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History of Outdoor Education

Psycho-evolutionary Theory

When did Outdoor Education Begin?

James Neill

Last updated:
27 Sep 2004

When did outdoor education begin?

It is unclear where exactly the true beginnings of outdoor education lie.  In our view we need to look into the nature and evolution of the human species, which is the basis of a psycho-evolutionary theory of outdoor education, the essence of which is that it seems not unreasonable to suggest that the early hominids were the originators of outdoor education.  Homo sapien young spend an inordinate amount of time being "trained" to live in the world.  For at least several million years, virtually all of these years of learning and training was conducted in the outdoors.  Only recently were permanent walls constructed -- dramatically in the last 100 years in Western civilization.  Members of modern Western societies have become collectively "shielded" from natural living and challenges, rhythms and observations of nature, etc.  There remains an instinctual need to re-kindle our inbuilt sensitivities to nature (E. O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis).  Thus, outdoor activities, outdoor recreation, and outdoor education serve a psycho-evolutionary need within homo sapiens to collectively maintain some form of psychological and physical contact with natural processes and environments which are relatively untouched by obvious human influence.

 

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Since the big bang 13.7 million years ago, the "outdoors" was created.  Then about 600 million years ago, the first life forms began learning about how to live with the forces of nature.  This eventually lead to the first hominid species about 4 million years ago.  Hominids were bipedal (walked on two legs), had smaller brains than modern homo sapiens, but showed the first signs of technology, culture, language, and complex social organization. 

 

It seems not unreasonable to suggest that the early hominids were the originators of outdoor education, although it could also be argued that all animals learn and teach their young via outdoor experiences.  However, the unique aspect of hominid species which seems to have made them particularly in need of powerful education is that the brain is remarkably plastic at birth. 

 

Hominid, and particularly homo sapien young, come into the world notably helpless, because they are less pre-programmed with instinctual behavior.  Homo sapien young then spend an inordinate amount of time being "trained" to live in the world.  For at least several million years, virtually all of these years of learning and training conducted by hominds and homo sapiens were conducted in the outdoors.  Only recently were permanent walls constructed and large proportions of the lives of people some civilizations were spent indoors.  This has really only happened in the last 100 years and in Western civilization.  Understood as such, it should be no suprise to also observer that modern "outdoor education" has evolved over the past 100 years in Western societies.  Members of these societies have found themselves:

  • dramatically shielded from the outdoors, a trend somewhat at odds with their underlying genotype

  • as a leisure society, having sufficient resources to "indulge" in exotic encounters with selected, idyllic parts of the outdoors

  • with largish brains, with capacity to think, write about, discuss, romanticize, and otherwise pontificate about the meaning of the outdoors; once Western society consciousness shifted indoors, nature has become somewhat fictionalized, but also understood in dramatically different ways due to the discoveries of modern science; but the reality of nature can never be entirely avoided - another ice age will come, the genotype creates deep, unconscious archetypal images and drives (hence, for example, 90% of children's stories are about animals, being in nature is beneficial for physical and mental healing, and people love to download "nature scene" screensavers, and take holidays in exotic, natural places)

For a functional understanding of outdoor education, then, let us then consider the beginning as with the first modern homo sapiens about 1.5 million ago?  Is it then possible to find some different experiments in outdoor adventure and education with the first civilizations during the last 10,000 years, including the first documented expeditions and explorations?

 

In a modern sense, the first formal camps for schools students appeared in the late 19th century.  Around this time and in the early 20th century there was also the evolution of programs such as the Scouts, which adapted many of the principles and skills associated with military training and life for peacetime education of civilians.

 

Often histories of outdoor education, which are more near-sighted, focus only on the 20th century, e.g.,

  • The US-focused history by William Hammerman (1980), argues a start date of 1930 for resident outdoor education programs.

  • The development of the first Outward Bound program in 1941 as the beginning of outdoor education is commonly referred as the beginning of outdoor education. 

So, take your pick on where to begin?  You may want to further explore