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Outdoor Learning:  It’s not just an educational thing

Published on 05 February 2018

Outdoor Learning: It’s not just an educational thing

IOL CEO Andy Robinsons' - 'Perspective' piece in Horizons magazine 80

Outdoor Learning:  It’s not just an educational thing
With the increasing emphasis in education on evidence base and sharing of good practice it is possible to lose perspective when outdoor learning meets national and local government aspirations.
2017 saw a plethora of initiatives designed to improve social mobility, a very worthwhile and required focus.  Regardless of your political leaning or the particular local or national initiative you find yourself seeking to influence or being influenced by, I suggest it is important to take a step back.  What is it within our world of outdoor learning that really makes a difference for the future?

When addressing a conference or starting a period of time with a group of outdoor learning folk I don’t know, I quite often find myself asking them to share what it was and still is that makes outdoor learning so important to them.  Of course it is possible to get a fairly superficial response.  If you persevere with such a line of enquiry though, there is often a point where the responses move beyond simple logical explanations and into descriptions of emotional connections with particular locations.  

For me that distinct change in my emotional response to nature came on a geography field trip.  It was early in the year, March or April and it was residential.  I was probably 14 and had already spent loads of time in the outdoors through scouts and with family and friends but this was different.  During a little free time before breakfast I walked up on to the nearest high ground.  The distant snow covered fells were stunning in the early morning light and the stream at my feet was crystal clear and had small icicles hanging over its edges.  That place and my response to it remain huge motivators for me nearly 40 years later.  Whilst I appreciate many other experiences can have profound emotional impact, I cannot help but reflect on what kind of experience it takes to heighten awareness and really strengthen a desire to understand and live with nature.

I am currently working with a group of well informed folk to develop a map of the wealth of outdoor learning interventions regularly used in the UK and as appropriate, where such interventions sit in a progression of different experiences with outdoor learning.  With our increasingly urban population in the UK I find myself considering some of the practicalities of really achieving meaningful outdoor learning journeys for the majority of children and young people in the UK, never mind the wider population!  I worry about the implications of the potential detachment from nature that an increasingly on-line and urban based lifestyles may bring.

It is time to be creative and realistic.  I applaud efforts to connect urban environments with nature such as making London a ‘National Park City’.  Such initiatives require significant long term focus and effort.  What can be achieved on a smaller scale?  As you develop your outdoor learning practice in 2018, I would like to encourage you to think more about that point of engagement with the natural environment.  What are your approaches to building on the learners existing relationship with nature? What models enable urban based learners to start out on an outdoor learning based journey?

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Author: Andy Robinson

Categories: IOL Blog, Outdoor learning outcomes



2 comments on article "Outdoor Learning: It’s not just an educational thing"

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Enid Thompson

06/02/2018 17:04

Quote " As you develop your outdoor learning practice in 2018, I would like to encourage you to think more about that point of engagement with the natural environment. What are your approaches to building on the learners existing relationship with nature? What models enable urban based learners to start out on an outdoor learning based journey?"

The above wording would put me off any course or outdoor learning activity. I come from that pre-WW2 generation - the oldest of old schools. Nature was not a word I knew as a child,, but I was fortunate to live among ploughed fields, opposite a wood, with dykes to explore and a parent who took his family out on foot. Curiosity took me out and about - across those fields, gleaning corn for our nearest elderly neighbours' hens, visiting people who lived in rural surroundings across a marshland landscape.

I am of the opinion that children and young people need opportunity to find out for themselves what lies over that hill you climbed as a 14 year old. Those who are keen will relish such outings. Families who are supportive and encouraging send their children on activities, with the scouts and youth camping, for example.

My children were favoured by Outward Bound experiences when they actually did exciting adventurous trips, before all this health and safety stuff bound centres to "short" tasters. They chose to follow up by going on foreign field studies and pursuing outdoor activities. As a parent I made it possible. It was more important than buying a new carpet or decorating a room.

There now seems to be a generation of parents who do not have such experiences to draw from. Perhaps it is those people who should be attending outdoor learning courses, to pass on to their future youngsters.

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Andy Robinson

21/03/2018 10:11


I whole heartedly support your comments about curiosity and parental roles. I too am clear that we have a substantial and increasing proportion of parents who have little appreciation of the benefits of self led exploration of the outdoors, that they can facilitate and encourage and that has huge developmental potential for their children.

All is not 'doom & gloom' as organisations like the Scouts are flourishing and UK Government is beginning to appreciate the generation gap that has emerged around being outdoors. This is a long term game that is going to need significant help from teachers, youth leaders and other community organisations to help children and young people have emotional responses to being outdoors that are stronger than the pull of the virtual world and the flat screen !


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