Outdoor Education R&E Center

Philosophy of Outdoor Education

James Neill
Last updated:
26 Apr 2007

Major Schools of Outdoor Education Philosophy

There are at least five major "schools" of philosophy used within outdoor education:

  • Wilderness experience - especially wilderness, nature, and indigenous philosophies

  • Experiential learning - particularly John Dewey's work on the nature of experience and education

  • Psychological growth - especially humanistic and personal growth psychology

  • Outdoor education - philosophical approaches generated from within outdoor education, usually by outdoor educators and/or those studying outdoor education, including personal philosophies of outdoor education

  • Postmodernism - deconstructions of education, society, culture, and outdoor education

From Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein (4.112)

  • The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts.

  • Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.

  • A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.

  • The result of philosophy is not a number of “philosophical propositions”, but to make propositions clear.

  • Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred.

History of Philosophers on 'Natural Learning'

“Several researchers state that the elements of a philosophical basis for outdoor education can be found in the doctrines of Comenius, Rousseau, and Pestalozzi.

John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) was a strong advocate of sensory learning who believed that the child should experience the actual object of study before reading about it.  He thought the use of the sense - seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching - were the avenues through which children were to come in contact with the natural world.  In preparation for the later study of natural sciences, children should first gain acquaintance with objects such as water, earth, fire, rain, plants, and rocks.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) carried out the ideas of Comenius by educating the boy, Emile, according to principles found in nature.  He believed that physical activity was very imortant in the education of a child.  They are curious, he cclaimed, and this curiosity should be ultilized to the fullest.  Rousseau preached that education should be more sensory and rational; less literary and linguistic.  Rather than learning indirectly from books, children should learn through direct experience.  He proclaimed, “Our first teachers are our feet, our hands and our eyes.  To substitute books for all these...is but to teach us to use the reasons of others.”

Johann Henrick Pestalozzi (1746-1827) emphasized the use of direct, firsthand experiences and real objects, also.  In addition to “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” he taught practical skills such as farming, housekeeping, spinning and weaving.  The school yard was used for lessons in nature study and geography.  His methology was based on the belief that the learner would use these beginning expriences at a later time to formulate principles and generalizations on his own.  Pestalozzi, a follower of Rousseau, urged teachers to take their pupils out of the classroom:

Lead your child out into nature, teach him on the hilltops and in the valleys.  There he will listen better, and the sense of freedom will given him more strength to overcome difficulties.  But in these hours of freedom let him be taught by nature rather than by you.  Let him fully realize that she is the real teacher and that you, with your art, do nothing more than walk quietly at her side.

Other philosophers who embraced the cause of “learning by doing” ranged from Johann Friedrick Herbart (1776-1841) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in the 19th Century, to philosopher-educators John Dewey (1859-1952), Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), William Heard Kilpatrick (1871-1965), and William James (1842-1910) in the 20th Century.”

- pp. xv-xvi, Hammerman (1980)