What is an Outdoor Education?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

Outdoor education is a kind of education that is based in learning and experiences in nature. This sort of education is usually complementary to traditional education but, in some cases is used as a sort of alternative education for students who either have difficulty in traditional academic settings or have the option of choosing an educational setting that they prefer and that works best with their learning habits. There are a number of other names that are sometimes used to define this sort of education such as outdoor learning, adventure education, and challenge education. However, among educators, there is some disagreement about the similarities between these terms and the exact kinds of education that they define.

Outdoor education can teach people about nature.
Outdoor education can teach people about nature.

When outdoor education is used as a sort of complementary or supplementary education, it also extends into education for adults. Outdoor education programs are often used as or similar to team building programs. Sometimes outdoor education is also used for therapeutic purposes.

Wilderness treks educate hikers about nature while helping them to stay fit.
Wilderness treks educate hikers about nature while helping them to stay fit.

The educational theories that inform outdoor education are the theories behind environmental education and experiential education. The purpose of environmental education is to teach people about the environment as a whole and how humans can make changes in their lifestyles to protect the environment. These ideas are blended with the ideas of experiential education, which is based on theories that assert that experiences can be used as valuable learning tools.

Outdoor education programs are sometimes similar to team building programs.
Outdoor education programs are sometimes similar to team building programs.

Many of the experiences that are used in outdoor education look, on the surface, to simply be forms of outdoor recreation including kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, and participating in outdoor games and activities. However, these experiences are used as a form of organized learning. For example, educators may use outdoor education to help their students develop their problem solving skills or to develop their leadership skills. Outdoor education can also be used to help improve a student's teamwork skills.

Kayaking may be a form of outdoor education.
Kayaking may be a form of outdoor education.

In addition to the purely educational purposes of this kind of education, it has also been found that these methods can help to promote important personal growth in students. It is often used to help students develop personal confidence and to develop their social skills. These sorts of benefits of the program are often used in therapeutic applications of outdoor education. In some cases, this kind of education is used to help students who have gotten into trouble with the hopes that the experiences outdoors will reduce recidivism in certain groups.

Outdoor education includes rock climbing.
Outdoor education includes rock climbing.
Biking might be part of an outdoor education program.
Biking might be part of an outdoor education program.
Trail running is a great way to explore new areas.
Trail running is a great way to explore new areas.
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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