Education in the great outdoors
All Topics, Outdoor Education

Perceived risk and unstructured learning: Education in the great outdoors

High ropes outdoor education

Children need space to grow. It’s a fundamental concept that continues to come under threat in the contemporary world of population density, helicopter parenting and social sensibilities regarding risk and responsibility. No educator wants to deny their students’ need to explore the world around them, but there remain real issues regarding how best to allow this without putting the school or the teacher in a more vulnerable position.

Yet the benefits of facilitating unstructured, experiential learning experiences remain undeniable.

In April this year, researchers from eight different countries and a variety of academic backgrounds met in Denmark to reach an evidence-based consensus on the benefits of physical activity for children and young people between the ages of six and 18. They produced an expansive statement that notes the evidence for the positive benefit of exercise in the regions of: fitness and health; intellectual performance; engagement, motivation and wellbeing; and social inclusion.

At a similar time, research from Australian optometrists demonstrated that outdoor light plays an important role in reducing the chances of myopia, or short-sightedness, in children. Their findings show that children need at least two hours of natural light each day for optimal eye development.

Even the benefits of spending time in nature are becoming starker. Japanese researchers conducted a study where they observed the physiological impacts of people who spent 15 minutes walking in nature daily, versus those wandering around city streets. Their results found that even a brief walk amongst greenery resulted in a significant decrease of the stress-related hormone cortisol, a two per cent decrease in blood pressure, as well as a four per cent drop in heart rate.

In a bid to discover more about how modern schools are offering outdoor opportunities to their students, Education Matters’ Editor, Campbell Phillips, recently spent time chatting with Richard Thornton, Chief Executive for The Outdoor Education Group.

Campbell Phillips: Richard, what’s all the fuss about Outdoor Education as far as you’re concerned?

Richard Thornton: Well, I may be biased as it’s been my life for the past 25 years, but we believe primarily in experiential learning – that you can learn from doing things. I believe that’s important for a number of key reasons. Firstly, it’s completely meaningful. That means this form of learning is underpinned by real experiences that students take with them in life.

That’s something of a departure from the more abstract learning that occurs in the classroom, which often takes the form of watching, reading and writing. An actual experience may be successful or unsuccessful, but they’re always meaningful. That’s because adventure and challenge is important to humans. What the specifics of that adventure or challenge is can vary greatly; it could be something as simple as spending time in a different context with classmates they wouldn’t normally spend time with. If you can push the students to the point where they start to feel unsure of themselves, then you can give them the space to making meaningful achievements.

We also like to use the term memorable. I sometimes find myself discussing school camps and those kind of experiences with adults. The fact that they may not recall the specifics of what they’d been learning in class, but they did recall what they did on these camps is very telling.

The phrase is a little out of fashion, perhaps, but experiential learning can be described as ‘character building’. When I started working in this field in 1990 the term was used quite often. It’s a term that describes what parents want for their children above all else, that they can find their place within life and learn about themselves, their strengths and recognise the areas they can improve upon.

I recently met a person who had joined one of our programs some years ago. She was candid in telling me that the experience hadn’t been her cup of tea, but that she’d never forgotten it, either. Every time she needed to overcome adversity, she was able to recall her experiences with us and realise she could do whatever was needed to be done.

CP: There seems to be something of a resurgence in the population of Outdoor Education in the past five or so years. Why is that?

RT: People realise that this mode of teaching replaces something that has been lost from modern society over the past 50-plus years. It’s also about learning some of the skills we are continuing to learn as a culture and it therefore gives kids a level of self-reliance that will set them apart from their peers who never have the opportunity to have these kind of experiences.

Education is so often about achievement via tests and exams. I see Outdoor Education as an avenue for providing young people with the tools they need to find work in the real world. Skills like teamwork and leadership ability. At some point I feel parents and schools started making the mistake of spoon feeding kids to ensure they reach a certain level, to make a certain grade. Now there’s a revitalisation of the concept that people need to learn how best to help themselves in life.

CP: How are schools currently managing to offer Outdoor Education?

RT: Some still manage their own Outdoor Education programs, but in some cases there’s an argument to be made for the cost efficiencies and additional value offered by an experienced third party provider. Mostly this is because organisations dedicated to providing these experiences tend to be better equipped to offer them. They can also offer a broader range of experiences as a result, as well as enhanced flexibility should plans have to change at the last minute.

One common reason why we see schools choose not to provide their own programs is simple: risk. By comparison, we have a whole department that just looks at risk management and we’re leading the world in managing risk in perceived high-risk environments. Part of the secret to effective outdoor education is presenting perceived risk and then managing it in such a way that no real risk becomes evident. For school principals, risk and compliance are a significant part of their daily life, so being able to outsource a component that results in a minimal level of risk makes things that much simpler.

There are excellent Outdoor Education programs being delivered from within schools, and some will adopt a hybrid model where a third party like ourselves works in partnership with the school to deliver a specific part of their program. Sometimes we’ll have staff embedded within the school, sometimes they only want us to assist when out in the field. I think that any of those models are fine so long as they do have an Outdoor Education program at all age levels.

CP: Perceived risk is an interesting concept, but one that must be difficult to sell to some educators as well as parents. How do you overcome those concerns?

RT: There’s been some great research recently emerging on this very area from a partnership between the outdoor sector and the University of the Sunshine Coast and Federation University. For example, after a twelve month study of incident data, Outdoor Education has been shown to be safer than playing common sports like cricket, netball and rugby. As with anything, there will always be an element of risk, however studies like the one mentioned above demonstrate that the risks involved in Outdoor Education are very low when compared to, for example, sports played on the school oval.

For Outdoor Education to be successful it needs to be challenging, and part of that challenge is the perception of risk. Take a high ropes course as an example; you can climb and experience the perceived risk of falling, but in reality there’s a safety rope, an instructor and a system designed to secure the climber. This analogy holds pretty much across the board, with any of our offerings from K-12. There’s always a safety rope to prevent an incident occurring, yet the student still perceives enough risk for the program to be worthwhile – so they can feel like they’ve made a real achievement.

CP: What does the ideal Outdoor Education program look like?

RT: The ideal Outdoor Education program is one that’s regular and sequential. It should eventually lead up to at least one major experience each year, culminating in something very significant in secondary school. Of course, not every school has the funds or facilities available for this, but there are often ways of offering an experience at a cut-rate. For example, your typical day excursion could range from something cost-effective, like navigation exercises within a short train ride from the school, to the same exercises performed after catching a bus to a wilderness location an hour or two away.

Getting students into environments that require them to reflect and manage whole group dynamics is key to producing solid educational outcomes. Of course the longer the experience, the better. So small groups, in semi-remote destinations, with an element of a journey, is what we aim for particularly in the secondary sector. The journey can be a metaphor or tool for the social and emotional outcomes that can’t be delivered in school settings. We are asking students to be reflective and evaluative about themselves, their interaction with others and the natural world. It is about learning that has taken place and the behaviour changes the students have identified in themselves. The key to getting this right is understanding the point at which students (and school communities) are able to engage. We need to understand their journey before they can come on ours. Longer experiences can be truly life changing or enhancing, memorable and meaningful but the key is to make the learning transferable back into school and life beyond.


Bangsbo, J., et al. (2016). The Copenhagen Consensus Conference 2016: children, youth, and physical activity in schools and during leisure time. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2016; 0:1–2. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096325
Read, S. A., Collins, M. J., Vincent, S. J., (2015). Light Exposure and Eye Growth in Childhood. Clinical and Epidemiologic Research, 56, 6779-6787. doi:10.1167/iovs.14-15978
Park, J. P., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventative Medecine, 15(1): 18–26. doi:  10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9

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