The Value of Outdoor Ed in Schools in 2023

Education Australia article on Outdoor Education

Scott Polley (pic below) from Outdoor Educators Association of South Australia (OEASA) recently contributed an article to Education Australia on recent developments in outdoor education in Australia and the ongoing value of Outdoor Education. Below is the full March 2023 article. Click on the article image for an abridged version of what appeared due to word limits.

The vital role of outdoor education in students’ lives was brought to the fore during COVID-19 as organisations pivoted to provide what programs they could for the well-being and development of students. Now programs, are once again flourishing as schools and students reap the many benefits that ensue from Outdoor Education.

Outdoor Education (OE) is a field of study concerned with learning about self, others and the environment. Learning about self in outdoor environments can result in enhanced personal capability, self-esteem, self-efficacy, physical and mental health. Learning about others in the outdoors can result in enhanced inclusion of disadvantaged groups and improved relationships. Learning about others in the outdoors also includes learning about the role of relationship to landscape to support social justice initiatives for Aboriginal Australians. Learning about the environment can result in increased knowledge of Australia’s Natural history and environmental pressures, conservation and sustainability strategies for different Australian biomes, as well as more global perspectives.

Outdoor education (oe) can also be a methodology to learn about other curriculum areas, with the Outdoor Learning Curriculum Connections resource available from the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority (ACARA) specifically acknowledging the ability to teach aspects of Health and Physical Education, Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, possibly in an integrated way. This resource is currently being updated from version 8.4 to include the new version 9.0 Australian Curriculum documentation.


Latest Research

Recent research into the potential positive relationship between time outdoors (particularly in environments with high natural qualities) and mental health has likely contributed to an increase in all levels of schools offering Outdoor Education: either as Nature Play in Foundation years; a year level camps program in primary and middle schools; a middle school semester based subject (often integrated within Health and Physical Education); integrated in an extended stay middle school program; as an intervention for students that have experienced trauma or social challenges; or as a senior secondary subject (available in all states except Queensland).

Reported Impacts

Schools that include Outdoor Education within their curriculum report positive impacts on a range of other areas of school life, including: enhanced student-student and student-staff relationships, better engagement in school, improved mental health, enhanced resilience and desire to take on challenges, enhanced attendance, critical thinking and greater attention to environmental issues. In addition, those schools with an outdoor or environment focus report increasing student achievement and there are now several ‘bush schools’ across Australia that are reporting good results from students that might have not achieved so highly with mainstream schools. Students that undertake Outdoor Education at a senior level develop capabilities in self-management, leadership, decision-making, and group cohesion – generic across almost all careers that require working with others and problem-solving, but particularly relevant to those seeking a career in tourism, environmental management, environmental remediation, education and sustainable living.


Latest Developments

Recent developments in the field of Outdoor Education include increasing use of place-based education practices to increase knowledge about, and student relationships with, their local environment and to be part of positive actions to care for these places. This can be quite a contrast to traditional adventure-based education where the focus is on learning through use of personal and group challenges often to far away places. Another development is the increased acknowledgement of Aboriginal relationships with landscape and knowledge of traditional and contemporary land management practices to support more sustainable ecological systems.

Issues & Debates

Risk and safety management has become an increasing concern for all aspects of modern life, and although the risk of harm taking part in an Outdoor Education learning experience is relatively low and compares favourably to incidents in the home, sporting field, personal recreation or in a vehicle, the potential for serious harm remains constant. Two important developments have been the UPLOADS project that has analysed extensive incident data to develop a deeper understanding of the systemic causes of serious injury and the work of Andrew Brookes in using case studies to focus on the cultural contributors to fatalities in the outdoors and the need to ensure that this remains the absolute focus of programs and leaders.

Recent debates among Outdoor Educators include whether to integrate or exclude technology from student learning in the outdoors, balancing the potential to enhance depth of learning versus the potential positives arising from a break from screens; whether experiential learning can develop character or just enhance maturation; whether Outdoor Education re-enforces inequities in our society or whether it can support positive social change; whether increasing teaching of Aboriginal perspectives is cultural appropriation or is respectful of Aboriginal knowledge and culture among others.

About Outdoor Education Australia

Outdoor Education Australia (OEA) is the overarching Australian body that is concerned with teaching Outdoor Education in Australian schools. OEA is comprised of state Outdoor Education (OEAQ and OEASA) and or sub-committees of State outdoor organisations (Outdoors NSW, QLD, Victoria, W.A) and advocates for Outdoor Education in Australian schools and supports the publication of the Journal of Outdoor Environmental Education (JOEE), a highly ranked academic journal that challenges and enhances Outdoor Education practices. To get involved with OEA, schools and teachers can contact their local state association listed on the OEA web page (link below). OEA has a strong relationship with the Outdoor Council of Australia (OCA) that is concerned with all Australian nature-based activities in sectors that include Outdoor Education, Tourism, Therapy and Recreation. The OCA has been instrumental in supporting the establishment of the Australian Adventure Activity Standards that guide safe practice in all led outdoor activities.

Outdoor Education Australia also has a strong relationship with the Australian Bush Adventure Therapy Network, that supports the use of outdoors for both preventative, secondary and primary healthcare, and the Australian Tertiary Outdoor Education Network (ATOEN), comprised of representatives from universities that research and/or teach in the field of Outdoor Education. ATOEN has recently developed accepted thresholds of knowledge required for the role of an Outdoor Educator – a professional practitioner able to utilise their outdoor activity leadership skills and knowledge to deliver Outdoor Education in schools, who may also be Outdoor Education teachers.

Implementing OE Programs

Outdoor Education can be challenging to implement within schools, particularly where specific skills and knowledge are required to take outdoor journeys. Ideally teachers would have the skills and knowledge to design effective learning experiences, but private and not-for-profit providers can support high quality programs as an alternative. Whether Outdoor Education is available within a school remains at the discretion of the school leadership and flourishes in those organisations that value student-centred learning and development about themselves, others and the natural world.

The future of OE

What does the future hold for Outdoor Education? The goal of Outdoor Education Australia and other affiliated organisations is that every Australian student, regardless of their postcode or socioeconomic situation, takes part in a high-quality Outdoor Education program from Foundation to year 10, with every Australian student provided the option to study senior Outdoor Education to year 12. With an outdoor educated student body to complement all the other learning that takes place in schools, Australia should be well placed to meet the challenges of living in the 21st Century.