Outdoor learning is not a new idea, but it is a type of student-centered learning that has gained some ground in recent years as people have started to notice the positive outcomes it has had on student learning. This chapter will explain what outdoor learning encompasses, its historical/theoretical background, and its outcomes. We will also discuss the challenges to implementation in schools, and finally, the research that is still needed for outdoor learning. Our focus will be K–12 students.
What is Outdoor Learning and How is it Student-Centered
Outdoor learning has been defined in many ways over the years, but for this paper, we define outdoor learning as “first-hand observation and experience outside the classroom” (Eaton, 1998, as cited in Avci & Gümüs, 2020, p. 173). Students become involved in outdoor learning whenever they leave the confines of the regular classroom and become personally engaged in their learning experience. Outdoor education includes many different settings such as school gardens, meadows, lakes, museums, zoos, and parks (Avci & Gümüs, 2020). While outdoor education usually takes place outdoors, it can still be considered outdoor education when students stay indoors, but leave the traditional classroom to experience new things. The options seem limitless as students and teachers make the world their classroom.
This type of learning is student-centered. According to James and Williams (2017), outdoor education is student-centered because it creates a love of learning and makes learning come alive through real-life contexts. This type of engagement allows students to take charge of their own learning rather than waiting for their teachers to take the initiative. The teachers act as guides facilitating learning for their students, but the students play a much more active role in the learning process as they participate in the hands-on learning that outdoor learning provides for them.
Theoretical Background and Brief History
As mentioned before, this type of learning is not a new idea. Rather, John Dewey, an American philosopher and educational reformer who lived from 1859–1952, advocated for outdoor learning. He argued that students should not be given information but instead should experience it for themselves, which requires them to get out of the classroom and enter the real-world (Avci & Gümüs, 2020). Other philosophers who have contributed to the idea of outdoor learning include Rousseau and Comenius (Avci & Gümüs, 2020). Comenuis argued that a teacher acts as a guide in the learning process when using outdoor education and Rousseau argued that education should be used to help individuals reason and direct their own lives, which is a main goal and outcome of outdoor education (McGowan, 2015). These theoretical foundations contribute to the current implementation of outdoor education.
Outdoor education was first introduced in the 1920’s and was originally about camping education during the Scout Movement (Avci & Gümüs, 2020). From there, outdoor education progressed and is reported to have reached the United States in the twentieth century in Broadoaks schools (Avci & Gümüs, 2020). As stated by Mann et al. (2021), “By the latter half of the 20th century ‘outdoor education’ sprang up in many countries as an alternative non-curriculum based form of learning” (Introduction section). Outdoor education has gained popularity over the years as more research has been done on the benefits of implementing outdoor learning.
Outcomes of Outdoor Education
Researchers have found that outdoor learning increased academic performance and increased affective outcomes in the learning process (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018; Avci & Gümüs, 2020; Mann et al., 2021). Academic outcomes include improvement in academic performance with test scores and positive effects on students’ knowledge recall and reading performance (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018; Avci & Gümüs, 2020; Eick, 2012). The affective outcomes include connection with nature, better resilience, and reduced stress (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018; Mann et al., 2021; Avci & Gümüs, 2020).
One of the academic outcomes is the positive correlation between standardized test scores and outdoor education (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). This student-centered approach helps students develop better learning skills to succeed outside of the traditional classroom. When outdoor education is integrated into the curriculum, it improves standardized testing in reading, math, writing, science, and social studies (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). For example, researchers Fägerstam and Samuelsson (2014) found evidence that teaching mathematics outside instead of inside showed an overall improvement in academic performance. This research concluded that the outdoor setting has an overall impact on the students' learning abilities (Fägerstam & Samuelsson, 2014). Researchers observed that when teachers integrated the environment into their curriculum, students were able to apply their knowledge at a higher level (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). Therefore, there is evidence that outdoor education has a positive impact on test performance in many subjects.
Another benefit to outdoor education is the higher ability to recall information. Teachers have observed that applying the concepts outside increased retention of information (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). Avci and Gümüs’ (2020) research likewise showed that when students were actively learning by doing something, they were able to recall the information better. These outdoor activities had a positive effect on their level of attainment (Avci & Gümüs, 2020). The researchers concluded that education is a way for students to learn knowledge, skills, and behaviors, not only for the short term but also for the long term, to become good citizens. Outdoor educational activities provide children with the opportunity to apply what they are learning, to succeed both in and out of school. Teaching methods and activities that take place outdoors will create meaningful and long-lasting retainable information (Avci & Gümüs, 2020). Another academic outcome we see in outdoor education is higher reading performance. A good way schools can develop essential skills for reading comprehension is for students to learn in an outdoor environment. According to Otte et al. (2019), there was a significant positive association between reading outside every week and higher reading levels. Eick (2012) observed that when students completed an inquiry-based assignment in nature, they saw “higher scores in reading comprehension, reading strategies, and reading engagement” (Eick, 2012, p. 13). When students were actively involved in an outdoor learning environment, students had better success in their reading scores. Higher reading performance will help students' comprehension not only in school, but for the rest of their lives.
Along with the academic outcomes, there are also many affective outcomes in outdoor education. As discussed in the systematic review conducted by Mann et. al (2021), one positive effect is children’s connection with nature. Students are able to appreciate the world around them as they discover new insights while outside. According to Mann et al. (2021), outdoor education “had positive impacts on [students’] connection with nature, social skills, health and wellbeing, and academic attainment” (para. 4). As students go out into the world, they need to be aware of the environment around them. With outdoor activities in learning, students develop more positive environmental behaviors and attitudes (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). Students become more aware of the environment around them in how they treat plants and animals. The connection with nature can also be seen in how students want to conserve products, recycle, use water, and be careful not to litter (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). Consequently, outdoor education connects students with nature as they gain new knowledge about how to treat the world around them.
Another positive outcome of outdoor education is better resilience (Mann et al., 2021). Psychological resilience aids in dealing with trauma, adversity, and stress in hard situations (Booth & Neill, 2017). Students can develop resilience as they are pushed outside of their comfort zones in outdoor environments as outdoor education provides students with challenging and reflective experiences (Booth & Neill, 2017). Outdoor programs will help students with better confidence and resilience as they learn to work with other students and communicate (Ramírez & Allison, 2023). In a study involving 126 teenagers, Hayhurst et al. (2013) found that after a 10-day experiential outdoor learning voyage, resilience increased in the students participating. This illustrates the positive impact outdoor learning can have on a student’s resilience. Resilience will not only benefit students in the present but also in future difficult situations with school, family, and friends.
Depression and stress are serious factors affecting students of all ages today, and one way to combat this in school is with outdoor education. Research has found that connecting students with outdoor learning contributes to reducing stress and coping with depression (Avci & Gümüs, 2020). This is because being outside produces a more relaxing environment to facilitate student learning (Mygind et al., 2018). Students will benefit immensely as they learn to cope with stress at a young age. As students participate in outdoor learning, they can feel a sense of relief (Mann et al., 2021). Outdoor learning improves students’ mental health and well-being.
Challenges to Implementation
Although this student-centered approach to learning has many positive outcomes it does come with its share of challenges. Researchers have found challenges in implementing outdoor education into the school in terms of accessibility and logistics.
Many challenges of outdoor learning have been found concerning accessibility, including issues such as funding, transportation, and teacher ability (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). Teachers have been kept from applying outdoor education to their own teaching style because they have not been able to gain access to the necessary space or resources due to a lack of funding (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). If the outdoor learning can take place on school grounds, then the teachers do not have to worry about transportation, but if the school grounds are insufficient for what the teacher has in mind, then the additional challenge of finding and funding transportation is introduced. Another obstacle that arises when trying to implement outdoor education is the fact that many teachers are not very confident in their ability to implement outdoor education into their own teaching style (Mann et al., 2021). This lack of confidence could be attributed to the fact that outdoor learning is an approach that may be newer to them, and they have not been trained in this style of learning. The lack of teacher confidence to teach this way proves to be a challenge, as it leads to a shortage of teachers willing to teach outdoors. The difficulties that arise due to funding, transportation, and teacher ability make it so outdoor learning is not completely accessible for all teachers and students.
Other logistical challenges to outdoor learning have been found, including planning time and safety/liability (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). Part of the risks that may be included in outdoor education are the weather conditions, which also affect how much planning is involved in outdoor education (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). Teachers have to make sure that whatever they plan can be done in any type of weather, or they have to be prepared with a back-up plan if their plan cannot be done in a certain type of weather condition. With these additional risks present, teachers may be more nervous while teaching, which can influence the overall effectiveness of their instruction (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). The addition of logistical obstacles to outdoor learning may make outdoor learning less appealing to teachers.
Further Research Needed
Outdoor education has emerged as a valuable approach to learning that promotes holistic development, environmental awareness, and experiential engagement. While significant progress has been made in the field, further research is necessary to fully understand and harness the potential benefits of outdoor education. In their systematic review, Sella et al. (2023) claimed an overall shortage of empirical evidence. They also found that many current studies have poor methodological quality; in other words, there is a need for more accurate studies to be done in researching the impacts of outdoor learning. These studies could lead to more evidence-based practices available for teachers. Mann et al. (2021) agrees with the former review, claiming that much current evidence is anecdotal and that many teachers have integrated outdoor education before a sufficient amount of empirical evidence has been published.
Future research endeavors should address aspects such as curriculum design, developmental benefits, and the impact of technology. The studies that we do have show positive trends in many aspects of children’s learning; however, the results are unclear for impact on cognitive development and academic benefits (Mann et al., 2021; Sella et al., 2023). Another area to be studied further is integrating technology with outdoor education. Siskind et al. (2022) acknowledged that while there is a lot of research behind technology in the schools or outdoor education, there are few studies regarding how to best combine the two. The researchers suggested that with more research in this area schools can utilize both technology and outdoor learning. By addressing these research gaps, we can optimize the implementation of outdoor education and provide educators with evidence-based practices.
Outdoor education is a way for students to develop lifelong learning techniques that they cannot receive in the traditional classroom. It is not a new concept, being introduced about 100 years ago; however, it has recently gained popularity. Studies regarding outdoor education have found positive outcomes in both academic and affective areas. For example, outdoor education has been linked to higher test scores and decreased stress (Mann et al., 2021). While this approach has many benefits, there are also some challenges to implementing this type of student-centered learning, including logistics, teacher knowledge, and planning (Meighan & Rubenstein, 2018). Even so, if teachers are able to overcome the obstacles they face when trying to integrate outdoors into their school day, their students will reap the benefits. Finally, there are still many areas within outdoor education that should be researched, such as how to integrate outdoor education with technology (Demi et al., 2022). Overall outdoor education is a great way to approach student-centered learning, with many benefits for students.
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