Outdoor, Experiential, and Environmental Education:
Converging or Diverging Approaches? ERIC Digest.
by Adkins, Carol - Simmons, Bora
For many educators, the terms "outdoor," "experiential," and "environmental
education" are perceived as interchangeable. Is this perception true? Are
these different approaches to education or have they converged over time?
All three fields can trace their roots, at least in part, to the educational
philosophy and methods of John Dewey (1938). This Digest begins with a
discussion of definitions drawn from dozens that have been developed and
critiqued in the literature of each field. The purpose here is to clarify
the boundaries and essential elements of each tradition and to consider
whether they are converging, diverging, or mutually supportive fields of
The Digest concludes with examples of combining the approaches to conduct
lessons in a variety of content areas.
DEFINING OUTDOOR EDUCATION
Outdoor education has been defined in a variety of ways throughout its
history. Those who influenced the field early on defined outdoor education
with the needs of camping education in mind. For example, L. B. Sharp (1943),
one of the earliest advocates of camping education, offered the following
rationale for outdoor education: "That which can best be taught inside
the schoolrooms should there be taught, and that which can best be learned
through experience dealing directly with native materials and life situations
outside the school should there be learned" (p. 363). As the field of outdoor
education matured, organizations emerged that worked to gain support from
school personnel. For example, Julian W. Smith began the National Outdoor
Education Project in 1955. Smith elucidated the connection between outdoor
education and the school curriculum in his definition: "Outdoor education
means learning "in" and "for" the outdoors. It is a means of curriculum
extension and enrichment through outdoor experiences" (Hammerman, 1980,
Over time, definitions of outdoor education became more general to accommodate
a wide variety of programs. Donaldson and Donaldson (1958) defined outdoor
education as "education in, about, and for the out of doors" (p. 63). According
to Priest (1986), outdoor education is "an experiential process of learning
by doing, which takes place primarily through exposure to the out-of-doors"
(p. 13), and Hammerman, Hammerman, and Hammerman (2001) have simply stated
that outdoor education is "education which takes place in the outdoors"
Originally, outdoor education was used mostly for nature study. Today,
it includes outdoor experiences designed to meet objectives in many areas
(Richardson & Simmons, 1996). For example, a teacher could take students
outside to measure objects on the schoolyard for a mathematics lesson,
or to a fire station to study an aspect of the local community. As these
examples show, outdoor education appears to have emerged as a "context"
DEFINING EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION
The notion of experiential education, or learning by doing, has a long
history. Early on, outdoor educators embraced experiential education as
a way of learning in the outdoors. Similarly, adventure education programs,
which also take participants into the outdoors, use real-world experiences
to achieve their learning goals. It was not until the 1970s that experiential
education emerged as a recognized field of education, and in 1977 the Association
for Experiential Education (AEE) was established (Hammerman, Hammerman,
& Hammerman, 2001).
Professionals in the field have offered a progression of definitions
for experiential education. Ford (1986) called it "learning by doing or
experience," and suggested that "outdoor education may be viewed as experiential,
especially when the learning takes place through experiences" (p. 1). The
1994 AEE definition expanded the understanding: "Experiential education
is a process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill, and value
from direct experiences" (AEE, 2002, p. 5). This definition is followed
by 12 principles, including these three related to learning:
* Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are
supported by reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis.
* The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future
experience and learning.
* Opportunities are nurtured for learners and educators to explore and
examine their own values (AEE, 2002, p.5).
The AEE definition embraces constructivist learning theory as well as
the traditional practice of learning by doing. Itin (1999) adds that experiential
education requires "the learner to take initiative, make decisions, and
be accountable for the results" (p. 93). Taken together these definitions
suggest that experiential education is a "process" or "method" that can
be used to teach. This process can take place in any location and does
not require the learner to be outdoors as in the definition of outdoor
DEFINING ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION
If outdoor education focuses primarily on where educational activities
take place and experiential education focuses primarily on the process
involved, what characterizes environmental education? Like the former two
concepts, the definition of environmental education has also evolved.
Although environmental education can trace its lineage, at least partly,
to outdoor education, it is considered a distinct field (Disinger, 2001).
It began to take concrete form with the publication of the "Journal of
Environmental Education" in 1969, celebration of the first Earth Day in
1970, and passage of the National Environmental Education Act in 1970.
For many educators, however, environmental education begins with two founding
documents: The Belgrade Charter (United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization-United Nations Environment Programme [UNESCO-UNEP],
1976) and the Tbilisi Declaration (UNESCO-UNEP, 1978). The Belgrade Charter
provides a widely accepted goal statement:
The goal of environmental education is to develop a world population
that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated
problems, and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations,
and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of
current problems and the prevention of new ones. (p.2)
A few years later, the world's first intergovernmental conference on
environmental education adopted the Tbilisi Declaration. This declaration,
built on the Belgrade Charter, suggests that the basic aim of environmental
education is to help individuals and communities understand the complex
nature of the natural and the built environments resulting from the interaction
of their biological, physical, social, economic, and cultural aspects,
and acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, and practical skills to participate
in a responsible and effective way in anticipating and solving environmental
problems, and in the management of the quality of the environment. (UNESCO-UNEP,
1978, p. 92)
From these two statements, Hungerford, Peyton, and Wilke (1980) proposed
the superordinate goal of environmental education: to aid citizens in becoming
environmentally knowledgeable and, above all, skilled and dedicated citizens
who are willing to work, individually and collectively, toward achieving
and/or maintaining a dynamic equilibrium between quality of life and quality
of the environment. (p. 44)
As environmental education evolved, its definitions have been researched,
critiqued, revisited, and expanded. Perhaps what distinguishes environmental
education from outdoor and experiential education is its focus on developing
the "core concepts" and "skills" that environmentally literate citizens
need for responsible action. Only through a comprehensive, cohesive K-12
program can the ultimate goal, environmental literacy, be achieved (North
American Association for Environmental Education, 1999).
CONVERGING, DIVERGING, OR MUTUALLY SUPPORTIVE?
The preceding explanations show that, while each field has its own focus
and purpose, the fields share related purposes and foci. Outdoor education
is a direct antecedent of environmental education but can include other
subject matter than learning about the environment. Experiential education
often employs outdoor settings but can take place anywhere individuals
learn by doing. Environmental education can take place outdoors using experiential
approaches or indoors using a standard textbook.
Sorting out these definitions and putting them into action is no easy
task. The accompanying diagram illustrates the relationships among these
Outdoor Education (B, D, A)
Experiential Education (A, D, C)
Environmmental Education (B, D, C)
Although it is easy to draw sharp lines among the fields in a diagram,
the lines often blur in practice. Examples of combined approaches include:
(A) An outdoor/experiential education lesson in which learners, with
the aid of compasses, "draw" geometric figures by walking the lines in
an open field.
(B) An outdoor/environmental education lesson in which learners participate
in a simulation of predator/prey relationships.*
(C) An experiential/environmental education lesson in which learners
test the pH of aquarium water in their classroom.
One can easily consider educational purposes that build from the strengths
of all three approaches (D). Take, for example, a group of learners studying
their local stream. As they progress through their investigations, they
might visit the stream on multiple occasions, collecting water samples
to determine water quality, interviewing residents along the stream, and
taking stream flow and temperature measurements. Many of their lessons
take place outdoors. The participants are learning by doing: collecting,
interviewing, and measuring. Finally, they are investigating their environment,
learning about biophysical, social, and economic systems. As their investigations
progress, they develop the understandings and skills necessary to make
informed decisions regarding the environment.
Strong and lasting lessons take shape when at least two of these practices
are combined, but especially when outdoor, experiential, and environmental
education are combined to support one another.
* Simulations are seen here as an "abstraction" of the real world. Simulations
"edit out elements of direct experiences." They provide "rules for how
the model behaves or models interact" (Engleson & Yockers, 1994, p.
119). Consequently, simulations may not provide the real-world learning-by-doing
experiences of experiential education.
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