How do young people experience the outdoors, and why does it matter?

By Jo Hickman Dunne, Loughborough University

Outdoor education is often considered to be a central tenant of a holistic and enriching curriculum. But is it always beneficial? What do young people really experience when they go ‘outward bound’?

We know that the Government is making a concerted effort to give young people a more rounded education. We can see it in the Education secretary Damian Hinds’ vision for character and resilience, laid out earlier this year. Hinds took the view that character and resilience are as crucial to young people’s future success as academic qualifications. This move goes hand-in-hand with changes to the way Ofsted will inspect schools from September 2019. The new inspection model will move Ofsted’s focus away from headline data (exam and grade outcomes) to assessing the substance of education (how schools achieve results and whether pupils are offered a broad curriculum). This is an acknowledgement that an inspection regime focussed on exam performance can result in perverse incentives and constrain what is taught in the classroom. For example, schools might feel pressured to ‘teach to the test’ and find it difficult to offer their pupils a broad and rich curriculum.

Changes to Ofsted include 3 newly formed inspection judgements for schools:

  • Personal development;
  • Behaviour and attitudes;
  • School’s leadership and managemen

Assessing how schools are delivering in these areas goes some way to answering a question laid out by Hinds in his February speech: “How do we instil this [character resilience] in young people, how do we make sure they are ready to make their way in the world as robust and confident individuals?”

Perhaps answering this question is even more pertinent in light of the current concerns around (lack of) social mobility. The recently released State of the Nation 2018 to 2019 report from The Social Mobility Commission makes clear the entrenched nature of inequality in British society. The Guardian highlights the “double disadvantages” of class, disability, ethnicity and gender discussed in the report, whereby those falling into more than one of these groups are more likely to experience serious life-long disadvantage.

Outdoor education is certainly a tool in the box of those looking to help young people overcome some of these disadvantages. It is seen as a means of equipping participants with a whole range of social and emotional skills to overcome setbacks and support them in education, life and work. My most recent paper for The Geographical Journal discusses young people’s experiences of an outdoor education programme. It offers a new perspective on what participants take away from their engagements with outdoor environments. In taking a geographical perspective, I move away from more classic outdoor learning research, which all too often focuses on outcomes to prove the value of this educational approach. My paper draws on detailed qualitative research with 44 young people (aged 11-14). It explores their physical encounters with ‘natural’ and ‘wild’ places during an Outward Bound Trust course. My paper illustrates how the young people mediate their experiences of outdoor learning and reflects on how they describe their feelings of empowerment, fun, disgust, and connection with the environment.

This research both complements and challenges understandings of the types of learning experiences that might take place in outdoor education settings. Firstly, I dispute the idea that using technology acts to undermine the ‘authenticity’ of outdoor learning. I show that in reality, particular technologies and material accessories become enablers in outdoor learning practice and enhance young people’s learning experiences. Secondly, I demonstrate that outdoor learning is not always positive and educational. For instance, one group of young people in the study certainly did not find pleasure in mud and dirt, and physically struggled walking on uneven and slippery surfaces, which detracted from what they took away from their week. Through this case study, I consider some of the challenges inherent to outdoor education associated with those ‘disadvantaged’ groups outlined in the State of the Nation report. For example, the report notes the importance of rich and diverse school experiences for promoting social mobility, whilst highlighting that a broader range of extra-curricular activities are available to more advantaged groups of young people. 

Through this paper I want to open up a more nuanced understanding of what outdoor education can offer young people. I move beyond the abstract learning experience, which is assumed to make young people more resilient, and consider how young people’s bodies and social identities interact with outdoor environments to impact on learning. In so doing we can start to pose some further questions: is outdoor education always positive? when might it be an opportunity (or not) for young people? How might we need to adapt it to ensure it is always an inclusive learning experience?

About the Author: Jo Hickman Dunne is a postgraduate research student at the department of Geography and Environment at Loughborough University. Jo’s article in The Geographical Journal is available from:

Hickman Dunne, J. (2018) Experiencing the outdoors: Embodied encounters in the Outward Bound Trust. The Geographical Journal. Advance online publication. 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12288

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