Beyond Hiking and Camping: Making the case for outdoor education.

Photo by SeriesPremiere |

Remember in grade 6 when your class went on a hike in that local conservation area? Or perhaps in grade 1 when you were asked to bring something ‘from nature’ to show and tell?  Maybe you even participated in an environmental awareness program during high school. Research has demonstrated that classroom learning can improve our understanding of environmental responsibility, even in students as young as five years old.

However, evidence linking this type of education and sustainable behaviour change is in need of further research. There are many variables that come into play when you teach a young person about environmental issues. According to Matthews and Riley (1995), what does not work are; “lectures, excessive moralizing, externally derived codes of ethics/conduct, adults setting the ethics agenda, and teachers/leaders as authoritarian figures." 

What does work? Well, one rule that seems to hold true is that environmental responsibility is best developed outdoors.  Doing this stimulates young people to reflect on our place in, and dependence upon, the ecosystem. Simply being outside generates an initial love for the environment, which in turn sparks an intrinsic curiosity and motivation to learn more. Beyond this, however, there have been a number of findings from various studies about what makes outdoor education effective, including:


  • focusing on problem solving;
  • developing environmental action skills;
  • organizing field trips;
  • participating in community action projects;
  • providing the opportunity for small group discussions and role playing;
  • providing role models and mentoring;
  • alowing students to apply what they have learned;
  • and including time for reflection.


Studies found that environmentally positive, action-oriented experiences with long-term involvement, support and follow-up were the most likely to change behaviour. 

What can we take from all these suggestions? Developing evidence-based outdoor and environmental education is not simple. We should continue to examine the long-term outcomes of outdoor education programs to find more examples of success. Many examples of effective programs do exist, and we should encourage educators to focus on problem solving, self-directed learning, community-focused projects, and self-reflection, as well as exposing students to the outdoors. Since positive behavioural changes have been demonstrated, we should also reach out to the young people we know and encourage their participation in outdoor education.