Outdoor Education R&E Center

Outdoor Education Theory

Outdoor Education Theory

James Neill
Last updated:
10 Mar 2007

Overview: Theories which explain the mechanisms and effects of outdoor education

Like most psychosocial fields of enquiry, outdoor education theory is eclectic, attracting explanations than run the gamut, including physiological, ecological, psychological, social, political, and post-modern.  Take your pick.  Really.

There have been a few attempts to bring the various elements within a single framework, however, the field is in need of genuine developmental theory work.  Students and new researchers should be encouraged rather than daunted by this lack of definitive theory -- there is at least healthy debate, promising recent efforts and interesting new possibilities.  Unfortunately many new models lack  evidence of close reading of previous theoretical work.

So, it might help to categorize the broad areas of outdoor education theory and map out the main tenets, thereby offering a clearing sense of comparison, contextualization, and integration of their myriad potential contributions to the development of outdoor education.

In recent years, traditional British and American perspectives of outdoor education have been increasingly under critique (e.g., Brookes, 2003a,b).  These new critiques and perspectives are now becoming as much now a part of the theoretical landscape as traditional approaches, leaving the field wide open for future theory development.

Theory Type 1: Experience-based

Arguably, the single, most dominant thread which appears to run through and underlie virtually all theories of outdoor education is experiential education theory, which promotes the primary importance of needing to understand a theory of experience (Dewey, 1938).  Studying Dewey's "Experience and Education" (1938) is recommended as an important step for those seeking a solid grounding in the foundations of experiential and outdoor education.  This theory applied to all education and arguably to all human experience and has been used to champion the progressive educational movement for almost 70 years.

However, as useful and enduring as Dewey's theory of experience have been, it it not tailored to the the outdoor education setting and hence does not provide a satisfactory account of human's interactions with the natural environment. 

Theory Type 2: Nature-based

A second major theoretical thread are the deep ecology or nature-based theories which emphasize the importance of humans engaging with the natural world and coming to understand more intimately their own place in nature, ecological knowledge in terms of both science and spirit.  Several outdoor education theorists have argued that one of the unique, outstanding features that characterizes outdoor education is the direct engagement with activity in nature environments.  Peter Martin's "nature as friend" theory makes this explicit. Yet, as Hattie et al (1997) noted, surprisingly little outdoor education theory drew in any substantial way on theorizing about the role of the natural environment in understanding the processes and effects of outdoor education programs.

Theory Type 3: Practice-based; multi-dimensional

It can be argued that a limitation of both experiential theories and deep ecology theories is that they lack direct correspondence to practical application.  Thus, outdoor education organizations, such as Outward Bound, Project Adventure, and the National Outdoor Leadership School, have each evolved their own practical-theoretical programming models.

Such practice-based models concentrate on what outdoor education organizations (or authors) have iteratively discovered to be what they believe are the critical combination of ingredients for outdoor education.  These multi-dimensional programming models represent a third major theoretical thread in outdoor education.  They generally emphasize: 1) the role of the individual, 2) the role of the activities and the sequentiality of the program, 3) the role of the environment, 4) the role of the instructor, and 5) the role of the group.