Neill 2001 Ways ahead for outdoor education in Australia

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Ways ahead for outdoor education in Australia

Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, Jan, 2001 by James Neill

Let's get simple. If you can't do outdoor education with a backpack and a bit of food, then you can't do outdoor education. The essence of outdoor education is that we can learn much about life by living in simple ways in natural surroundings (Stapleton, 1991). At the recent national outdoor education conference, Stuart Hill (2001) implored us to identify and express our 'profound simplicities'. For me, some of the profound simplicities which describe outdoor education are:

  1. we learn most powerfully by experiencing things for ourselves;
  2. outdoor education can provide enjoyable, educational and therapeutic experiences and this is supported by theory and research;
  3. post-industrial society has dramatically reduced the presence of experiential, nature-based learning experiences in daily life;
  4. outdoor education has developed rapidly over the past 50 years in terms of prevalence, style, purpose, variety, complexity and professionalism;
  5. outdoor education has a vast potential to help human society meet the significant challenges of the future.

The most profound simplicity, for me, is the last one--that outdoor education has a largely unrealised potential to help guide and transform our society through the challenges ahead.

The challenge, as I see it, is to envision a future and to develop and implement strategies to help outdoor education achieve its social potential.

At the recent national outdoor education conference delegates proposed a statement of ethical purpose (1) which emphasised a broad, underlying aim:

Through interaction with the natural world, outdoor education aims to develop an understanding of our relationships with the environment, others, and ourselves. The ultimate goal of outdoor education is to contribute towards a sustainable community.

This statement deserves wider consideration. Why not ask staff within your organisation to identify their profound simplicities and to comment on whether this statement captures the purpose of outdoor education?

As a clearer understanding of the underlying simplicities and purposes of outdoor education develops, envisaging the future will become more possible. To help, try 'thinking in the future tense' James, 1998). What possibilities do you dream of for the future of outdoor education? In an ideal world, what programs would you create? My own hopes are for:

  1. wider recognition of the role that outdoor education can play in achieving specific educational and therapeutic outcomes and for lifelong development;
  2. greater adaptability and innovation in program design which better meets the needs of our rapidly changing society;
  3. more widespread implementation of quality assurance practices to improve educational practices and outcomes;
  4. a peak body which actively promotes outdoor education, builds links with broader society, and fosters the collective development of outdoor education;
  5. more equitable access to outdoor education experiences;
  6. a greater contribution by outdoor education to other fields of human endeavour;

How might we achieve these visions? I think the key is that we need to nurture critical centres ('hothouses') of development. Several existing places spring to mind, including some large organisations, school programs, tertiary institutions, and several small, exciting new programs.

But I am concerned that overall the growth and development of cutting-edge, innovative outdoor education programs has slowed in Australia. We are not keeping pace with the demands of society and many organisations are facing cutbacks and reduced enrolments. We seem to be sitting in a quiet corner in Australia, with a limited collective voice and no clear agenda for the future.

Simon Priest, after his extensive travelling to outdoor education programs around the world, warned us several years ago that the newest and most exciting developments were occurring in countries where outdoor education was relatively new. In the UK, USA and Australia, on the other hand, we face a real risk of programs becoming over-regulated and turned into stale, common experiences.

There is much room for the reinvigoration of outdoor education in Australia. We need to stimulate new thinking, attract professionals from other fields, improve communication within the field, support career structures, develop strategic alliances with other service professions, better understand processes of psychological change and growth, respond more quickly to social problems, involve ourselves in outdoor education internationally, and develop a national political voice.

If we do these things, whilst holding onto our visions and profound simplicities, then outdoor education can realise its potential to contribute to society.

All of this suggests to me the need for a peak body which actively guides the development of the field (and this is the political bit). In North America, the Association for Experiential Education, whilst not without its critics, has served such a role. In contrast, the AOEC has developed with a narrower scope. Some state outdoor education associations have played active roles in regional development, but overall our efforts have been characterised by a rather lacklustre approach.

I call upon the AOEC to propose a framework for the future development of outdoor education. To do so, the AOEC needs to canvas its members and industry operators to get ideas and directions. Such a proposal could include an encompassing statement about the underlying purpose of outdoor education but should also involve a series of achievable 'big picture' strategies to facilitate the national development of outdoor education. Ultimately, it may be necessary to reconsider the structure of the AOEC and its way of operating.

None of this dissuades me from outdoor education's vast potential. In fact it is because of the potential of outdoor education to help meet the challenges faced by our society that we so desperately need to find better ways of doing so in the future.

I urge individuals to share their profound simplicities and to envision possible futures for outdoor education. To get the ball rolling, send your ideas to the editor or to the email discussion list. And, of course, take action within your sphere of influence. We need many contributions and inspired leadership to develop a framework for the future of outdoor education in Australia.

Key Points
  • Outdoor education has a largely unrealised potential to help guide and transform our society through the challenges ahead.
  • The growth and development of outdoor education programs has slowed in Australia.
  • We need to envision a future and develop and implement strategies to help achieve outdoor education's potential.
  • We need a peak body which actively guides the development of the field.
  • The AOEC should consult with its members and propose a framework for the future development of outdoor education.
  • You are invited to share your visions and suggested strategies for the future.


Hill, S. (2001, January). Education for a healthy community in a sustainable environment. Paper presented at the 12th National Outdoor Education Conference, Bendigo, Australia.

James, J. (1997). Thinking in the future tense: A workout for the mind. New York: Touchstone.

Priest, S., & Gass, M. S. (1998). Effective leadership in adventure programming. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Stapleton, I. (1991). Trying to keep things simple -- A view of outdoor education. Independence, 16, 39-42.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Zoe Herbert, Dr. Jackie Kiewa, Ian Boyle and Tim Medhurst for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article.

James Neill is moving to the United States to work as an Assistant Professor at the University of New Hampshire, teaching and researching in outdoor education. He wishes to maintain links with outdoor education in Australia and to contribute to its future development. He can currently be contacted at the Centre for Applied Psychology, University of Canberra, ACT 2601, email:

(1) Much credit for this searching for vision and ethic taking place within outdoor education in Australia goes to outgoing AOEC chairperson, Peter Martin.

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