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Outdoor education (also known as adventure education) usually refers to organised learning that takes place in the outdoors. Outdoor education programs often involve residential or journey-based experiences in which students participate in a variety of adventurous challenges such as hiking, climbing, canoeing, ropes courses, and group games. Outdoor education draws upon the philosophy and theory of experiential education and may also focus on environmental education.
Observers often misunderstand the nature of outdoor education. Whilst participants may learn how to canoe or rock climb they are not expected to master the skills. The aim of outdoor education is usually not the activity per se, but rather to learn how to overcome adversity, work alongside others, and to develop a deeper relationship with nature. The three domains of self, others, and the natural world are commonly understood as the main aims in outdoor education. Whilst these are common themes, the degree to which they are emphasized in any one program varies considerably. There are also many different specific program aims.
Some examples of specific outdoor education program aims are to:
- reduce recidivism
- enhance teamwork
- teach outdoor survival skills
- promote spirituality
- understand natural environments
- develop leadership skills
- improve problem solving skills
The Outward Bound movement in the UK is often cited as the beginning of the modern outdoor education phenomenon, although organized camping was in evidence in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in at least Europe, the UK, the USA and Australia. Further back, the Ancient Greek civilization is known to have used adventurous pursuits such as horse riding to train soldiers. Nevertheless, the beginning of the first Outward Bound centre at Aberdovey in Wales during the second world war is commonly recognized as the beginning of modern outdoor education. In Europe, the Forest Schools of Denmark are examples of programs with similar aims and objectives.
A key outdoor education pioneer was Kurt Hahn, a German educator who founded schools such as the Schule Schloss Salem in Germany, Gordonstoun School in Scotland, and Atlantic College in Wales, 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 movemement.
In the second half of the twentieth century Outward Bound spread to over 40 countries around the world, including notably the USA in the 1960s. This, in turn, spawned many offshoot programs, including Project Adventure and the National Outdoor Leadership School and has lead to or significantly contributed to related fields such as adventure therapy, adventure recreation, adventure tourism and ropes courses.
Around the worldEdit
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 UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and to some extent Asia and Africa. A map is available of locations of outdoor education organisations, facilities, and people .
In the UKEdit
After the second world war many local authorities in the UK emulated the Outward Bound principles and set up their own outdoor education centres for school children. Visits to these outdoor centres were often subsidised, allowing many children from the towns and cities their first real experience of the outdoor world.
By the late 1980s most UK local education authorities had an outdoor education centre, and there was a growing private sector offering similar experiences. Government moves to offer more autonomy to schools have badly affected this provision. Under regulations for the local management of schools that took effect in England and Wales from 1992 onwards, the majority of the money spent on education in the UK now goes direct to the school, and local authorities often find it difficult to subsidise their outdoor education centres. As a result many have closed.
One of the most significant changes in outdoor education in Great Britain came as a result of the Lyme Bay kayaking tragedy in March, 1993. This tragedy accelerated governmental discussions until, in January 1995, the Activity Centres (Young Persons’ Safety) Act 1995 was passed through Parliament in January 1995 and an independent licensing authority, the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority (AALA) was formed.
Overall, the AALA appears to have succeeded in its mission, but it has also created debate regarding whether it is possible for young people to experience adventure in an 'educational way' within tight regulations. Some people view AALA regulations as tight and thus, restricting their opportunity to provide what they believe to be meaningful outdoor education.
One further area worthy of note is the Campaign for Adventure (Campaign for Adventure, 2000a). This campaign started in 2000 following a one day conference titled “A Question of Balance.” Since then the campaign has concentrated on lobbying political individuals and parties to support risk taking and to acknowledge and work against the increasing trends indicated by a “culture of fear.” This phrase is the title of Furedi’s (1997) book, which is heavily cited in recent UK outdoor education literature. As with most political campaigns it is difficult to assess progress but the work of those involved in the campaign can be followed on line (Campaign for Adventure, 2000a). Consistent with this position, a recent report from the Office of Standards in Education, which covers England and Wales, concluded that outdoor education is uniquely placed to offer structured opportunities for students to identify hazards, calculate the related risks and decide the significance of a risk in order to determine and implement the precautions necessary to eliminate and minimise risk. Students’ involvement in risk management makes them aware of potential harm and contributes towards their being able to take greater responsibility for their own and others’ safety. (Ofsted, 2004, p. 13)
While on the surface Ofsted may appear to be consistent with the Campaign for Adventure there are some significant inconsistencies here worthy of brief explanation. It appears that Ofsted is suggesting that the very idea of risk taking is to be avoided and the role of outdoor education could be to enable students to assess risk and then ‘eliminate or minimise’ it. A contrary position is taken by the Campaign for Adventure based on adventure and risk as, at least an educational value, and perhaps even as central to life and a way of being, which is threatened by a culture of fear. The Campaign for Adventure believe that life is best approached with a spirit of adventure and that absolute safety is unachievable.
Recently there has been concern expressed about the decline in the number and quality of school trips in the UK. In 2005 the Parliamentary select committee on Education published a report on 'Education outside the classroom'  which called on the UK government to do more to protect and promote outdoor education. In response the government promised to issue a manifesto for outdoor education, setting out what schools ought to offer their pupils.
In the USAEdit
The USA has been known since its European colonization in the 17th century as having a culture which embraced a pioneering spirit. This contributed to the extensive development of organised camping programs during the 20th century, Outward Bound programs since the 1960's, as well as many related off-shoot programs including Project Adventure, the National Outdoor Leadership School, the Association for Experiential Education, the ropes course industry, and many other applications including wilderness orientation programs within colleges and universities and adventure therapy.
Loynes (1998) has suggested that outdoor education is increasingly an entertainment park consumption experience and Greenaway (1998) has commented on the “bewildering array of explanations and theories about the educational value of mountaineering and other adventures” suggesting that “some of these explanations are adopted simply to add ‘respectability’ to outdoor adventure” (p. 24).
Later, Greenaway (1998) critiques the practice of what is often called outdoor education “If we simply rely on providing ‘new experiences’ and following ‘learning cycles’ or ‘processing sequences,’ we may be doing very little to enhance the quality and effectiveness of courses that are intended to provide ‘development’” (p. 26).
In a controversial paper critiquing the algorithmic paradigm Loynes (2002) has also called for an increase in “creativity, spontaneity and vitality" (p. 124). These dialogues indicate a need for those working in outdoor education to examine assumptions to ensure that their work is educational (Hovelynck & Peeters, 2003).
Whilst acknowledging the value of recreational experiences (both indoors and outdoors), some outdoor education commentators are concerned with the provision of outdoor education which may be essentially recreational in nature but ‘sold’ as educational. This may be intentional for numerous reasons, for example, outdoor education may attract more participants and therefore perhaps more funding. It may be unintentional if a lack of knowledge, for example, means providers believe they are offering educational experiences when, in fact, they may actually be recreational.
There is much anecdotal evidence of the benefit of the outdoor experience; teachers speak of the huge improvement in relationships that often follows a trip, and delinquent students are sometimes offered an outdoor education program as part of a behaviour management program. Hard evidence to show that outdoor education has a demonstrable long term effect on either behaviour or educational achievement however is harder to identify; this may be because the variables involved are too complex to be separated.
There are several important trends and changing circumstances for outdoor education, including:
- Ropes courses
- Sail training
- Solo climbing
- American Camp Association
- Duke of Edinburgh Award
- National Outdoor Leadership School
- Nature's Classroom
- Outdoor Education Group
- Outward Bound
- Adventure education
- Adventure recreation
- Adventure therapy
- Adventure tourism
- Experiential education
- Natural environment
- Rite of passage
- Summer camp
- Wilderness therapy
External articles Edit
- Outdoor Education Apologetic - Defends outdoor education as a vital need in public education (Brookhaven Outdoor Education Center)
- Outdoors is Great - argues for the benefits of the outdoors (The Guardian)
- Out of Bounds - examines the 'decline' in school trips in the UK (The Guardian)
- Obituary of Kenneth Oldham - about one of the pioneers of outdoor education in the UK, who also wrote the first guide to the Pennine Way (The Guardian)
- Outdoor Education: Aspects of good practice - Office of Standards in Education, 2004 (UK)
- Research into residential opportunities available for young people through schools (UK)
- Open Directory Project - Recreation/Outdoors/Schools and Education
- Open Directory Project - Science/Environment/Education/Outdoor Programs
- OutdoorEd.com Resource for outdoor & experiential education
- Outdoor Education Research & Evaluation Center
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