Is It Time to Re-think Outdoor Education for the 21st Century?

Updated: Feb 17, 2019


Outdoor and Experiential Education (OEE) is the perfect vehicle for developing young people into well-informed global citizens. The kind of citizens who are ecologically literate with well-formed values and a changemaker mindset on global sustainability issues, together with a wide range of dynamic (or so-called 'soft') skills that could be used to help the next generation to create social and environmental change, for a brighter future in the 21st Century.


OEE develops the inner child by building a vast array of dynamic skills including critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and communication skills - all of which are arguably more essential now than ever before.


"We have just one shot to right the ship and vitally that narrow window of opportunity is right here, right now. The consequences of carrying on down the road to ecological ruin are truly unthinkable."


A Vehicle for Change


It is very promising that there are more and more progressive, forward-thinking schools, outdoor education programs, for-profits, social enterprises, non-for-profit NGOs and government initiatives emerging worldwide that are involved in shaping young people, in a whole range of positive and encouraging ways.


There are environmental education, outdoor adventure and community service programs, eco-schools, Forest and Waldorf Schools, government bans on single-use plastics, global plastic clean-up initiatives like TrashHero.org and a whole variety of other initiatives and approaches to education, all of which are encouraging signs that big-scale change might be on the horizon.


However, to the best of my knowledge there still isn't a single mainstream education system in the world that successfully brings all these vital elements together, through a structured and staged program of classroom and outdoor-based education, designed to build the skills and values needed to create a sustainable future for humanity to thrive and prosper. We have just one shot to right the ship and vitally that narrow window of opportunity is right here, right now. The consequences of carrying on down the road to ecological ruin are truly unthinkable.


"Until we as humans learn to think beyond our own blinkered day-to-day lives and take informed decisions for a brighter, more sustainable future in our personal and professional lives, we have little chance of solving the monumental global issues we now face."

It is true that policy makers and school administrators commonly hope that by taking children outdoors, they will become a new generation of environmental stewards who'll work hard to protect the environment in later life. Like me, many educators and OEE practioners also hold the belief that by taking children kayaking, rock climbing or trekking, they'll develop the grit and resilience needed to thrive in adulthood. And others, including myself, are eager for young people to participate in service learning projects to help build the knowledge and values needed to enact social and environmental change in their communities, both now and further down the line when they become adults.


So Is It Time for a Re-think?


There is probably some truth to all these sentiments, however the inescapable truth is that the 20th Century model of OEE is not only no longer valid or relevent - in some cases it is even working against the grain of personal development and social progress. Speaking to young people, it is common for teens to volunteer in their community or enrol themselves on youth development awards, for example, with the core motivation of simply increasing their chances of university admissions and future job prospects, rather than any genuine interest in developing themselves into well-rounded individuals and creating a positive impact or contribution within the wider community.


But we must go further, much further. We must join up the dots between policy makers, classroom teachers and OEE specialists to reach a consensus on how best to prepare the next generation for a future characterized by the truly mind-boggling global challenges we face this century, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and rapid technological advancement.


Instead, we might consider nurturing children to shift their collective thinking to something along the lines of "How can I contribute to the solutions to local to global sustainability issues, rather than simply being yet another part of the problem?" This shift in ideology would drive innovation and galvanize change by uniting everyone in society from engineers to teachers, lawyers to technologists, business people to politicians behind a single goal for a brighter, sustainable future.


In effect, we need to connect our educational approaches and disiplines by fully embedding sustainability and OEE within our education system at every level, and within every subject. We must work to remove existing divides between classroom and outdoor learning, formal and informal education and embrace modern and proven experiential teaching methods. Things are changing fast and that means that OEE must change too, if it is to remain relevent and valuable to the lives of young people both today and tomorrow.



OEE practitioners are passionate about the outdoors and protecting the environment. Invariably, they are eager to make a positive impact in the lives of young people. Why else would any of us specialize in OEE if you weren't passionate about these aspects of our roles? It's not easy to simply fall into OEE - in my experience most practitioners are in OEE for a reason. So let's prioritize youth leadership, eco-literacy, sustainable development and building the dynamic 'soft' skills to empower positive change.


"Could it be time to stop preparing children for a status quo, business-as-usual world where each of us embarks on securing our own financial means without considering the consequences of our actions on society and our planet?"

Surely this is the least we can do - after all the environmental burden that we are handing down to our children is going to make their lives very hard one day in the near future, unless of course, we do something radical to change our course soon.


It is vital that we provide the next generation with the knowledge and tools needed to face global challenges head-on and this requires and top-down, bottom-up approach between all stakeholders (including individual citizens, policy makers, governments, corporations, educational institutions and NGOs) - in effect everyone of us has a stake in the future of our shared humanity and the ecological health of our planet (and only home I might add).


Thinking Beyond Our Own Blinkered Lives


Could it be time to stop preparing children for a status quo, business-as-usual world where each of us embarks on securing our own financial means and material needs without considering the consequences of our actions on society and our planet? Don't get it twisted, there's nothing wrong with aspiring to do well in whatever any of us chooses to do with our lives after leaving school. However, we must reform our education system to ensure that its central goal is to create informed citizens, with a well-developed moral compass, an in-depth understanding of local to global sustainability issues, together with the skills and confidence to take real-world action for big-scale change.


"It takes nothing to join the crowd but it takes everything to stand alone and be the change you wish to see in the world."

Until we as humans learn to think beyond our own blinkered day-to-day lives, and take informed decisions for a sustainable future in our personal and professional lives, we have little chance of solving the monumental global issues we now face. After all it takes nothing to join the crowd, but it takes everything to stand alone and be the change you wish to see in the world.


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