Experiential Learning and the Outdoor Classroom

The terms “experiential learning,” “outdoor education,” and “sustainable education” have become increasingly popular in mainstream schooling of late. Recently too, the “green revolution” has been met with an increased interest in how to instill both passion and an understanding of environmental issues through education – yet alternative educators and educators of ‘at-risk’ youth have been successfully using experiential learning for decades.

Programs such as Wendigo Lake Expeditions’ Project D.A.R.E.(Development through Adventure, Responsibility, and Education) in South River, Ontario capitalize on the power of experiential outdoor education to enhance their therapy and education program results. Discussing the 40th anniversary of Project D.A.R.E., Executive Director Stephen Glass says that “wilderness-based adventure therapy has been viewed by much of the ‘mainstream’ as essentially a summer camp for ‘bad’ kids. In recent times, I have witnessed a sea-change in those attitudes. As research findings have steadily accumulated showing that physical activity promotes learning, that exposure to nature is restorative to mental health, that play and novel challenge accelerates brain development and that authentic relationship is the strongest predictor of treatment outcomes – wilderness-based adventure therapy has been embraced as having important insights relevant to all educators and mental health professionals. With every year, we are discovering more about how getting teacher and learner out of their chairs and practicing experiential learning/teaching kinesthetically engages students on cognitive, affective and behavioural levels – to achieve exceptional outcomes.”

Both the immediate and long-term educational rewards garnered from experiential, or “hands-on,” learning frequently outweigh those of more traditional lecture-style lessons — especially among children. Just think about how exciting it is to participate in an activity, versus listening to someone talk about it for an extended period of time! Personally, I found that using an outdoor setting was particularly effective when I taught science class using the experiential mode in the Canadian Arctic. One central challenge was achieving a balance between the learning style students were accustomed to and my “new way of doing things.” Students learned some of the basic knowledge from textbooks, films, and lectures, but they significantly built on that knowledge when we observed and discussed aspects of our environment outside, up close, and in-person.

This allowed students to experience fun and exciting observations, take an increased interest in measurement taking, comparison making, and materials collection. It provided the students with perspectives from which to view their town and the surrounding tundra in ways they had never imagined. It put a new spin on their everyday surroundings and planted a seed of interest in how earth systems work. Their remote Arctic town was transformed into a world of natural processes and offered them a unique glimpse of environmental changes not yet perceivable in more southern parts of Canada.

Often, during test preparation and oral presentations, students would draw upon these outdoor experiences to explain the scientific concepts with which they were grappling. By far, the lasting knowledge was the knowledge gained during our outdoor pursuits. These were also the memories that students spoke of most fondly during our end of term course critique. Such are the enjoyable educational experiences in the outdoors that promote connections with the environment - connections that encourage future generations to build more mutually beneficial relationships with nature.

Planning my experiential science courses starts with an overview of the required curriculum set by the board of education. Using a backward planning method, I set my expectations for activities I have yet to develop. I then begin thinking about how I can use the local outdoor environment to achieve these goals experientially. Early in the course I introduce activities that influence student perceptions of their local environment. One of the most effective activities I used in the Arctic was setting research plots on the tundra and in the tidal zone (shoreline). The students were asked to set their plots and inventory them using sketches, photographs, percentage of coverage estimations, and scientific naming. The plots were then observed for changes throughout the 10-month course. Students were often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of observed vegetation, soils, and insects identified on their plots with both their naked eye and the use of hand lenses. When we started to talk about environmental diversity the students could relate to their plots and extrapolate on what larger-sized areas or areas of differing ecosystems might include. They also started to understand the relationships that existed within their plots and could hypothesize how the removal of one item might impact the overall system. I believe that the discussions we engaged in would not have been as meaningful if we had relied merely on lectures and textbook readings.

Teaching in the Arctic provided unique opportunities to access the outdoors, but at times it delivered extreme weather, including minus fifty-Celsius temperatures and winds surpassing 100 kilometers per hour, that could limit some of the outdoor opportunities. If I couldn’t use the outdoors I would think of ways to simulate the outdoor environment in an indoor classroom setting. Students would be tasked with collecting the required materials for these activities from the outdoors prior to storm season, therefore helping to link their indoor lab activities to their local environment.

The sometimes challenging, but often rewarding part about accessing the outdoors for hands-on lessons is that you never know for sure how the students will interpret the activity. That’s part of what I have found so fascinating. I can plan a lesson with hopes of achieving a specific outcome, and often my expectations are surpassed. I can’t take credit for nature’s ability to captivate students, but as a teacher I can facilitate the opportunities. Over time I learned not to try to force specific lesson outcomes, but rather allow students to immerse themselves in their learning and lead themselves. I think of these hands-on lessons as setting a maze for the students to navigate rather than leading them down a path.

Looking at the benefits of experiential education from another angle, experiential learning almost always requires the individual to be physically active. As a science and physical-education teacher, I know that the association between moving and the motivation to learn is strong. A certain degree of physical activity stimulates the learning process and this is one of the reasons why so many schools have kept their physical-education classes intact through economic cutbacks. Of course, the most obvious reason is a concern about student fitness. Much of the entertainment that children engage in is sedentary in nature, and while much effort is expended getting children to be physically active outside of school, perhaps we would be better to focus first on their time spent in the classroom. Think about it - students spend the majority of a six-hour day, five days per week sitting in classes. Many teachers have been encouraged by their boards of education to include stretch or movement breaks for their students, and while this is a step in the right direction, it falls far short of the paradigm-shift that may be necessary. Simply put, students do not move enough. The incorporation of experiential learning, particularly in the outdoors, could vastly reduce the amount of time students spend deskbound.

Just as important as the rather serious points discussed so far, is the fact that experiential learning is fun! When learners are enjoying themselves they are more likely to pay attention, care about, and retain what they are learning. Our natural environment provides students with the ideal tools, means, and context with which to thrive! Not long ago, I was in a Mountain Equipment Co-op store and noticed a T-shirt that read across the front: “Ask your teacher to take you outside.” It’s a simple message, but one that needs to be heard. There are endless opportunities outside, especially if you have a green space nearby the school. Nature is the perfect classroom, but its potential is rarely realized. Formal teaching often takes place indoors by default, in the classrooms assigned to teachers, with equipment and resources provided and an understanding that this is where the learning will take place. I remember after a few weeks of hands-on lab experiments and outdoor field trips a grade 10 science student asked me: “When do we stop having fun and start learning?” Mission accomplished.

Further Reading:

Experience and Education, by John Dewey
The Association for Experiential Education