There was a meeting the other week at Defra about the UK’s 25-year environment plan.  This was not actually about the plan, or about the environment; rather, it was about that most muddled of ideas, outdoor learning.

In the following, NAEE Chair of Trustees, Bill Scott (who was there), sets out a few thoughts on what he sees as the problems of a focus on outdoor learning.  The text which follows also appears on Bill’s own blog.

If we get the “outdoor learning offer” right (the argument seems to be), and everyone gets enough outdoor learning of the right sort, people will then “make better decisions” about the environment.  That is, they will acquire the right knowledge, attitudes and values and therefore make not just better decisions, but the right ones, about how to live.  This sort of outdoor learning prescription seems rather like a course of vitamins, and indeed some Americans do now talk glibly about Vitamin N [see Note 1].  I remember that this exposure to action logic was used to justify environmental education in the 1970s.  But have we learned nothing since then?  Do we really still think that learning can be mandated like this?  That people will learn what they’re supposed to, and then do as others want?

The main problem with the idea of outdoor learning is, of course, not so much the word “outdoor” itself, but the prominence given to it here in the qualification of learning.  The Defra staff at the meeting presented a neat (if confused) model of what they see as the significance of the outdoors, and in what follows you’ll have to imagine three boxes at each corner of a triangle, each connected to the others with double arrows.  The text in the boxes says:

  1. spend time in nature
  2. awareness of and engagement with environmental issues
  3. actions to protect and enhance the environment

Box [1] is the outdoor learning bit [see Note 2].

Box [2] is what result from [1], and Box [3] is the outcomes of [2] – and perhaps [1] as well.  Neat, as I said.  And the good thing about the model is the double arrows as [3] can (and do) give rise to [2], as well as [2] resulting in [3].

The fly in the ointment here is what box [1] says because you don’t have to spend time in nature to achieve either [2] or [3], although it can happen: as Wordsworth said in The Tables Turned:

Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.”

The light is outside.  Alarmingly no doubt for some, it would makes more sense if Box [1] were to say “environmental education”.  This is because there is then a stronger logical link between [1] and [2] and [3].  It’s a pedagogical link too as, if you’re at school, it is purposeful educative experiences, and unplanned experiences within a broad educative framework, that give rise to awareness, involvement, actions and engagement.  Without these, although “spending time in nature” might possibly do all that if your mind is open to it (in the Wordsworth sense), it might also give rise to tedium, boredom, frustration, estrangement and alienation, as was well argued in the discussion group I was in during the meeting.

What good teachers do (whether in schools, NGOs, universities, etc) is to provide such a framework which guides and maximises the opportunities for the learning that then takes place outdoors.  In doing so, they link this to what has preceded it and to what will likely follow, most usually in what we might term the indoor classroom, if it weren’t already adequately called, the classroom.

Thus, to place so much focus on the “outdoor” is to risk forgetting that, educationally speaking, it is not the spending of time (being) in the outdoor that really matters, it is what goes on there that’s of importance.  Even those who valorise being outside, and say they do so just for the intrinsic good it brings, do understand this – especially if they are educators.

And so, were I (heaven forfend) in charge of the plan at Defra, I might want to suggest that the 3 boxes say this:

  1. have outdoor educative experiences
  2. gain awareness of, and think about, environmental issues
  3. take appropriate actions to protect and enhance the environment

Some will surely recognise this as “in”, “about” and “for” the environment.  Happy Days!

But this won’t do either because it still seems to privilege the outdoor over the indoor for no apparent reason other than the fact that most of the natural world (nature) is outdoors.  That might be fine if you’re Wordsworth where the “light of things” is obviously outside, but it won’t do for us, particularly if we’re thinking about more formal aspects of educating the young.  We need clear reasons if going outdoors is to be justified.  There might be a number of these, for example:

  1. the ineffable and the infinite – to appreciate the awe, wonder and scale of the world cannot be done inside four walls.  Thus all environmental education needs to somehow embrace the ‘out’; the issues to grapple with are for what reason, how, where, when, how often, etc rather than whether.
  2. authenticity – it’s only by being ‘out’ that you can really experience the real thing.  Thus, investigating rocky shore ecology is best done by going to the coast; much fieldwork relies on this sort of justification.
  3. practicability – you can’t do something unless you go ‘out’.  Thus, to develop and master the art of pruning apple trees can only be done where there are such things; the development of many practical skills relies on this justification.
  4. pedagogy – sometimes a particular ‘out’ pedagogy is needed to get something across in an effective way because the learning is in the pedagogy and not (just) in what the pedagogy is used for.  This seems to be a justification for those who promote the idea that all learning (or as much as practicable) should be ‘out’.
  5. added value – although you can do something just as well either ‘in’ or ‘out’, being ‘out’ brings additional benefits.  Thus, there may be social skills to be developed alongside practical ones which are best accomplished in the ‘out’.

You will have your own examples to fit in here.  I have not attempted to be comprehensive in any of the above.  Nor am I trying to assert the ‘out’ over the ‘in’, or vice versa, as I see them as fully complementary.  For me, the issue is to start with the educational (learning) objective and then to ask how and where (or where and how if you prefer) is this to be realised?  More often than not it will be found in some combination of ‘in’ and ‘out’.

There are constraints on all this and such choice is never free.  There are always opportunity costs, and often financial ones as well.  Thus, there is always a balance to be struck between effectiveness and efficiency which is why, in the real world, it will be some combination of being outdoors and indoors, guided by clear educational objectives, that will be necessary.

Because of all this, we ought really to be having serious conversations about curriculum, instead of marginal ones about the outdoors.  The UK Department of Education easily dismisses outdoor learning because it understands all the problems with the idea.  It would find curriculum less easy to ignore, especially if Defra’s three boxes were something [see Note 3]  like this:

  1. a curriculum focus on the importance of nature
  2. awareness and understanding of, and concern about, environmental issues
  3. appropriate individual and social actions to protect and enhance the environment

As the text in these boxes has evolved in my writing, boxes [2] and [3] have not changed all that much.  The major shift has been in Box [1] where the emphasis has moved from being outside, to having educative experiences outside, to a curriculum focus on nature (both ‘in’ and ‘out’).  This is a better fit with the 25-year plan which, after all is “for nature”, and also with the fact that, when thinking about learning, a necessary prior focus has to be, one way or another, on curriculum.


Note 1.  This is what Richard Louv’s website says:

“From the author of the New York Times bestseller that launched the international children-and-nature movement, Vitamin N (for “nature”) is a complete prescription for connecting with the power and joy of the natural world right now, with: five hundred activities, scores of informational websites, an abundance of down-to-earth advice, and dozens of thought-provoking essays”

Note 2. Although I really ought to point out that “outdoor” is not the same as “nature” or “the environment”, everybody knows that, don’t they …

Note 3. In what follows, I’ve shifted the language to reflect the global concern for sustainability which outdoor learning can miss because of the focus on being “in nature”.  If this were a Defra 25 year plan this focus on nature might be ok, but it’s not, it’s a UK government plan and so should reflect the government’s wider commitments and obligations to sustainability; for example, to the United Nations sustainable development goals.  In this sense, the three boxes might be something like:

  1. a curriculum focus on the importance of nature to the human future
  2. awareness and understanding of, and concern about, environmental and associated social issues
  3. appropriate individual and social actions to protect and enhance the environment and people


  1. So, basically, there is an attempt to position a lack of time in nature as THE root problem and a prescription of unstructured Vitamin N as the solution. Simple, job done. Hence:

    It’s classic small Government thinking. Designing, implementing, resourcing anything more nuanced is too ‘interfering’, too expensive and too likely to lead to awkward questions about consumerism.

    Much easier to round up a few endorsements of the the Vitamin N solution (enter Natural England) and spend a bit of money bussing inner city children to National Parks every five years or so. Which mostly seems to be part of a grand marketing campaign for the National Parks – they’re actually not even very discreet about this effort to breed a generation of nature consumers. It will also no doubt have the effect of strengthening the mental model or frame of ‘nature’ and ‘the outdoors’ as something that only exists in national parks and that’s not at all helpful. George Monbiot would also argue of course that there’s not much true nature left in the National Parks, a not insignificant problem in this debate if we’re talking about understanding the ‘natural world’.

    As you say, this Vitamin N solution completely simplifies the journey to environmental care and action. It is spin. It sounds logical and lovely to help more children experience the National Parks, but it is totally misguided to think that this is automatically helpful to ‘nature’ in the long term; it could in fact be counterproductive.

    We need to keep calling Defra out on this and keep making the case for a far more nuanced approach to environmental/nature/outdoor learning that is in the curriculum as you have. Also, as you hint at, we HAVE learned a lot since the 1970s – we need to get the evidence across so that something that might actually work has a chance of emerging.

    PS I re read chunks of Aldo Leopold while I was in Madison – he was in a very different time and place, but he was outdoor learning and loving nature on his doorstep. It’s not impossible to do that even in the most urban settings, especially with access to green and blue spaces that are managed to protect and enhance biodiversity. Environmental Education in these settings is being horrendously squeezed right now; Defra could be doing a lot more to support it.

  2. Back in 2001 I helped to produce a 60-page handbook on ‘Outdoor Education’, part funded by the European Union via a Socrates project, in conjunction with educational institutions from 5 EU countries: Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Sweden and the UK (Scotland represented by Dr Peter Higgins and Dr Robbie Nicol at Uni. of Edinburgh Outdoor Education centre, and myself representing NAEE for England). Attempting to define ‘Outdoor Education’ we did a Venn diagram with a circle each for Outdoor Activities, Environmental Education and Personal & Social Development, and where the circles crossed in the middle we called that area ‘Outdoor Education’. Looking back, it might have been more helpful if the Outdoor Activities circle had been titled Outdoor Physical Activities, as this was meant to include adventure pursuits such as sailing, rock climbing, etc.

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