Today’s guest blog is by Geoffrey Guy who lectures at Reaseheath College.  Geoff is the Director of Education for Bushcraft Education Ltd, and the founder of the Bushcraft Education blog.

The Dartington Conference of 1975 aimed to give a definition of Outdoor Education [OE] that could be accepted by the industry and potentially justify its use in schools and formal educational establishments. The original definition of OE as accepted at Dartington mentions several specific subjects and disciplines which it was implied that OE could include; among them geography and biology. There was also specific mention of ‘environmental studies’. Perhaps the focus in this definition on links with existing school subjects of geography and biology was an attempt to validate and secure a place for OE within the accepted school curriculum (Nicol, 2002) without relying solely on the commonly cited links with physical education (Yates, 1981; Cheesmond, 1981; Keighley, 1998). Environmental education potentially offered yet another link between outdoor activities and the school curriculum (Parker & Meldrum, 1973).  However, there is often disagreement over whether OE actually does deliver environmental education and, if it does, whether it is effective. This is the question that is discussed here.

There are clearly instances of environmental education not being delivered as part of OE. One of the most significant contributors to the development of the field of outdoor education in the UK, Colin Mortlock, distanced himself from the whole concept of integrating OE into the curriculum, and, rather than pressing the argument for combining outdoor activities with environmental and field studies, focused on other aspects of the outdoor experience. Mortlock actually dropped field studies from the programme of activities delivered at his LEA outdoor centre in favour of a ‘general adventure option’ (Mortlock, 1984, p. 47). Although this action was based on feedback from visitors to the centre, and in pursuit of providing customer satisfaction, it does illustrate that there is not a consensus within the industry as to the importance and/or relevance of an environmental aspect to outdoor education. Mortlock’s philosophy of outdoor education focuses more on the development of moral character and virtues such as “courage, compassion, determination, integrity, humility and self-reliance” (Mortlock, 1984, p. 17). Whilst it is not surprising that CLOtC is moving to position character formation as central to its work, now that Ofsted has said it’s important, the wonder, perhaps, is that it has not done so sooner.

This is not to say that Mortlock does not value the natural environment. The chapter ‘The Natural Environment’ in his seminal work, The Adventure Alternative, is to me a fantastic explanation of how involvement in the outdoors can help people develop an appreciation for the natural environment. There are many others, including revolutionary writers such as Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, who have written of the heightened appreciation, respect and even love of the natural world that they have developed as a perceived result of their experiences ‘outdoors’ (Drasdo, 1973; Lister-Kaye, 2003; Pyle , 2011). However what we do not have is any empirical evidence that this appreciation leads to action for the environment or a better understanding of it and, even at the very root of the issue, whether beyond the anecdotes of individuals, taking part in activities outdoors facilitates this kind of appreciation at all.

Returning to the idea that OE may promote the development of an appreciation for the environment, which would be hard to measure, does an appreciation of the environment meet any of the other objectives of environmental education? Given that all the goals of environmental education are action based, simply appreciating something is not enough and does not prove that OE can meet the objectives of EE. However it may form the basis of a relationship between the two disciplines if no other more concrete link is found.

If the goals of EE are action and/or outcome based, I would argue then that the goals of OE are method-centred. OE can meet a number of objectives, personal and social development as an example, but being outside is the key. Environmental education on the other hand is more outcome-centred, and as we want people to become more aware of the environment so that they can form opinions and take action, to achieve this we educate them. Environmental education can use the same activities, and certainly the same outdoor environment, as OE but this uses outdoor activity to generate any number of outcomes, for example, personal/social development, confidence, distraction from offensive/anti-social behaviour, or even simply the development of technical skill in outdoor activities. However, we always return to the fact that the learning is taking place outside. Environmental education, however, is delivered through a wider range of mediums such as classroom teaching, vocational studies, bespoke education courses run by NGOs or recycling companies, environmental study programmes run by conservation organizations. Whether these programmes are delivered inside, outside, online, on TV or the radio, the overarching objective is always going to be the same, and that is to encourage or provoke action for the environment.

Whether or not there is a link between environmental education and OE there will always be more than just OE as a means of delivering the objectives of environmental education. A problem with this method-centred approach to OE is that there is sometimes the assumption that just because we are educating outside in ‘the environment’ we are delivering environmental education (Van Matre, 1990) but I think we need to look at the outcomes of what we are doing to determine what we are actually doing. Could it be that even though we are in the environment our actual outcome is to teach rope skills or navigation?

This difference in approach can be illustrated very simply by looking at two, superficially, identical programmes from two different countries: Forest Schools is relatively new to the UK but its equivalent, Skogsmulle, is much more entrenched in Sweden. However, despite what we have in the UK being based on the Scandinavian model the outcomes are not designed to be the same. One focuses on the knowledge children will gain about nature while the other focuses on the personal and social development that can result from being in nature:

Skogsmulle goals

The need to improve children’s relationship with nature and make them aware of the environment to the point that they can influence society for the better (Friluftsfrämjandet, 2006).

Forest School goals

Primary goals include development of creative skills, physical development, personal and social skills and general knowledge (Knight, 2009) with the development of environmental understanding a secondary goal.

I would argue that Forest Schools should be considered an outdoor activity, while Skogsmulle shows clearer links with the objectives of environmental education. This raises the question as to why Forest schools do not focus more on the environmental aspects. Might it be they would not be supported so well if the primary objectives were environmental rather than social and personal?

The fact that the Dartington Conference’s definition of OE used the phrase environmental studies, implying that students will by learning about the environment rather than for it, raises this question: if people delivering OE are specialists within their field, do they have sufficient knowledge to deliver effective education about an environment? That is, can they deliver the kind of theoretical knowledge based in science, geography and ecology that is required?

As studies have indicated that there seems to be only a limited transmission of knowledge of environmental processes in OE programmes (Van Matre, 1990; Keighley, 1997), this may suggest that an education about the environment is not being delivered, although whether it can be delivered is a separate issue.  Likewise little evidence has been found to indicate that environmental awareness is improved by involvement in outdoor education (Hattie, et al., 1997) and, even if it did, Hungerford and Volk (1991) suggest that an increase of knowledge of, or involvement in the environment, does not necessarily translate to action.

So, what would it take for approaches such as Forest schools to become more focused on the environment and action?  Indeed, is this possible, given how they have been set up in the UK, and what their main focus is?


Geoff can be contacted at:


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Drasdo, H., (1973) Education and the mountain centres. 2nd ed. Bangor: Welsh University Press .

Friluftsfrämjandet, (2006). The natural flight of steps. Lidingö, Stockholm: s.n.

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