ERIC Identifier: ED267941
Publication Date: 1986-03-00
Author: Ford, Phyllis
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Las Cruces NM.

Outdoor Education: Definition and Philosophy.

There is no nationally standardized outdoor education curriculum and no nationally standardized measure of outdoor education competency or knowledge. Outdoor education programs are sponsored by elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, youth camps, municipal recreation departments, and private entrepreneurs. They exist in every geographic location and are administered by people of widely varied backgrounds. There is no single body of outdoor professionals in outdoor education because the field transcends school boundaries into recreation departments, youth-serving agencies, conservation organizations, resource management agencies, and many other facets of society. As a result, outdoor education is viewed from different perspectives.


While there are many definitions of outdoor education, the most comprehensive one seems to be, "Outdoor education is education 'in', 'about', and 'for' the out-of-doors."

This definition tells the place, the topic, and the purpose of outdoor education. 'In' tells us that outdoor education can occur in any outdoor setting from a school yard in an industrial neighborhood to a remote wilderness setting, in swamps, meadows, forests, shores, lakes, prairies, deserts, estuaries, and all other biomes. Outdoor education often takes place on a walk around the block, or on a visit to a cemetery, a gravel pit, or an urban renewal project. It can happen on the concrete of a playground, in the weeds of a vacant lot, on the fringe of a sewage treatment plant, at a city zoo, on a forest trail, or in a national park. These kinds of locations are conducive to first-hand experiences, to direct contact with the topic, and to participant interaction and socialization.

'About' explains that the topic is the outdoors itself and the cultural aspects related to the natural environment. You may teach about mathematics, biology, geology, communication, history, political science, art, physical skills, or endurance, but learning occurs through the context of the outdoors. Soil, water, animals, and plants make up the basic areas of study, but students may learn and practice the outdoor activities people pursue during leisure time, or may investigate human alterations of an ecosystem; nevertheless, the educational topic is related to the natural environment. In the broadest terms, the topic is the interrelationship of the human being and the natural resources upon which societies depend, with the goal of stewardship in mind.

Cultural aspects include learning social movements and history through discovering abandoned farms or mills, by analyzing dates and inscriptions on tombstones and identifying the rocks from which they were quarried, or by comparing native plants with those introduced from the Old World as landscape or garden species around old homes.

Students can learn the influence of native people on the land, follow the trails and rivers of explorers and settlers, and develop knowledge and appreciation for cultural heritage as it relates to the land. Culture also includes social issues and decisions that alter or determine utilization of natural resources.

'For' tells us that the purpose of outdoor education is related to implementing the cognitive, psycho-motor, and affective domains of learning for the sake of the ecosystem itself. It means understanding, using, and appreciating the natural resources for their perpetuation.


Among the terms and their uses are the following:

'Environmental Education' refers to education about the total environment, including population growth, pollution, resource use and misuse, urban and rural planning, and modern technology with its demands upon natural resources. Environmental education is all-encompassing, while outdoor education is seen by some to relate to natural resources and not to include the wide sense of the world environment. Many people, however, think of outdoor education in its broadest sense and prefer the term outdoor/environmental education.

'Conservation Education' is the wise use of natural resources. It is not usually concerned with preservation, recreation, or human relations and as such is more narrow than outdoor education. The use of this term has decreased since the 1960s.

'Resident Outdoor School' is the process of taking children to a residential camp during school time for a period of usually 3 to 5 days for the purpose of extending the curriculum through learning in the outdoors. This process was originally called camping education.

'Outdoor Education' means a broad spectrum of outdoor activities participated in during leisure time purely for pleasure or some other intrinsic value. Included are hiking, swimming, boating, winter sports, cycling, and camping.

'Outdoor Pursuits' are generally non-mechanized, outdoor recreation activities done in areas remote from the amenities of telephone, emergency help, and urban comforts.

'Adventure Education' refers to activities into which are purposely built elements perceived by the participants as being dangerous. Adventure activities include such things as rope courses, white water rafting, mountaineering, and rock climbing (under qualified instruction).

'Experiential Education' refers to learning by doing or experience. Many experiential education activities are synonymous with adventure activities and outdoor pursuits; however, experiential education can also mean any form of pragmatic educational experience.

'Environmental Interpretation' is a term usually associated with visitor centers administered by national parks or forest service centers. The term refers to a technique used to help visitors understand the meanings of the phenomena on display, while simmultaneously whetting the curiosity for more information.

'Nature Education' and 'Nature Recreation' are learning or leisure activities related to natural resources. The terms were used from the 1920s to the 1950s and were usually isolated, individual activities using natural resources for equipment and facilities, and involving knowledge of nature.


When analyzed, the philosophy for outdoor education may be based on four premises:

1. A prime goal of outdoor education is to teach a commitment to human responsibility for stewardship or care of the land, to treat the land and all its resources with respect at all times and on all occasions. 2. Related to the goal of a land ethic or commitment to stewardship must be the belief in the importance of knowing certain facts or concepts. The cognitive purpose of outdoor education must be that of the interrelationship of all facets of the ecosystem. The understanding of basic ecological, sociological, and cultural principles is prerequisite to the commitment to an ethic of land stewardship. Concurrently, outdoor education does not mandate specific choices in ecological ethics. It teaches people how to make choices based on facts. It recognizes the difficulty in making choices relative to ecological matters, and prepares people to choose carefully after weighing the impact of the action on the environment, culture, and humanity. 3. The third aspect of outdoor education philosophy relates to the perspective of the human being in the outdoor environment. Not only do we need to know the natural environment for the survival of the species, we need to know it as a medium through which we spend many hours of leisure. That leisure is enhanced when the quality of the outdoor recreation experience is directly related to the quantity of the knowledge about the out-of-doors. 4. A fourth philosophical belief is that outdoor education is a continual educational experience. It is not just one field trip, one week at outdoor school, or even a once-a-year event. It must be taught at all levels and pursued throughout life.


Programs in learning about the outdoors occur at all levels in the educational system, although they are most frequently found in elementary schools. There may be short or long field trips, or fifth and sixth graders may spend 5 days at a resident outdoor school. Some schools own and operate gardens, mini-farms, or wood lots. High school curricula may include natural resource-oriented programs, or programs involving use of the outdoors for leisure pursuits administered through physical education departments.

Municipal recreation departments and youth serving agencies include outdoor education in their offerings, and membership organizations such as the Audubon Society and National Wildlife Recreation administer 1-day to 2-week programs for youth and adults. Many colleges offer outdoor education courses through departments of education, or physical education and leisure studies, while resource managers sponsor workshops or seminars on natural resources. The government--through the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and other agencies--sponsors outdoor education programs for leaders and for youth.


Like most learning, outdoor education can be a life-long endeavor. All ages, abilities, socio-economic sectors--all people, in short--can benefit from outdoor education. No one can learn all there is to know about the world around them. Not only the learner but also society benefits. The informed voter and citizen can make a bigger impact on social issues involving natural resources if there has been careful education. Outdoor education can encompass many subjects and varied styles of learning. Through exposure to environmental awareness techniques, the right-brained learner can profit. Through learning ecological principles, the left-brained learner can benefit, and through combining the two, all children can acquire a holistic look at the subject utilizing learning styles of both hemispheres.


In a progressive manner, the following are a few outdoor education activities:

--Perceiving nature through the familiar (color, shapes, patterns, lines) --Using all five senses to become environmentally alert and aware --Learning ecological principles (for example, that the sun is the source of all energy) and where they are demonstrated --Studying plants, animals, soil, water, air, and their interdependence --Deciphering the history of a pioneer farm --Solving environmental problems (for example, "How many people can this stream serve?") --Debating environmental decisions (for example, "What is the best use for this property?") --Practicing minimum impact camping skills --Preparing to meet basic human survival needs --Being sensitive to ecological carrying capacity --Developing self-reliance --Understanding climate, weather, wind chill, and snow structure --Understanding the impact of the interrelatedness of culture, human resources, and natural resources, and how a shift in any one of the three can impact on the other two:

A culture based on use of petroleum products depends upon adequate, available fossil fuel, controlled by humans who depend upon an oil-based culture; or Insect-free agricultural produce is expected by people until they realize that other resources are negatively affected by the product used to control the insects; or Modern society depends upon manufacturing which produces acid rain that in turn causes problems to the people demanding the manufactured products.


Disinger, John F. "Environmental Education Research News." ENVIRONMENTALIST 4 (1984): 109-112.

Fitzpatrick, Clinton N. "Philosophy and Goals for Outdoor Education." Doctoral dissertation, Colorado State College, 1968.

Ford, Phyllis M. PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES OF OUTDOOR/ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Publishers, 1981.

Goodman, Joel, and Clifford E. Knapp. "Beyond a Philosophy of Outdoor Environmental Education." JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL EDUCATION AND RECREATION 52 (1981): 23-25.

Hammerman, Donald, William Hammerman, and Elizabeth Hammerman. TEACHING IN THE OUTDOORS, 3rd edition. Danville, IL: Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1985.

Park, C. C. "Towards a Philosophy of Environmental Education." ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION AND INFORMATION 3 (1984): 3-15.

Smith, Julian, Reynold Carlson, George Donaldson, and Hugh Masters. OUTDOOR EDUCATION, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Publishing Co., 1972.

Tanner, R. Thomas. "Conceptual and Instructional Issues in Environmental Education Today." JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION 5 (1974): 48-53, 74.

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