Outdoor Learning as a Training Ground

By: Bruce Hendricks, Director of Outdoor Education

Well-designed outdoor learning experiences teach life skills through the outdoors, not just technical skills about the outdoors. 

sts skiingNavigating the darkness 

It’s 2:00 a.m. and even the birds are asleep. The forest is dark, with a mixture of shadows and shapes that lead one’s imagination to create all sorts of fairy tale images; walking, talking trees (Ents, if you are a J.R.R. Tolkien’s fan), trolls, witches and big, bad wolves. Above the tree canopy, pinpricks of light shine down through the dark sky indicating that, finally, the smoke from the northern Alberta fires is clearing.

But not every living creature in this forest is resting. Through the blotchy darkness flash the chaotic, bobbing headlamps of six Grade 10 students searching for the infamous orienteering marker #3. Their only aids are a topographic map, an arcane clue sheet, a compass, and their recently developed navigational skills. Their voices are tinged with frustration. They know they are close and yet #3 remains elusive, hanging somewhere in the shadows nearby. Time, energy and patience are all running thin. They know they must check in with one of four staff stations within the next 30 minutes. Right now, in this frustratingly indeterminate situation, leadership and followership are no longer abstract, academic concepts; leadership practices, such as those by authors Kouzes and Posner – model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, encourage the heart – and conflict resolution strategies are observable, practical, and essential. Take a break, breathe, ponder, discuss one more time, and then persist.  

Essential navigation tools

Navigating life’s challenges sometimes feels like trying to find marker #3. What skills and experiences do we need? A growing number of researchers (e.g. Brené Brown), psychologists (e.g. Jonathan Haidt), parents and educators (e.g. Pope, Brown and Miles) are voicing concern that attempts to shelter youth (and adults) from risk and challenge, though often well-intentioned, are, in fact, counterproductive.

These voices are not promoting indiscriminate exposure to life-threatening risk, but rather affording children the opportunity to struggle with actual decisions and choices that have real physical, emotional and social consequences, what Brené Brown calls “desirable difficulty”. Grit, resilience, the ability to effectively communicate, accountability, self-care, organization, mindfulness and, wait for it… experiencing joy, are learned abilities. We learn them through modeling and practice. We learn them best amidst a community of people who support, encourage and challenge one another, who willingly fail to ultimately achieve outcomes and characteristics that don’t come easily. Courage, as Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the arena” speech tells us, requires stepping into the arena where not only glory and success, but also vulnerability and failure, form the foundation of worthwhile outcomes.

So what does this all mean? 

So what does all this have to do with outdoor learning, with that group of Grade 10s bumping around in the dark forest? Well-designed outdoor learning experiences teach life skills through the outdoors, not just technical skills about the outdoors. The outdoors are one arena into which we ask students to step into “practice” for the larger arenas in life. Their outdoor learning is as much about exercising leadership and followership, or looking out for others, as it is about how to load a backpack, ski in powder or do a stern pry in a canoe. Outdoor experiences provide “desirable difficulty” for students: situations in which they can try, fail, learn, get up, and try again, with the benefit of real experience, real (but not catastrophic) consequences, and real support. It’s not all work and struggle though. Shared outdoor experiences can be a ton of fun and sometimes the failing (or the achievement) is even humorous. Failing can help us learn the invaluable lesson of knowing how to laugh at ourselves.

So, if you think outdoor education is about learning competence in, and appreciation for, the natural world, you’re right, but only partially so. It’s equally about learning how to be more human in the very best sense: the ongoing development of a well-balanced person living a life of purpose.