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Outdoor education theories

Wilderness & education
Psycho-evolutionary theory

Nature Theory

On the connection between natural environments
& human well-being

James Neill
Last updated:
06 Feb 2005

Keywords: Wilderness, Nature, Environment, Indigenous, Ecopsychology, Outdoor, Anthropology, Education, Adventure Therapy, Recreation Therapy, Horticultural Therapy, Nature-guide Therapy

Related Theories: Nature is good, Garden of Eden, Biophilia, Psycho-evolutionary

Nature theory

The original theory, arguably, underlying human experience is the notion that 'returning to nature' is good.  This could perhaps be called "Garden of Eden" theory. 

Throughout the ages, shifting from urbanized, complex environments to more natural environments has seen as valuable for relaxing, calming, healing, re-connecting, and strengthening human beings.

Research findings in health, medicine and psychology also appear to be supportive of the proposition that nature has some inherently positive effects on physical and psychological well-being for humans (and other animals).

Two of the best known researchers in this area are Robert Ulrich from Texas A&M, who has researched the effects of natural vistas on hospital patients, and Dr. Howard S. Frumkin [Google search for "Frumkin effects of nature], who has reviewed the research literature on the physical health benefits of natural environments.

What seems to be lacking, however, is well-developed theory for explaining exactly how natural environments may influence human beings.  For example, given the positive findings for viewing natural scenes (even in pictures), can visualizing natural environments provide positive effects?  Or are there additional, benefits of real, natural environments? 

The most popular, scientific-type "nature is good" hypothesis is Edward O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis, which proposes that the positive effects are due to our long evolutionary (and consequently genetic) links to having a preference for being in natural environments.  Wilson's biophilia hypothesis has been debated and critiqued.  One of the issues appears to be that Wilson based his ideas on his study of insects and that the idea is too simplistic to fully account for human's relations with natural environments, since clearly humans have also shown a capacity to adapt to artificial environments.

Nature Theory in Outdoor Education

Nature theory has been prominent in outdoor education.  Three nature-based theories of outdoor education are described below.

Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves? (Thomas James)

As a basis for outdoor education, the role of the natural environment has been perhaps most insightfully articulated by Thomas James (1980), in a classic article titled "Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves" (see also workshop materials on James' paper). 

One of the first writers to really start getting under the skin of outdoor education theory was Thomas James who studied Kurt Hahn and the Colorado Outward Bound School.  One of James' (1980) classic papers is "Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves?".  In it, James describes a philosophical debate that was took place amongst staff at the Colorado Outward Bound School, where the early mountaineer-type Outward Bound instructors were increasingly being told by the growing number of psycho-educator-type instructors that the so-called mountain experience needed to be accompanied by direct psychological processing such as via discussion in order for the full benefits of Outward Bound to be achieved.  The mountaineering side of the argument ran was that a well designed,  genuine adventure, is in and of itself is the kind of experience which naturally provides for the goals of Outward Bound.  James points out the merits and downsides of each approach.  This is good, juicy, philosophical meat and an issue which should continue to be debated long and hard.

Nature as a friend (Peter Martin)

Peter Martin has advanced a caring-based, relationship model for understanding outdoor education. Essentially, the process is seen as active conversation between person and environment, that evolves over time.  In this sense, many visits over a period of time to a natural place are recommended over one off visits to novel natural places.  For example, climbing at a particular during different seasons and weather situations and over many years creates quite a significant relational understanding of the natural place by the person.  Peter Martin has recently completed his PhD on this topic, and is currently head of the outdoor education program at La Trobe University, Australia, the largest outdoor education department in the world.


Psycho-evolutionary theory of outdoor education (James Neill)

Outdoor education is a young field or industry that is rapidly changing and evolving and it is emerging during a massive cultural revolution which is stretching the gap between genetic human make up and cultural living environmental conditions.  Outdoor education, in a way, bridges the two worlds, by taking people from Western world lifestyles into a world with less technology and requiring more basic, physical and psychological self-reliance and direct engagement on hands-on survival-type tasks with others. 

It may be that the re-engagement of the human being with environments and activities that are more akin to the environments of his/her ancestors and reflected in his/her genetic makeup, could awaken or activate particular types of physical and psychological "indigenous" responses.  It could be this feature, for example, of outdoor education which can account for the sometimes phenomenal life changing effects of not only outdoor education programs, but also the sometimes miraculous reports resulting from overseas travel, extreme sport participation, near-death experiences, etc.

For more, see A Psycho-evolutionary Theory of Outdoor Education