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Outdoor and Environmental Education

Defining Terms, Objectives and Purposes, Instructional Methods, History and Status in the United States and Abroad

Outdoor education and environmental education are separate but closely related areas of study within the field of education. They share some common content and processes, although they are distinctive in other important ways. Various interpretations have appeared in the literature, but their original purposes have changed very little since their inceptions. This article will define the terms and show their relation to each other and to other related educational movements, describe their objectives and purposes, outline their commonly used instructional methods, briefly trace their historical development in the United States and abroad, discuss their status in American school curricula, and suggest several key issues, controversies, and trends.

Defining Terms

The term outdoor education emerged in the early 1940s to describe the instructional use of natural and built areas to meet student learning objectives in a variety of subject-matter disciplines through direct experiences. This type of contextual learning involving the local surroundings has also been referred to as taking field trips, excursions, journeys, or doing field studies. During the late nineteenth century in the United States, some educators realized that taking students out of the classroom to teach appropriate concepts, skills, attitudes, and values could improve education. Some of the early outdoor educators used camp settings during the regular school year to meet academic objectives and to improve students' social development and leisure skills. Because outdoor education activities were usually tied closely to the school curriculum, the field has adapted to early-twenty-first century reforms affecting the broader educational field.

The term environmental education arose in the late 1960s in the United States as a result of a national social phenomenon called the environmental movement. The classic definition, developed by William B. Stapp and his graduate students, appeared originally in the 1969 issue of the Journal of Environmental Education: "Environmental education is aimed at producing a citizenry that is knowledgeable concerning the biophysical environment and its associated problems, aware of how to help solve these problems, and motivated to work toward their solution" (Hungerford et al., p. 34).

Although public concern for improving and preserving quality environments existed earlier when national parks were set aside, and windblown soil created the dust bowl of the 1930s, resource use or conservation education increased in the 1970s. Some historians point to Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, published in 1962, as one event that helped to spawn the first Earth Day in April 1970. Spurred by federal legislation during the next several decades, environmental education expanded in public and private schools across the nation. Some critics accused educators of simply changing the names of their outdoor science, nature study, or outdoor education programs to environmental education but continuing the same programs as in the past. This practice of changing the names of these closely related fields in order to modernize the program content, methodology, or focus continues today.

Some of the practices in outdoor and environmental education programs do overlap. Although both fields are interdisciplinary, one difference is that outdoor education can be applied to any discipline that can be effectively taught and learned out-side. For example, outdoor education could mean teaching the concept of an acre by measuring a playing field (mathematics); or visiting a park to write poetry or draw pictures inspired by the setting (language arts and art); or recording the information found in a cemetery to learn about past events (history); or testing the pH to determine if a nearby stream is acid or alkaline (science); or climbing a hill to calculate student heart rates (physical education). It could also mean visiting zoos, parks, museums, fire stations, factories, water treatment plants, or any other built environment to create more effective learning opportunities. Environmental education can take place outside as well as inside classrooms and take local as well as global perspectives, but the focus is usually on studying an issue such as water, air, and soil pollution; solid waste and toxic disposal; urban sprawl and population; deforestation; endangered plants and animals; or drought and flooding, especially at upper grade levels. The line separating the two fields is blurred when teachers take students outside to study nature awareness and culture's impact on ecosystems. It makes little sense to argue over which label to apply to these kinds of outdoor lessons when their purposes blend.

Objectives and Purposes

The definitions of these fields reveal several similarities and differences. Simply stated, outdoor education programs are designed to help make the learning of certain knowledge more effective through firsthand experiences outside the school. According to Lloyd B. Sharp (1895–1963), outdoor education pioneer, a key principle is "that which ought and can best be taught inside the schoolrooms should there be taught, and that which can best be learned through experience dealing directly with native materials and life situations outside the school should there be learned" (Knapp 1996, p. 77). Most environmental education programs are designed to prepare students to investigate environmental problems. The question of whether or not students should try to resolve these problems is controversial. Gregory A. Smith (2001) and others critique this debate in detail. Although both fields advocate the use of broad subject-matter content, environmental education is generally taught within the social studies and/or sciences at the upper grades. At elementary levels activities usually span more of the academic curriculum and also incorporate social and recreational objectives leading to teamwork, cooperative and service learning, citizenship skills, and lifelong outdoor pastimes. Nature awareness activities can be justified at all levels as integral aspects of both fields. One indication that these are distinct fields of study can be found in the organizational structure of the U.S. Department of Education's Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) system. Across the country there are sixteen information clearinghouses covering the field of education. Outdoor education informational services are offered through the Clearinghouse for Rural Education and Small Schools (CRESS), and environmental education informational services are offered through the Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education (CSMEE). Each clearinghouse is responsible for collecting and disseminating a wide variety of educational resources in their assigned areas, although some overlap does occur. The CRESS center also has assumed the responsibility for collecting information from adventure or experiential education, another similar but distinctive field.

Instructional Methods

Although both outdoor education and environmental education are offered mainly through schools, nature centers, and outdoor residential facilities, the instructional methodologies are selected from the general field of education. Environmental and out-door educators primarily advocate experiential (hands-on) learning strategies. Although both fields draw from conventional instructional technologies, such as textbooks, periodicals, computers, videos, and overhead transparencies, these educators stress the importance of contextual, direct, and unmediated experiences used in problem-based learning situations. They want their students to use a variety of senses in exploring the content to maximize active learning.

History and Status in the United States and Abroad

Both fields are considered as innovative, educational reforms designed to accomplish specific objectives that are not being met effectively by traditional practices. Although the idea of using direct experiences existed for hundreds of years in Europe (e.g., the Czech theologian and educator Johann Comenius [1592–1670], the French philosopher and author Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712–1778], and the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi [1746–1827]), little was written in the professional literature. Beginning in the early 1900s the American nature study and camping movements gained momentum. Their purposes were to expand the students' cognitive and affective connections with basic processes, such as obtaining food, shelter, recreation, spiritual inspiration, and other life needs. These nature contacts countered the negative effects of increased urbanization and more complex technologies. Attempts were made to make learning conditions more active and less passive, more closely linked with community activities and less abstract, and more focused on practical knowledge for immediate social use rather than only for the future. These and other goals were incorporated into the Progressive education movement, which was introduced in some U.S. schools during the first half of the twentieth century. The American philosopher, psychologist, and educator John Dewey's Laboratory School, operating in Chicago from 1896 to 1904, exemplified this Progressive philosophy. As Progressivism began to wane in the public schools in the 1940s and 1950s, outdoor education gained in importance. American outdoor education reformers looked to Germany, Britain, Australia, South Africa, British Honduras, and Scandinavia for program models. Because many outdoor educators saw the value of immersion-type programs, camp settings were used in the beginning. Lloyd B. Sharp, who earned his doctorate at Columbia University in 1930, was instrumental in establishing leadership programs for many future outdoor educators in 1940. As residential outdoor education programs grew throughout the nation (mainly in Texas, Indiana, Illinois, California, Washington, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, New York, and New Jersey), the field flourished. During the late 1940s and early 1950s selected colleges and universities established camping and outdoor education courses to prepare teachers. Another key leadership development occurred in Michigan when the W. K. Kellogg Foundation pioneered community school camps in 1940 and supported further experimentation over the next few decades. Julian Smith (1901–1975), a Michigan administrator, was also influential as a pioneer outdoor educator. Additional support for outdoor education was given through state departments of conservation and education, as well as national educational agencies, professional teacher organizations, and other nongovernmental groups.

By the late 1960s conservation education was also contributing to the outdoor experiences and knowledge of many American and Canadian youth through federal, state, and provincial conservation agencies, although it maintained its largely rural focus. In the U.S. the funding of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 led to many innovative outdoor-related programs. The stage was now set for the emergence of environmental education. The U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare established an office of environmental education in 1968. In 1971 the National Association for Environmental Education (later the North American Association for Environmental Education) was formed to serve as one of the leading professional organizations. From then on, environmental education received federal, state, and local support to promote education about the many complex inter-relations between culture and ecosystems. Because of the politics of environmental decision making, the field has faced numerous controversies. Some debates have centered on questions such as: What is the correct definition and purpose of environmental education? Should the curriculum include environmental values and ethics as well as ecological and economic concepts and skills? What is the role of student action projects in remedying environmental problems? What is the proper role for teachers in conducting lessons about the environment? At what ages should students be introduced to environmental problems? What types of educational experiences should urban, suburban, and rural youth receive? What kinds of technologies can slow ecological destruction?

Issues and Trends

Some of the issues facing outdoor and environmental educators have already been suggested. Because of the politics inherent in many educational and environmental decisions, the field of outdoor and environmental education has never been static. Educators continually devise better ways to define and refine their philosophies and practices. One way to accomplish this has been to change the names of the fields and redesign their theories and practices. Some early-twenty-first century terms include earth education, bioregional education, Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, use of the environment as an integrating context for learning, ecological education, nature awareness, locally focused teaching, and place-based education. The more than sixty labels for educational movements related to the outdoors and the environment demonstrate the importance and vitality of the fields. One promising development has been the identification of an eighth category of human multiple intelligences by Harvard professor Howard Gardner–the naturalist intelligence. This way of demonstrating expertise in recognizing and classifying the flora, fauna, and other physical and cultural artifacts is important because it provides another justification for integrating out-door and environmental education into curriculum and instruction.


Outdoor education has served as a significant educational reform since the early 1940s by promoting the use of outdoor learning settings. When environmental education emerged in the 1970s, it focused more directly on knowledge leading to quality local and global environments. Their forerunners–camping, nature study, conservation, and adventure education–paved the way for early school and community leaders to develop experiential programs aimed at living well on earth though understanding how it works.


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