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The Benefits of Learning Outside

This weeks article is nothing like I have done before. I reached out to a woman named Holly McIntyre, a physical educator who got her masters in outdoor education. This interview is entertaining and filled with information you do not want to miss.


1. Can you explain a little about what outdoor education is?

There are a few different ways of defining it, but for me, outdoor education is teaching in, about, and for the outdoors. Usually it takes place in a natural environment but it could happen in the city. However, there is definitely a component of nature involved (like, just being outside in the schoolyard isn’t enough). Sometimes there is also an element of adventure, learning a new skill or technique, or learning about the natural environment. You could break it down into adventure education, environmental education, or outdoor learning (which is just learning, outdoors).

2. When were you inspired to start teaching outdoors?

I did lots of outdoor ed as a student in CEGEP and university, and I always loved it. But it was when I was on a trip in Scotland, hiking in the mountains, when I realised I wanted to allow others to experience the same feelings of wonder, accomplishment, awe and challenge that I was experiencing out there. I happened to run into a group of kids and their leader/teacher on a remote island called Hoy, and after I spent some time with them, I realised that outdoor education was what I wanted to do.

3. How long did it take you to get your masters degree?

Well it took me about 3 years from when I started because I was doing it part-time.

What got me into outdoor ed, though, was doing my Bachelor’s of Education at Queen’s university in the Outdoor & Experiential Education (OEE) program. I got my teaching degree and specialized in outdoor ed. Then I went to work and gained lots more field experience. I did an internship at an outdoor school and learned to paddle whitewater, and got some experience leading groups. As I gained experience I was able to lead groups and mentor other instructors.

My master’s helped me later on, but that’s not what allowed me to be an outdoor educator. A lot of it is experience, having good mentors, and getting out there to practice.

4. What are the benefits of outdoor education? 

So many benefits!! First of all, contact with Nature is so good for us. It reduces stress, improves concentration, and allows us to be physically active. There are teamwork benefits, as well as opportunities for personal growth. You are always challenged in the outdoors, and you learn to overcome difficulties (sometimes, interpersonal difficulties). You learn about the natural world and that usually makes people want to protect it. And you have fun!

Another thing I learned from my Master’s research is that students and teachers are able to form stronger relationships when they learn outside together. There are many reasons for this but I experience it all the time. Just being outside, going through challenges together, and doing things you wouldn’t do in a classroom, allows teachers and students to appreciate each other more.

5. What is the basic curriculum?

It all depends on what you are teaching! There is no set curriculum. You can use the outdoors to teach almost anything.

Going back to the definition of outdoor ed, sometimes you are teaching ABOUT the environment – you could be learning about water, trees, the ecosystem, a particular animal or plant, geography, biology, etc. You could also be learning how to BE in the environment – maybe that’s learning how to backpack through the mountains, or paddle down a river, and camp safely. You could also be learning to become a team, by going on an expedition together. A lot of the time, you will be learning about yourself.

Experiential education is a form of education where you learn by doing. You have an experience, then you reflect on that experience in order to improve or do it differently. The role of the teacher is to facilitate that reflection – so, the teacher might have everyone participate in a debrief after an activity or an experience, to find out what everyone learned and what they might do to change things for the next time or do it differently. In this way, students are learning through experience – but the reflection part is what’s really important. Often, the teacher will also try to relate the experience to something in “real life” so that the learning becomes relevant once everyone goes home again. When learning is relevant, and it means something to the learner, they are much more invested in learning about it deeply (as opposed to just learning it for the test).

So as you can see: there is no set curriculum! You can use outdoor education to teach all kinds of different things.

6. What are some basic things that you would do in a class?

It depends on what I’m teaching, and how long I have. Basic things I almost always teach are orientation (where is North?), decision-making, and how to keep yourself warm. I also teach how to dress for the weather/activity, the importance of nutrition and hydration. Self-management is super important for the safety of each person but also for the safety of the whole group, so I put a lot of emphasis on that. It’s also really hard to learn if you are cold, wet and hungry.

Apart from that, I’ll teach basic skills related to the activity – so, how to pack your backpack, or how to light a fire, set up a tent, paddle a canoe, etc. And I’ll always try to teach something about the natural world – even just being able to identify a couple of different trees or plants is fun, but I like to share cool things about the plants so people remember.

My main goal is that people have fun and enjoy their time outdoors, so that they want to go back. And I want them to appreciate and wonder at the amazing Earth that we are a part of.

7. How can we incorporate this in school systems? 

It is already being incorporated in lots of schools. Some schools put more energy and money into it than others. It’s complex because it requires money, time and specialized expertise. Also, a lot of people see it as an “activity” and not actual learning, which means they don’t think it’s as important as “real” learning (which is not true! It IS real learning and it’s often much more effective!). Schools need to recognize the benefits of it and then make time for it to happen. There are a lot of barriers to outdoor education, that are hard to get around. A lot of it has to do with perception (by teachers, parents and principals).

I would say that the best way is to start small, you don’t have to go off to a national park for outdoor education. It can happen in an urban park. Teachers need training and schools need to hire outdoor educators.

8. How can we improve our outdoor education?

I really think that the more time we spend outside with kids, the better. Kids need to learn how to be outside in all seasons, and they need to be in contact with Nature in a meaningful way. Again, I think starting small is best – go out for a half day, or even for an hour, and interact with the Natural world or learn an outdoor skill.

Thank you all for reading my very interesting interview with Holly! Please like, comment and share so my blog can grow!

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A very interesting interview. I was struck by the notion that some people can't think of outdoor learning as "learning ". Perhaps because it can only be "tested" in the wild? But if we ever found ourselves in a climate event - deep freezes or floods for instance, I am sure we would want the skills and knowledge learned here.

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Outdoor education is so important and it is very astounding to me that some people do not even acknowledge it as real learning. Learning in and about the outdoors can help in so many situations and I believe that it should be taken more seriously.

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