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What is the Role of Nature in Outdoor Education?

James Neill
Last updated:
24 Aug 2003

What is the role of nature in outdoor education?  The role that the natural environment can or should play in outdoor, adventure, and environmental education provokes a wide and deep range of views. 

As the environmental movement has unfolded in the face of increasing ecological disasters in recent decades, it has in turn caused considerable new changes and questions about how outdoor education is to function and what, indeed, it should be trying to do. 

In general, it is fair to say that outdoor education programs of today, are considerably more "environmentally conscious" or "eco-friendly" than were programs prior to 1980's.  But the question as to what exactly outdoor education should be teaching students about the natural world and the human relationship with that world, remains very much up for grabs.

In this respect, two major positions about the role of wilderness in outdoor education are evident:

  • Pro-Wilderness: The role of wilderness is viewed as critical and essential to outdoor education; nature itself is believed to have beneficial effects (often considered to be powerful or potentially transformative); the mountains have a power which speaks for itself (or at least when we learn how to listen; see Are the Mountains Still Speaking for Themselves?)

  • Anti-Wilderness: The role of wilderness in outdoor education is less important than the roles played by the adventure activities themselves, the facilitator, the group, and the participant themselves.  In other words, outdoor education program effects can largely be replicated in non-wilderness settings using adventure-based principles and non-wilderness based adventure activities.  What's more, indoor and urban-based adventure programming is cheaper and more accessible to the majority of human populations, in cities.

Those who side with the view that outdoor education should be closely tied to environmental education and that programs should endeavour to bring participants into a closer and more caring relationship with nature will find much reward in the work that has emerged in Australia over the past 10 or so years, particularly from the Outdoor Education & Nature Tourism Department at LaTrobe University (see list of recent publications).