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About Outdoor Learning

About Outdoor Learning

What is Outdoor Learning?



Outdoor Learning is a broad term that includes discovery, experimentation, learning about and connecting to the natural world, and engaging in adventure activities and outdoor sports.


Outdoor Learning helps people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to reflect and learn about themselves, each other and their environment. The positive memories and lasting benefits impact academic achievement, new skills learning, personal and social development, care for the environment, career and professional development, wellbeing and mental health.


At its core, learning is a Process that results in a change in knowledge or behaviour as a result of experience. It is something that is active, builds on prior knowledge and occurs at both an individual and social level.


In formal settings, outdoor learning may involve education and be led by an instructor, teacher, leader or coach for an individual or group. Informally, outdoor learning happens whenever someone is experiencing the natural world and gaining knowledge, skills, understanding or appreciation. Climbing to the top a high ridge, pausing to smell fresh blossom, feeling the force of water whilst sailing through waves, lighting your own fire, finding out why a river is the shape it is, and laughing whilst slipping on rain soaked muddy footpaths are all outdoor learning experiences.

People take part in outdoor learning at all ages, in their professional life and in their personal lives. The Institute for Outdoor Learning holds that all people are to be valued and encouraged to fulfil their potential, without discrimination on any grounds, but with due consideration for their fears and frailties, their strengths and qualities.



Outdoor Learning Benefits and Impact



Outdoor Learning could be:

  • A group expedition along the Pennine Way with professional monitoring and support
  • Surveying and recording the species across a set of sand dunes a Studland Beach
  • Discovering the wildlife and plants that live along the River Dart
  • Crewing a yacht and making passage across the Irish Sea
  • Staying at an outdoor residential centre and completing a range of challenging activities
  • Climbing on an urban wall then progressing to multi-pitch climbing in Scotland
  • Working as a team to improvise a raft and paddle it on Lake Windermere
  • Improvising and sleeping in a woodland shelter built in the school grounds

The benefits of Outdoor Learning.

Outdoor experiences may encompass physical; intellectual; emotional; social; and spiritual development. Participants are encouraged to extend themselves and to build values about: inter-personal relationships; the sustainable use of the environment; and their relationship with and responsibilities towards their community and the wider world in which they live and play a part. Some of the areas where learning outcomes might focus:

  • Fun, enjoyment, sense of community, shared experience
  • Outdoor sport and activity skills (climbing, canoeing, archery, sailing, orienteering, mountain biking,...)
  • Teaching a curriculum (geography, geology, environmental studies,...)
  • Self-development (proactivity, resilience, confidence, patience, fairness,...)
  • Supporting a curriculum (maths, english, history, science,...)
  • Relational development (group membership, team building, leadership, followership,...)
  • Transferable skills (communication, problem solving, initiative, risk-taking,...)




In the natural environment, your actions have consequences that you can see, hear, touch and even smell. Outdoor learning enables people to manage risk and to cope with change and adversity.

Professional Development

People connect with each other, their environment and with themselves through outdoor learning. The outdoors is regularly used successfully for personal and social development programmes, team building, leadership training and therapy.


Participants in outdoor learning frequently discover potential, abilities and interests that surprise themselves and others. There is no limit to the experiences and curiosities that outdoor environments and activities can arouse.


Being near water, in trees, in fresh air, in natural light and taking exercise are all proven to help mental and physical health and wellbeing. Doing and learning in these environments brings even more purpose, impact and long term benefits.

Describing a childhood progression in outdoor learning

The Institute is seeking to map the fantastic range of outdoor learning interventions across the UK. Interventions that are designed to enable children and young people to form sustainable self-led relationships with the natural environment, engage more effectively with education to benefit from better health and well-being. We are encouraging a debate and seeking support providers of outdoor learning and influence UK government through the ‘Outdoor Citizens’ campaign.

  • Outdoor learning can help build social, cultural and nature connection. Modelling, mentoring and local champions are all helpful with this, especially where families lack confidence in how to enable outdoor play and learning.
  • Identity, self-awareness and character may all be supported by defining ‘self’ in the context of the natural environment and in relation to others. However, creating opportunities for this to happen cannot be prescriptive due to varying pace of personal development and social and physical and cultural contexts.
  • Supporting a young person to achieve a sustainable, healthy (physical & mental) and self-led relationship with nature also needs to pay attention to experiential learning and reflective capability, not just variety of activity and location.




Childhood progression in outdoor learning


Outdoor Learning Research

There is a growing body of research about outdoor learning and its value in various arenas. For a detailed look at "What is Outdoor Learning" look at Roger Greenaway under 'What is Outdoor Learning' on our Research page. Part of the IOL remit is to gather, disseminate and evaluate gaps in the research base.



Are you interested in commissioning outdoor learning

Whether you are looking to commission outdoor learning for a school residential, personal / social development programme, team development, management or leadership programme, education session, professional development or for any other reason, there are some simple things you need to look out for:

For working with young people, there are a number of different accreditations, qualifications, good practice guidelines and benchmarks that you can look for. Some are imperative, others voluntary. These will also vary depending on where in the UK you are. Simple things to look for are the AALA (Adventure Activities Licencing Authority) badge and relevant sporting awards for the activities you are doing.

If an organisation or individual is a member of the Institute, you can rest assured they have signed up to our code of conduct. For all our current organisational members, and to search for some in your area see here. We have also set standards for professionalism in our sector through our accreditation structure for individual outdoor learning practitioners. You can find a map of currently accredited individuals here.

Are you interested in getting into the outdoor learning profession?

Outdoor learning is an incredibly rewarding career and people come to it in so many different ways, from different places and at different times of their lives. We have a few stories from some of our members.

Some people start out as outdoor instructors, on college and university courses, as teachers, as management & leadership specialists, in the armed forces, as youth workers and activity coaches. There is no one clear pathway in outdoor learning, but here are some journeys that we have mapped. You are likely to spend time outdoors with groups of people and seeing some really awesome stuff happen with those people. You will need to be responsible, personally and environmentally aware and emotionally intelligent.

Are you looking for specialist support and advice?

We have people local to you and nationally that can offer specialist support or advice in the area in which you are looking.

We have a variety of specialist groups within our membership, who’s remit it is to influence thinking in these areas. You can approach them with questions or join to talk about professional practice, discuss issues and emerging opportunities in their particular area. You could join one of these. Currently we have the following professional practice groups:

We have the following professional discussion groups;

Still not sure who to talk to? Call us and if we can’t help directly, we will point you in the right direction.

Are you spreading the word about outdoor learning?

We would love to hear what you are doing, and can share through our social media, newsletters and blogs what is going on.

If you have professional practice to share, why not write an article for Horizons?

If you are conducting research and want to add it to our research compilation, please get in touch.


IOl and Outdoor Learning



Warwick Mill Business Centre, Warwick Bridge, Carlisle, Cumbria, CA4 8RR

+44 (0)1228 564580



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