Since the early nineties, definitions of outdoor education have been developed consciously to include educating learners for a changing world while encouraging an ethos of hope and resourcefulness. Outdoor education is about our personal landscapes, as well as the public ones. It is about personal geography as well as geology. In other words, partly, it is about ourselves – active group development and active social dynamics; managing the excitement and pleasure of being out of doors, as well as the emotional stresses that will emerge.
All of us, everywhere, have a specific vested interest in the good health of our immediate environments. Whilst ensuring that students enjoy themselves and have fun, we want students to be stimulated by the natural landscape around them and be engaged by it.
This is very different from other school curricula. Over the same period of time, the classroom experience of students has become increasingly stratified and structured, defined by a rigid straightjacket of objectives and key-learning indicators. Very little of the specific objectives consider the learners’ needs; the learner’s experience is that the curriculum is ‘done to them’. It can be very hard for learners to recognise themselves in the classroom curriculum at all.
In outdoor education, students are an active participant in the learning, which encourages greater involvement and greater responsibility. It is a more active experience; and we have seen that all learners may find it challenging in some way, whether it’s because they have to act on their own initiatives, or because they are physically placed in the great outdoors with their peers, or because their own relationships with their peers influence how easily they can approach a challenge.
When OFSTED considers learning outdoors, it considers the benefits to learners’ health. It encourages them to see how the outdoor environment connects different areas of the curriculum that ordinarily, schools present as discrete topics. There is some recognition that learning outdoors enables changes in student dynamics and even that learning outdoors enables learners to see the value of green issues and matters of sustainability.
However, in practice, it is difficult for schools to implement OFSTED recommendations. The paperwork surrounding safety issues is overwhelming and time-consuming to complete – and that’s why the contribution we can make with Adventure Labs workshops is so badly needed. We build on the well-publicised OFSTED findings that outdoor learning improves pupils’ personal, social and emotional development in our fully risk-assessed activities.
We use locations already familiar to the students because we understand that people become attached to specific locations. We take students outside to interact with these locations – to consider social and ecological challenges, which they themselves face, together with their families and wider community. We use the landscape to excite and to stimulate their thinking – and inspired by the landscape, pupils frequently really open up. They inform us of previous excursions they have made; they talk enthusiastically about their learning and hope that they can repeat the activities; they begin to speak passionately about where they are and what they are doing.
Yes, they get cold sometimes. But the learning experience is massively enriched by going outdoors because something memorable happens when learners are given the chance to enjoy something out of the ordinary – an adventurous experience that stimulates and informs them.