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Raising the Bar: A Case for Quality Outdoor Education
Outdoor education is not a very large industry, but certainly an important one. There is great diversity in how outdoor educators approach their missions, but we have much in common. We do not pursue our mission alone in this world, though it is a grand one: building connections between people and the outdoors. In essence, outdoor education is any education about the outdoors occurring primarily outdoors. While this definition is often used academically, it is not very practical. Many camps view their whole operation as outdoor education, some say only certain parts qualify, and others see outdoor education as separate from camping. This letter is addressed to those who see their work as outdoor education (in whatever setting) and take a professional approach toward that effort.
We should not take our mission or ourselves too lightly. Let us not allow our informal methods and constant striving for creativity to excuse a lack of professionalism. It's time to find ways to raise the bar and be more recognized. Here are five.
1. Have Professional Staff
Staff should be trained to present lessons that are safe, factually accurate, engaging, and meet the expectations of schools. Instructor pay should be commensurate with expected skills.
Certification in particular areas, such as archery, climbing, ropes course, canoeing, etc., creates expertise and legitimacy (not to mention, safety!). Program instructors may receive documentation for their training, which helps their careers. Ultimately, a great deal of training must be specific to each program center, though some academic and other certification programs are very good. I've seen some personnel with excellent "credentials," but their personal style was wholly inadequate. And I've attended trainings with great brochures, but they were inapplicable or badly led in practice.
There are no widespread training programs in outdoor education (for instructors or directors) — academic programs are small and few (though more arise all the time). I am not advocating that outdoor educators hold college degrees or be professional teachers (though programs involving credentialed instructors are generally of higher quality). Professional certification for these people has been a topic of discussion for some time, and many organizations do offer this, including North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), National Association for Interpretation (NAI), Association for Challenge Course Technology, National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), college-affiliated degree programs, and others. Outdoor education is an amalgamated profession. Does it occur at nature centers? Camps? School programs? Parks? Yes — and no.
Many authorities have advocated that outdoor educators are trained in environmental literacy. This may include identifying local flora and fauna; understanding basic ecological principles; and basic knowledge of geology, astronomy, meteorology, botany, zoology, and phenomena associated with changing seasons. A working knowledge of environmental issues and methods of relating to the environment would also be involved. Programs should start by creating their own base of knowledge. At the least, staff should be trained and quizzed in these areas.
Outdoor education is most valid when it utilizes hands-on, cross-disciplinary, experience-oriented activities. Practitioners must understand and show proficiency in this. Lectures are not welcome here! The remarkable way that experiential education "sticks" has not gone unnoticed by school personnel. Many teachers and district curriculum faculty are incorporating methods and activities that originated in camping and outdoor education. It behooves the outdoor side to continue innovating!
Place-based learning is an important concept for outdoor education. Centers that are close to the school children they serve should emphasize their local natural history — "This is what it looked like before humans built schools, highways, houses, and stores" — and others can promote how local natural differences come about. This involves the skill of interpretation, which is how many park rangers, living historians, and naturalists would describe their profession.
Staff should be trained to understand current education methods. These skills will go a long way to boost the professionalism and legitimacy of programs, and increase repeat business. Instructors should be versed in current academic programs. These include state and local curriculum standards, the Five-E Instruction Model (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate), teaching to Multiple Intelligences (developed by Howard Gardner); Love and Logic discipline methods, and Values and Character Education, among others. Increasing student diversity is another critical issue, which implies awareness of language and cultural biases, and teaching in a differentiated manner to various student abilities and needs. I am not describing a typical camp counselor here; rather, a budding education professional.
2. Really Partner with Schools
Regular and thorough communication with faculty cannot be underemphasized — the more, the better. A center cannot deliver expected results without dialogue. School districts are constantly training faculty and using new programs, and outdoor centers should know about and be involved with such programs as appropriate.
I believe that outdoor education serves two main purposes:
- It provides unique experiences, helps students build relationships, and fosters a comfortable, inspiring educational environment. The sense of being away from the classroom builds memories and excitement, and reiterates that education happens everywhere, not just in school.
- It adds complementary depth and concrete experience to formal education standards. When critical concepts are taught in new and creative ways, they can germinate in students beyond what may have been possible with stale textbook, worksheet, and drill-oriented learning. Things like hands-on observation of how plants grow, where wildlife lives, what soil and rocks look like, and how weather affects the world are difficult to experience in a formal classroom setting. Furthermore, education standards include not only content but method. Students can practice the scientific method outdoors. They can observe, measure, and touch things that are new to them. Thus, outdoor educators are truly partners, extending the classroom.
A committee of key faculty and community leaders is a start. These people could provide input for curriculum improvements and more. I believe it's only a start — these committees almost always have sporadic attendance, and there is often a wide gap between their suggestions and actually evaluating and implementing those suggestions. I believe meetings with key teachers at least twice per year about more than just planning "this year's program" is a better strategy. Schools should truly see outdoor centers as program resources. Center personnel should be available for idea sessions and student, parent, faculty, and even board meetings. When teachers ask us for solutions, we are doing something right.
Create Useful Programs for Students and Teachers
For many centers, outdoor education is financially stable, using solid management and maintaining adequate volume. A key problem for most centers to solve is programming during times of less desirable weather. Given that our clients are schools, their calendars are not really flexible, and their funds are certainly limited. This is where creative programming ideas come to the fore, and a center must see itself as a partner in education with its community. One model, expected to last through the year, and through economic downturns, is simply not enough.
Curriculum-offering menus should be constantly revised, paying particular attention to a combination of current education methods, responding to the needs of teachers and students, effective use of the outdoors, skills of instructors, and safety. Ultimately, a center should regularly ask, "What are students learning?" and tweak things often.
Not only should outdoor center personnel speak teacher language, they should also recognize the skills in which they have real expertise and share skills in a synergistic way. Centers should make good use of written evaluations; phone, e-mail, and in-person communication (all of which include candid, idea-oriented talk); and resources devoted to real progress. Take good notes, have tenure and continuity in staff, and build good relationships.
Research proves that experiential, outdoor, and environmental programs each boost test scores. Lessons based on state standards and featuring valuable skills are critical to a professional basis. Centers should be aware of weak areas in test scores and student performance, and develop programs that address those needs. Personnel trained in programs that bridge outdoor and formal education — such as Project Wild, Project Learning Tree, G.L.O.B.E., Leopold, and others — will know some great activities, grow in expertise, and be a resource to classroom teachers. All of this is obviously a real boost to the professionalism of outdoor education; but it's more than that — it sets up the outdoor educators as experts. Some professionals in the field and established centers should see themselves as trainers of formal educators, offering workshops and serving as mentors to teachers.
21st Century Learners
Money and philosophy might seemingly preclude the use of technology in outdoor education, but many education theorists have considered how to approach "21st century learners" (try searching for this phrase on Google), who are different than generations preceding them. Today's children are quite familiar with Internet-based social networks, video games, and powerful mobile phones and computers. Schools are wrestling with how to keep up and educate effectively with these changes, which at least imply that knowing facts and figures is of less importance than the reality that nearly all information is immediately available, so creative critical thinking has become ever so much more, well, critical.
Technology allows us to link field experience with the classroom like never before. Cell phones now have GPS, star gazing guides, and bird call recognition applications, for example. Videos and photos are now easily made with little expertise and can be e-mailed from the woods to the school. G.L.O.B.E. protocols allow data to be posted online and compared by schools and professors around the world, in real time. Some outdoor programs are making creative use of satellite photography, social networking, graphing calculators, pad-style computers, and distance learning. Good partnering with schools can help programs acquire such technology. Used appropriately, technology need not be opposed to outdoor experience!
Pedagogical methods should be learner-centered, including a healthy dose of manipulatives, motor activities, questioning, and student inquiry. Many resources that are commonly on hand at school might be accessible at the center, too, including the Internet and textbooks, among others.
Student journals take on a greater role in today's education. Journaling should be promoted in school, so that students bring these skills with them to the center. When students are more familiar with a variety of note taking methods (personal reflection, sketching, data collection, charts, etc.), outdoor classes can make use of student initiative. This shifts the focus more to the learner. Journals are an obvious way to link the indoor and outdoor classrooms. Worksheets then become less common, and student-designed pages become more common.
Pre- and post-experience lessons deepen the school–outdoor link, and are best created in a collaborative effort between classroom and outdoor educators. When students are prepared, knowing relevant vocabulary and concepts, certain procedures and behaviors, and so forth, more time can be spent in activity outdoors. Effective student note taking and consistent lesson delivery facilitates more effective follow-up in school.
And finally, brain research provides more insights into effective ways to reach learners. Instructors should be aware of effective strategies, and how children learn at various stages of development. Group size and staff ratios should be considered in how they impact results.
3. Teach Good Green
Perhaps we all wish we had model, off-the-grid, zero-landfill facilities, sustainably serving organic fair trade food, and so forth. But we live in the real world, and must make compromises, and deal with the differences among our staff and guests.
We'd love to show off our solar panels, wind generators, and built-in pristine wilderness abounding in charismatic mega-fauna. But few centers are able to rebuild as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified facilities. The same goes for most schools or houses. But that is not the matter; the fact that our economy is dependant on our ecology is. Everything everywhere holds a teachable moment — as either a positive or negative example.
Let's teach our diversity, detriments, and foibles. Let's learn, understand, admit, and examine the complexities of these issues. Some centers prohibit disposable cups, but encourage throw-away packaged lunches, to point out just one irony. A tuft of grass forcing its way through a pavement crack is a great lesson, as is a drafty window, an eroded trail, or a cockroach.
Of course, we should strive to set a good example by recycling and preserving resources, but most of all, we should remind each other that this is all a process, a complex and sometimes expensive one. This approach fits what most of us have for facilities, and it will probably "lose" some people who don't see things quite so environmentally.
4. Keep the Good Stuff
Outdoor education is not new; of course, our ancestors educated entirely outdoors. Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, (and now, The Nature Principle) has so eloquently articulated the critical need to reduce Nature Deficit Disorder in our fast-changing, civilization-encroaching world.
Over my professional career, there have been many activities that continue to be "keepers." And that is a good thing. In outdoor education programs, many children experience "firsts" with nature: taking a canoe ride, holding a compass or a critter net, sleeping in a cabin, or singing at a camp fire. Let us remember that direct experience with nature, time for building better interpersonal relationships, and great outdoor adventures are what we are all about!
The best outdoor education activities still include a walk in the woods, a predator-prey game, the smell of humus, a butterfly on your nose, critters in an aquatic net, a wildflower, the awe of a star-filled sky, and a vista seen beside a tall oak.
Given the variety among outdoor education programs, organization can be a difficult process. But lack of organization is a barrier to legitimacy. There are many variables: day programs and resident programs; science-oriented, outdoor skill-oriented, and challenge-oriented; private, agency, school affiliated, and so on.
So far, centers have rallied around several networking and professional organizations, including the American Camp Association (ACA), NAAEE and its affiliates, California Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, Association for Nature Center Administrators (ANCA), Association for Experiential Education, Resident Outdoor Education (ROEE), NAI, NRPA, university, park, zoo, and museum associations, among others. Then there are various agencies such as 4–H, YMCA, Camp Fire, Lions, Kiwanis, Boy and Girl Scouts, nonprofit, and religious organizations. These organizations each have different niches, personalities, and professional services, but none of them have managed to attract a critical mass of outdoor education providers.
The wide variety of program approaches is an understandable barrier. Many programs are closely tied to their parent organizations (colleges, agencies, churches, etc.). And many programs are part of a larger program (summer camps, leadership centers, zoos, nature centers, parks, etc.). While the end product may be similar, the program's roots bind the center to its "parent" first.
Conferences, which offer educational enrichment, networking, and opportunities for organizing, have met with limited success to date. ROEE has an annual conference; these have primarily been in the western United States. ANCA offers an every-other-year conference, targeted to directors. While most of the organizations listed above open their content and membership to outdoor educators, they are a small sub-set within the group, with mixed results. So there is no home for outdoor education.
I think this is a loss, for two reasons. First, in sharing resources and ideas, we all benefit. Our work is more efficient; we are more aware of trends both in and outside of our field. And second, the world may take us more seriously. If we truly believe in the importance of our work — I for one am absolutely convinced of it — then many banners waving independently are nice, but when seen together, what a force we would be!
Jim Parry has taught thousands of students, staff, and volunteers; shuffled papers; netted bugs; raised money; built teams; washed dishes; developed new programs; trimmed trails; and watched birds in outdoor education for over thirty years, throughout the country in large and small programs. He presently works for Trinity Science Solutions. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the 2011 September/October Camping Magazine.