Learning in the outdoors is so much more than “going on camp or paddling down a river or trekking through the bush”. Learning in the Outdoors is about developing universal skills that will serve students well for life – wherever it may take them. Outdoor education experiences take learning well beyond the four walls of a traditional classroom and provides a place for students to learn, apply and reflect upon real world skills. Skills like problem-solving, decision making, and relationship building that, when practised in the outdoors, provide instant feedback for reflection and eventually transference back into their everyday life. When accepting challenges in the outdoors throughout a multitude of adventure activities, students are able to work their way through problems in a real, hands-on way. We know that for young people, the best way to learn is to do.
John Dewey originally wrote of Experiential Education in 1938 that “there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education.” Dewey contended that in order for education to be progressive there has to be an experiential component to the learning situation. When educators only focus on theory and content, the opportunities for students to form their own understanding of the concepts taught will diminish. In Associate Professor, John Quay’s research book titled John Dewey and Education Outdoors, it is stated that “Outdoor education is an experiential process of learning by doing, which takes place primarily through exposure to the out-of-doors. In outdoor education, the emphasis of the subject of learning is placed on relationships, relationships concerning people and natural resources.”
Outdoor Education programs aim to support and reinforce the ideals of Experiential learning, that will allow students to fully engage in their learning. In the most practical of settings, students work together in small, facilitated groups dealing directly with concepts such as leadership, followership and inclusiveness. Students gain an understanding of the value of working towards common goals and recognition of the unique attributes each individual bring to the learning journey. Experiential learning in the outdoors is, at its core, student-focused rather than teacher-based. It is organised around direct experience, providing the material from which students draw deeper meaning. Experiential learning allows the student to personally connect with the learning material, offering opportunities for the student to emotionally accept what is learnt.
The path to which the student arrives at the learning is what matters as much as the answer that is derived. The Association for Experiential Education, states three clear benefits from experiential learning:
- “The use of activity, challenge and experience in the learning process better engages the learner, maintaining focus and motivation;
- The experiential approach encourages the participants to generate learning on their own, building learner ownership rather than simply presenting information;
- Experiential education creates a positive emotional environment through personal connections and positive feedback.”
Learning by doing supports the development of personal accomplishment, where the learner is not imposed upon, but rather, is the director in the experience. The curiosity, interest and willingness of young people is such that, when provided with an experiential environment, they very often become an active contributor to not only the outcome but in the manner in which the outcome is achieved.
In developing Experiential learning opportunities in the outdoors, students become co-contributors that will exceed their perceived schooling. Striving to facilitate authentic learning experiences, that not only create the space for a personal journey but are also tailored to a school’s broader learning objectives, is at the centre of a well thought-out and developed Outdoor Education program. Collaborating with expert providers to create meaningful programs allows schools to deliver an experience that will transfer beyond school, and hold meaning in the minds of students for many years to come.