The vast world outside of school has amazing lessons for us all and that’s what outdoor education is all about. Weezie Yancey-Siegel reveals what it has in store for our learners’ personal development.
Must we always teach our children with books?” naturalist David Polis once asked, and then declared: “Let them look at the mountains and the stars up above. Let them look at the beauty of the waters and the trees and flowers on earth. They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.”
While increased emphasis is being placed on the importance of digital learning to prepare for the future of our society and career opportunities, a growing community is advocating for another educational paradigm—one in which students disconnect from technology and immerse themselves in nature. Outdoor Education can be widely defined, but generally is a form of experiential organised learning that occurs in an outdoor setting and typically involves “journey-based experiences in which students participate in a variety of adventurous, memorable challenges.” This style of learning has various benefits, from cultivating the relevant emotional intelligence needed for effective leadership, to developing the confidence and competence needed to persevere in stressful situations. Below we delve deeper into five of these benefits and provide examples, accounts, and research to illustrate them.
Increased Motivation to Learn
Although learning within the four walls of traditional classrooms has its uses, students can often become bored and primarily rely on extrinsic motivation to retain the content being delivered to them. When connecting education to the natural environment, students have a context in which to place their learning, and the intrinsic motivation of teamwork and ecological preservation as fuel to increase their desire to study and engage with the curriculum. In their study “The Effects of Environment-Based Education on Students’ Achievement Motivation,” researchers Julie Athman and Martha Monroe studied 400 9th-and-12th-grade students and found that motivation levels for environment-based education were higher than those in traditional classrooms.
Where does this increased sense of motivation come from? Simon Abramson is the Associate Director for Wild Earth, a non-profit in upstate New York that delivers outdoor education programs to young people and adults. He finds that their programs help to develop confidence and competence in students, which further fuels their learning. “We are using nature as a classroom, and students learn things such as ‘which plants can you eat? How do you make a shelter that is dry and warm, using only sticks and leaves?’ There is a confidence that comes from gaining those skills and realising ‘I can take care of myself and find what I need.’” By making a connection between learning and the real world, students feel an increased drive to understand the content they are studying.
Another example of a program that makes learning relevant via outdoor and environmental education is NYC Outward Bound. In one case study, they have utilised the Gowanus Canal, which is located close to several of the schools where their program operates. In a Salon article titled “Outdoor Learning: Education’s Next Revolution?” Carol Carpenter, the Communications Director for the organisation, explains: “Students learn about the canal’s water quality in science class, about the sociological effects in the humanities classes, and about the canal’s design in art class. We believe in field work, in getting out of the classroom and getting your hands dirty.”
Cultivation of Awareness
Author and environmentalist Richard Louv published a book in 2011 titled The Nature Principle, in which he argues that outdoor learning works because it “demands better use of the senses.” In an 18-month study of 800 military personnel, Louv describes how researchers determined that the best bomb-spotters were people who lived in rural environments and regularly engaged all of their senses. On the other hand, personnel who “were raised on Game Boys” as children did not have the ability to detect nuances in their environment and were focused on the “screen rather than the whole surrounding.” According to Louv, natural environments promote “involuntary attention” or “fascination,” which enables us to be more alert.
Simon describes how this value is instilled in the educational approach at Wild Earth: “Awareness is the core of how we teach; it’s the how. We are literally getting into our senses out in the woods and teaching skills with awareness-expanding games using peripheral vision, sense of hearing, sense of intuition, etc. Ultimately what our students are learning is how to be in the forest so they can know what’s happening on the other side of the hill even if they can’t see the other side.”
As a society, in order to make the shift towards lasting sustainable development, we will need to change the way we live and work. This will require new ways of thinking and shifts in attitudes, so the more education can lend itself to this imperative the better. It requires us to learn new approaches and attitudes for efficient use of our planet’s limited resources and get much better at thinking about, and acting on, the long-term consequences of our actions as well as local, national, and global consequences. As a pathway to develop this grander sense of awareness, Simon says that students “begin to see their own impact on the forest. When they enter the forest, the forest changes. We teach how to account for that and how to shift that by asking “How do you walk into the forest in a way that doesn’t change everything in the woods?”
“Direct experience of the complex interdependence of life on Earth enables reinforcement of the link between cognitive and affective learning, providing a bridge to advanced understanding,” says a report titled Taking Learning Outdoors published by the Scottish Government. “This gives learners a real context to explore, understand, develop and apply the values of wisdom, compassion, integrity, and justice.”
Leadership & Teamwork
An additional value that outdoor education develops through the cultivation of awareness is a higher state of emotional intelligence. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, and author of the book Emotional Intelligence argues that this type of intelligence is a prerequisite for successful leadership. Through interdisciplinary activities used in outdoor education, children and young people can develop and apply their knowledge, understanding, enterprise and organisational skills, creativity, teamwork, and other leadership-based competencies.
Simon has witnessed this development of leadership firsthand, seeing students of their program continually building character, confidence, passion, and perseverance. Alumni of their programs have gone on to become “incredible young adults. They are determined and service-oriented. They know how to improvise and make things happen.” He finds that this kind of curriculum “creates really determined, passionate future leaders.”
In addition to programs for adolescents and families, Wild Earth runs corporate programs for professionals to build teams and leadership capacities, proving there is no age limit or background that cannot benefit from such programs. Activities such as building fires and shelters and interpreting tracks in the forest create an environment for collaboration, team building, and creative thinking for the teams that participate. In our increasingly digital workforce, Simon reflects that “person to person connection is so important. Out in the woods, we are remembering to make eye contact with each other and speak to each other as other humans.”
Despite our ancestors’ knowing how to hunt for food and build shelters using natural resources, our modern world and urban lives are filled with various apps at our fingertips and the proliferation of supermarkets, and we’re losing our intuitive abilities for survival.
Saul Lyons is a 47-year-old artist and educator based in Brooklyn, New York who participated in a 21-day Outward Bound program when he was 17 years old, in which he white-water rafted and mountain climbed in Central Oregon. “I gained basic rafting skills, basic mountaineering skills, basic first aid, team building skills (including games and activities to develop trust and find strengths and weaknesses in a team), and the skill of coping with physical hardship for an extended period of time.”
“Rafting and Mountaineering were both interesting skills to learn and helped me understand safety and increased my awareness of my environment and how to negotiate it. First Aid was essential and helped me be down-to-earth and not risky or take things for granted on the trail and in my life. The team building exercises helped us quickly figure out who should do what and gave us confidence in our abilities as well as encouraging our acceptance of ourselves if we weren’t the best at something. Finally, the constant physical work of being outdoors was incredibly confidence boosting. By repeatedly wanting to quit, but pushing through physical difficulty, I felt I could accomplish anything because I had surpassed what I thought I could do many times.”
Though many people may not use these specific skills in their day-to-day lives, the confidence is transferable to many other areas of life in terms of believing in one’s self and knowing that you have the skillset to problem-solve when knowledge or resources are limited.
Wilderness and nature-based educational programs have proven to be transformative when it comes to healing and personal development in students and adults alike. “In today’s world with so much complexity and so many crises coming to a head, that connection to more than just ourselves, more than just people, is very important,” Simon explains. “Nature is a setting to help us to de-stress and move into a more natural rhythm or pace. There is a perspective that is really valuable. Being in nature, time moves at a different rate, it’s much slower and grander. Nature gives us a perspective that is humbling as well as a sense of ease and good quality of life.”
This sentiment was reinforced in Saul after his experience with Outdoor Bound: “I developed a very strong sense of humility by being on the water and in the mountains. I got a sense of perspective. Nature was not ‘out there.’ I think we need programs like this and they should be available to more people in order to encourage appreciation for the environment and also to make people sane.’”
A simple Google search for “Wilderness Therapy Programs” will turn up bountiful results for boarding schools, summer programs, and short-term excursions for young people and adults dealing with various mental disorders and challenges, from autism to depression to ADD. This kind of personal learning—in addition to classroom learning—is essential for leadership in the 21st century, and the great outdoors has things it can teach us in all aspects of living and working.
Beyond adolescence, outdoor education is valuable in the career trajectories of many, even if they don’t have plans to work in an environmental field. Jared Daar is an alumnus of Deep Springs College in California. Deep Springs is a two-year program based on a Cattle Ranch in California. The curriculum is made up of academic, self-government, and manual labor. Students spend much of the day between academics doing assigned chores. For example, Jared explained that “in addition to a traditional education ‘grounded in the great books,’ he worked in the labour program as a dairy farmer and an irrigator, helping to grow the ranch’s alfalfa crop.”
After graduating from Deep Springs, Jared continued onto Harvard. Since graduating, he has worked at a law firm, far removed from his ranch-hand days. That said, there were “relevant takeaways from this work—most notably, ‘the ability to ask questions judiciously’ and ‘working collaboratively.’ Deep Springs, he explained, “‘invites you to be self-sufficient in a totally different way.’”
In addition to Wild Earth, Outward Bound, and Deep Springs, there are countless programs that demonstrate the wide-ranging benefits of intentionally and mindfully integrating core elements of outdoor education in future curriculum for all ages in order to instill increased motivation, awareness, leadership, resourcefulness, and wellbeing.
This article originally appeared on Open Colleges. It has been republished here with full permission.