Outdoor Learning – Part I: The Problem with Theories

Outdoor LearningThe events described in this series are based on personal observations and interviews from the first half of 2014 (Ron Rotbarth).

Writing a blog on my personal experiences and reflections on Outdoor Learning and its applied practices at first seemed to me a simple task to do. Those thoughts, however, proved to be an utter underestimation of the topic.

Here is the problem: In order to fully explain my impressions and to reflect on what I have learned, I need a structured framework to base my thoughts on. What does Outdoor Learning actually mean and what is my definition of it? Is it any different from other people’s points of view? What impact does learning in the outdoors have on children’s education? Is it really helpful in their academic and personal progress and if so, is there evidence to proof it?


The understanding of the term “Outdoor Learning” mirrors my thoughts, as it does not give a single and commonly accepted definition of it. After reading through several papers and websites on the topic, I finally found a description that I was happy with using. It was formed by the “European Institute for Outdoor Adventure Education and Experiential Learning” as mentioned in a booklet summarising a project of five European institutions of education aiming for a common understanding of the term. Thus, outdoor education (which I equate with “Outdoor Learning”) is the combination of:


  • outdoor activities

  • environmental education and

  • personal/social interaction.

However this definition may give room to more interpretation, it implies that Outdoor Learning can be a way of transferring knowledge about the environment as well as the development of social skills both indoors and outdoors.


All sorts of theories have been built around development/Outdoor Learning with varying ways of explaining different perspectives on the issue, from Kolb’s “Learning Cycle”, Piaget’s “Model of Child Development”, the Joharis Window of feedbacks and self-awareness to the IDEAS model. I am far away from explaining those theories. Others have done a great amount of work already. They show, however, how broad approaches towards the issue are.

In fact, I do have a problem with those theories, as they try to press the implications and outcomes of learning processes (and outdoor learning in particular) into generalised models.

The same problem occurs with the rather traditional view on education itself. Setting up a curriculum that generalises the educational outcomes for pupils in schools might come with a high cost: By ignoring the individual learning abilities and needs of each child, the quality of education may suffer. The first step has been made with the Curriculum for Excellence that aims for the development of children to become active learners and supports their individuality. This also provides the application of outdoor learning activities.


Therefore, more important and certainly more interesting are actual facts and observations in the “real world” where outdoor learning is performed. That is where evidences can be found and the success be observed.

150 researches on the benefits of outdoor learning have been undertaken between 1993 and 2003. Luckily, I did not have to go through all of them, as Rickinson et al. (2006) summed them up nicely. Studies on the benefits of outdoor learning found out that pupils tend to perform better academically when they were taught by using fieldwork. They were also more able to connect gained knowledge from different disciplines. Some studies looked at what practices were eventually more successful and what conditions were crucial to achieve a better performance. They also carried out work on possible deteriorating factors that can alter the outcome of outdoor learning.


I will use this paper in particular to compare my own observations and experiences with the findings. Three institutions are on my list to visit, all of them providing outdoor learning in some way or another. The exciting part will be to distinguish their approaches on outdoor learning.

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