a little box called a classroom.'. [9] Tallent also refers to evidence from a number of studies that the most effective way of learning is through participation, and calls on educators to make a special effort to create opportunities for children to participate in their learning.


Some typical aims of outdoor education are to:

Outdoor education spans the three domains of self, others, and the natural world. The relative emphasis of these three domains varies from one program to another. An outdoor education program can, for example, emphasize one (or more) of these aims to:

Outdoor education is often used as a means to create a deeper sense of place for people in a community. Sense of place is manifested through the understanding and connection that one has with the area in which they reside. Sense of place is an important aspect of environmentalism as well as environmental justice because it makes the importance of sustaining a particular ecosystem that much more personal to an individual. [10]


Field trip: school children outdoors listening to man, c. 1899, US Field-trip - school children outdoors listening to man.png
Field trip: school children outdoors listening to man, c. 1899, US

Modern outdoor education owes its beginnings to separate initiatives. Organized camping was evident in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in Europe, the UK, the US, Australia, and New Zealand. The Scouting movement, established in the UK in 1907 by Robert Baden-Powell, employs non-formal education with an emphasis on practical outdoor activities. The first Outward Bound centre at Aberdyfi in Wales was established during the Second World War. The Forest schools of Denmark are examples of European programs with similar aims and objectives.

Key outdoor education pioneers include Kurt Hahn, a German educator who founded schools such as the Schule Schloss Salem in Germany; the United World Colleges movement, the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme (which emphasizes community service, craftsmanship skills, physical skill, and outdoor expeditions), and the Outward Bound movement.

The second half of the twentieth century saw rapid growth of outdoor education in all sectors (state, voluntary, and commercial) with an ever-widening range of client groups and applications. In this period Outward Bound spread to over 40 countries, including the US in the 1960s. Other US based outdoor education programs include Project Adventure and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Project Adventure focuses on day use of ropes courses. NOLS uses the outdoor setting to train leaders for outdoor programs and for other settings including training every new US astronaut and 10% of the US Naval Academy. The Association for Experiential Education is a professional association for "experiential" educators. The Wilderness Education Association (WEA) is a consortium of college outdoor education programs with a standard curriculum based on an academic model. (See also North America in the Around the World section.)

A history of outdoor education in the UK has been documented by Lyn Cook (1999), [11] and a history of outdoor education in New Zealand has been published in Pip Lynch's Camping in the Curriculum (2007). [12]

Philosophy and theory

Philosophy and theory about outdoor education tends to emphasise the effect of natural environments on human beings, the educative role of stress and challenge, and experiential learning. [1]

One view is that participants are at their "rawest" level when outdoors because they are "stripped" of many of the conveniences of modern life. Participants can become more aware that they are part of a greater ecosystem and are not as bound by social customs and norms. In essence participants can be true to themselves and more able to see others as people regardless of race, class, religion etc. Outdoor education also helps instill the basic elements of teamwork because participants often need to work together and rely on others. For many people a high ropes course or an outdoor activity may stretch their comfort zone and cause them to challenge themselves physically which in turn can lead to challenging oneself mentally.[ citation needed ]

The roots of modern outdoor education can be found in the philosophical work of:

The Outward Bound Process Model, adapted from Walsh and Golins (1976). Outward Bound Process Model.png
The Outward Bound Process Model, adapted from Walsh and Golins (1976).

Foundational work on the philosophy of outdoor education includes work by:

A wide range of social science and specific outdoor education theories and models have been applied in an effort to better understand outdoor education. Amongst the key theoretical models or concepts are:

Around the world

Outdoor education occurs, in one form or another, in most if not all countries of the world. However, it can be implemented very differently, depending on the cultural context. Some countries, for example, view outdoor education as synonymous with environmental education, whilst other countries treat outdoor education and environmental education as distinct. Modern forms of outdoor education are most prevalent in the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and to some extent Asia and Africa.[ citation needed ] Many outdoor Education programs were cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The UK: The English Outdoor Council, an umbrella body, defines outdoor education as a way for students and teachers to be fully engaged in a lesson, all the while embracing the outdoors. The EOC deems outdoor education as "providing depth to the curriculum and makes an important contribution to students' physical, personal and social education.". [14] In the UK, Learning through Landscapes champion the use of School Grounds as a cost effective, easily accesible place of learning and play. Forest School. [15] is also fashionable in the UK, providing a very specialist approach to personal development within the wider context of Outdoor Learning.

Australia & New Zealand: Australia & New Zealand are home to several outdoor education certificate programs. Once teachers have completed their schooling, many have opportunities to work at various outdoor education centres in either country. The Australian outdoor council has developed curriculum documents to ensure schools are partaking in outdoor education throughout the country.[ citation needed ]

Canada: Environmental education, most notably outdoor education in Canada is seen through outdoor camp and residential programs, school-based programs and commercial travel operations. Outdoor education in Canada is based around "hard" technical skills—often travel and camping skills—and the "soft"—group skills and personal growth qualities—are blended with, one might say, the "green" and "warm" skills of a complementary eco-adventure focus." [16] Adventures are found whether one is partaking in environmental awareness or team-building workshops throughout Canada. Many schools and after-school programs such as The YMCA camps lean towards outdoor education, especially during the summer months.[ citation needed ]

Denmark: Denmark is known as one of the more environmentally conscious countries in the developed world. One of the ways in which this presents itself, is through the forest school system that exists there. Children are taught in the woods using nature and animals to learn about basic environmental education as well as the fundamental elementary education that is required. [17]

Finland: At Finnish schools, the term “outdoor education” represents teaching and learning that takes place outside the classroom with the aim to achieve goals in the National core curriculum for basic education as and in the National core curriculum for upper secondary schools. In the upper secondary schools (students aged 16–18), the theme is “Sustainable development”. Students are encouraged to pursue a sustainable lifestyle, to take action for sustainable development, and to examine the challenges of SD. [18] Some vocational institutes offer secondary lever degree in Nature and Environmental Studies focusing mainly to tourism and experience industries. [19] Humak University of Applied Sciences offers a bachelor's degree in Adventure and Outdoor Education in its English language programme focusing on the technical skills for the adventure sports and pedagogy, tourism and entrepreneurship. Annually 20 students are taken in to the programme. [20] In addition Humak University of Applied Sciences offers updating education for teachers and persons active in adventure sports in their Open University of Applied Sciences. [21]

France: Alain Kerjean founded in 1986 "Hors Limites-Outward Bound France", adaptation to adults of active pedagogy and introduces in France apprentissage par l'expérience movement. The first Latin country member of this network. Honnor president : SAS Prince Albert of Monaco. In 1994 was founded two bodies : Association Apprendre par l'expérience (youth), and SARL Expérientiel (corporate). From 2008, Alain Kerjean developes Outdoor Education for universities in Romania and advises in France training organizations wishing to design programs based on this pedagogy. His books and articles make available Anglo-Saxon research and publications on the subject to the French public.[ citation needed ]

Research and critical views

There is much anecdotal evidence about benefits of outdoor education experiences; teachers, for example, often speak of the improvement they have in relationships with students following a trip. However, hard evidence showing that outdoor education has a demonstrable long-term effect on behaviour or educational achievement is harder to identify; this may be in part because of the difficulty involved in conducting studies which separate out the effects of outdoor education on meaningful outcomes.

A major meta-analysis of 97 empirical studies indicated a positive overall effect of adventure education programs on outcomes such as self-concept, leadership, and communication skills. [22] This study also indicated that there appeared to be ongoing positive effects. The largest empirical study of the effects of outdoor education programs (mostly Outward Bound programs) found small-moderate short-term positive impacts on a diverse range of generic life skills, with the strongest outcomes for longer, expedition-based programs with motivated young adults, and partial long-term retention of these gains. [23]

In "Adventure in a Bun", Chris Loynes [24] has suggested that outdoor education is increasingly an entertainment park consumption experience. In a paper entitled "The Generative Paradigm", [25] Loynes has also called for an increase in "creativity, spontaneity and vitality". These dialogues indicate a need for those working in outdoor education to examine assumptions to ensure that their work is educational (Hovelynck & Peeters, 2003).[ citation needed ]

Outdoor education has been found more beneficial to those students who find classroom learning more challenging[ citation needed ]. Maynard, Waters & Clement (2013) [26] found that, resonating with their previous findings, the teachers in their study reported "that when engaged in child-initiated activity in the outdoor environment, over half of the children who in the classroom were perceived to be 'underachieving' appeared to behave differently" (p. 221). Their work aims to support the notion that the more natural outdoor spaces in which child-initiated activities take place both directly and indirectly diminish the perception of underachievement. This is important because a number of studies have shown that expectations based on perception of students is important for student learning.

This may also be due to a non-academic family background, a personal psychological trait such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or because they are boys. [27]

When German children from forest kindergartens went to primary school, teachers observed a significant improvement in reading, writing, mathematics, social interactions and many other areas. [28] A yearlong study was done where a group of 9th and 12th grade students learned through outdoor education. The focus was on raising the critical thinking skills of the students as a measure of improvement, where critical thinking was defined to be, "the process of purposeful self-regulatory judgment and decision making". The problem solving capabilities included the ability of students to interpret, to analyze, to evaluate, to infer, to explain and to self-regulate. Researchers found that both 9th and 12th graders scored higher than the control groups in critical thinking by a significant amount. [29] Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for learning (EIC) is the foundation of a substantial report [30] which found benefits in learning outside the classroom on standardized measures of academic achievement in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies; reduced discipline problems; and increased enthusiasm for learning and pride in accomplishments.

There are several important trends and changing circumstances for outdoor education, including:

See also






Related Research Articles

Outward Bound International educational organization, originally British; creator of outdoor experiences

Outward Bound (OB) is an international network of outdoor education organizations that was founded in the United Kingdom by Lawrence Holt and Kurt Hahn in 1941. Today there are organizations, called schools, in over 30 countries which are attended by more than 150,000 people each year. Outward Bound International is a non-profit membership and licensing organisation for the international network of Outward Bound schools. The Outward Bound Trust is an educational charity established in 1946 to operate the schools in the United Kingdom. Separate organizations operate the schools in each of the other countries in which Outward Bound operates.

National Outdoor Leadership School

NOLS - also known as the National Outdoor Leadership School is a non-profit outdoor education school based in the United States dedicated to teaching environmental ethics, technical outdoors skills, wilderness medicine, risk management and judgment, and leadership on extended wilderness expeditions and in traditional classrooms. The NOLS mission is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment. NOLS runs courses on six continents, with courses in a variety of wilderness environments and for almost any age group.

Experiential education is a philosophy of education that describes the process that occurs between a teacher and student that infuses direct experience with the learning environment and content. The term is not interchangeable with experiential learning; however experiential learning is a sub-field and operates under the methodologies of experiential education. The Association for Experiential Education regards experiential education as "a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities". Experiential education is the term for the philosophy and educational progressivism is the movement which it informed.

Experiential learning Learn by reflect on active involvement

Experiential learning also known as (EXL) is the process of learning through experience, and is more specifically defined as "learning through reflection on doing". Hands-on learning can be a form of experiential learning, but does not necessarily involve students reflecting on their product. Experiential learning is distinct from rote or didactic learning, in which the learner plays a comparatively passive role. It is related to, but not synonymous with, other forms of active learning such as action learning, adventure learning, free-choice learning, cooperative learning, service-learning, and situated learning.

Environmental education Branch of pedagogy

Environmental education (EE) refers to organized efforts to teach how natural environments function, and particularly, how human beings can manage behavior and ecosystems to live sustainably. It is a multi-disciplinary field integrating disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics, ecology, earth science, atmospheric science, mathematics, and geography. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) states that EE is vital in imparting an inherent respect for nature amongst society and in enhancing public environmental awareness. UNESCO emphasises the role of EE in safeguarding future global developments of societal quality of life (QOL), through the protection of the environment, eradication of poverty, minimization of inequalities and insurance of sustainable development. The term often implies education within the school system, from primary to post-secondary. However, it sometimes includes all efforts to educate the public and other audiences, including print materials, websites, media campaigns, etc.. There are also ways that environmental education is taught outside the traditional classroom. Aquariums, zoos, parks, and nature centers all have ways of teaching the public about the environment.

Forest school is an outdoor education delivery model in which students visit natural spaces to learn personal, social and technical skills. It has been defined as "an inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment". Forest school is both a pedagogy and a physical entity, with the use often being interchanged. The plural "schools" is often used when referring to a number of groups or sessions.

Adventure therapy type of psychotherapy

Adventure therapy, as a distinct and separate form of psychotherapy, has become prominent since the 1960s. Influences from a variety of learning and psychological theories have contributed to the complex theoretical combination within adventure therapy. The underlying philosophy largely refers to experiential education. Existing research in adventure therapy reports positive outcomes in effectively improving self-concept and self-esteem, help-seeking behavior, increased mutual aid, pro-social behavior, trust behavior and more. Although there is considerable and growing research evidence indicating positive outcomes, there is some disagreement about the underlying process that creates these positive outcomes.

Outward Bound Singapore Singapore branch of Outward Bound, an organization providing outdoor education and leadership development

Outward Bound Singapore, formerly called Outward Bound School of Singapore (OBSS), is part of the network of Outward Bound centres worldwide. While Outward Bound is well established in many other countries, the Outward Bound centre in Singapore has the distinction of having an 'Excellent' rating for expertise, facilities and safety. Established in 1967, Outward Bound Singapore has a campus, located on the island of Pulau Ubin.

Nature deficit disorder

Nature-deficit disorder is the idea that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, and the belief that this change results in a wide range of behavioral problems. This disorder is not recognized in any of the medical manuals for mental disorders, such as the ICD-10 or the DSM-5.

COPE (Boy Scouts of America)

COPE is an acronym for Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience, a program in the Boy Scouts of America. It consists of group initiative games, trust events, and high and low ropes course. Some activities involve a group challenge, while others develop individual skills and agility. Participants climb, swing, balance, jump, rappel, and devise solutions to a variety of problems. It is also jokingly called Children On Playground Equipment because of the activities the scouts participate in.

Adventure education is the promotion of learning through adventure centered experiences.

Garden-based learning learning method

Garden-based learning (GBL) encompasses programs, activities and projects in which the garden is the foundation for integrated learning, in and across disciplines, through active, engaging, real-world experiences that have personal meaning for children, youth, adults and communities in an informal outside learning setting. Garden-based learning is an instructional strategy that utilizes the garden as a teaching tool.

Alexander Dawson School (Lafayette, Colorado) Independent, day school in Lafayette, Colorado, United States

Dawson School is an independent, private, co-educational, college preparatory day school founded in 1970. Located in Lafayette, Colorado, the school serves children from kindergarten through twelfth grade) (K–12) in Lower, Middle, and Upper School on a campus of 107 acres (430,000 m2).

Expeditionary education is often associated with adventure education, outdoor education, environmental education, or experiential education and refers specifically to learning associated with exploration and journey-based experiences or expeditions within these fields. Usually involving elements of challenge, adventure, and leadership, expeditionary education can take place in a variety of settings including wilderness, classrooms, and even virtual spaces. Participants in expeditionary education can be directly involved in the expedition, or may be linked to expeditions undertaken by others.

Almaden Country Day School Private school in San Jose, , California

Almaden Country Day School is an independent, nonsectarian, coeducational private day school founded in 1982 by Mrs. Nan Hunter.

Boston Schoolyard Initiative (BSI) is a public private partnership that works to transform the conditions of public schoolyards of Boston Public Schools. BSI, in collaboration with private funders, the City of Boston and Boston Public Schools, uses a community participatory design process to change neglected and unwelcome schoolyards into centers for active school and community use.

Outward Bound Costa Rica (OBCR) is a non-profit experiential learning and outdoor education organization based in San José, Costa Rica. It is a charter of Outward Bound International (OBI).

Learning environment type of education

The learning environment can refer to an educational approach, cultural context, or physical setting in which teaching and learning occur. The term is commonly used as a more definitive alternative to "classroom", but it typically refers to the context of educational philosophy or knowledge experienced by the student and may also encompass a variety of learning cultures—its presiding ethos and characteristics, how individuals interact, governing structures, and philosophy. In a societal sense, learning environment may refer to the culture of the population it serves and of their location. Learning environments are highly diverse in use, learning styles, organization, and educational institution. The culture and context of a place or organization includes such factors as a way of thinking, behaving, or working, also known as organizational culture. For a learning environment such as an educational institution, it also includes such factors as operational characteristics of the instructors, instructional group, or institution; the philosophy or knowledge experienced by the student and may also encompass a variety of learning cultures—its presiding ethos and characteristics, how individuals interact, governing structures, and philosophy in learning styles and pedagogies used; and the societal culture of where the learning is occurring.

Learning space term

Learning space or learning setting refers to a physical setting for a learning environment, a place in which teaching and learning occur. The term is commonly used as a more definitive alternative to "classroom," but it may also refer to an indoor or outdoor location, either actual or virtual. Learning spaces are highly diverse in use, learning styles, configuration, location, and educational institution. They support a variety of pedagogies, including quiet study, passive or active learning, kinesthetic or physical learning, vocational learning, experiential learning, and others.


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