Outdoor education improves students’ engagement in and motivation for learning
A new study examined the value of school-based outdoor education on youth engagement in learning. Previous research indicated that experiential outdoor education is being replaced by an emphasis on preparation for standardized testing in many schools around the country and that apathy for school-related learning is high among adolescents. This study sought to determine if experiential outdoor education for middle school-aged students is a valuable use of school time.
Fifty-six middle school students, eight pre-service teaches, and three classroom teachers participated in the study. Their school emphasized outdoor education. Data collection included close participant observation and contextual note-taking during a two-day, one-night outdoor education experience. Data collection also involved semi-structured, individual interviews with all participants following the outdoor “camp” experience. During the interviews, students were asked to talk about what made the outdoor education experience worthwhile, what activities were valuable and not valuable, and what could be done to make the camp a more valuable experience. The teachers were asked similar questions. The interview responses along with the observational notes allowed researchers to evaluate the value of the outdoor experience from the participants’ perspectives.
Results indicated that the students enjoyed learning environmental science concepts in a hands-on, active, and experiential way and that the outdoor component added depth and meaning to their indoor learning activities. These findings are consistent with previous research indicating that experiential involvement in active, in-context, outdoor environmental education is exciting and emotionally engaging, and, consequently, leads to deeper and more effective learning.
79% of the participants indicated that the outdoor education camp was worthwhile. Additionally, adolescents who had come to view school-based learning as meaningless and disengaging were motivated and actively immersed in this field-based learning experience. Some of the students who were originally fearful and anxious about spending two days and an overnight in a wilderness setting gained confidence and a degree of comfort about being immersed in a camp experience. Several students with special needs – who tended to be disengaged and unsuccessful during indoor activities – demonstrated leadership skills during the outdoor experience.
While this study adds support to the value of outdoor education as a means of improving students’ engagement in and motivation for learning, further research is needed to enhance an understanding about how and why it is effective.
James, J.K., Williams, T., (2017). School-based experiential outdoor education – A neglected necessity. Journal of Experiential Education, 40(1), 58-71.