Outdoor education: responding to place

Thanks to Federation University’s Brian Wattchow, PhD for contributing this article.

Make a picture in your mind. A group of students gaze towards the horizon from the top of mountain in a distant national park. Young people, wearing bright coloured climbing harnesses and helmets, help each other across a challenge ropes course. Another team of students are smiling while working together as they paddle their white-water raft through a rapid. There are so many images of students doing Outdoor Education (OE) activities that it can be hard to imagine doing OE in different ways.

All of the activities listed above are expensive to run, largely because they occur so far away from school and the local community and need specialist equipment and staffing.

In 2011 Mike Brown and I published a book 'A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World' (Brown and Wattchow, 2011) where we considered the opportunities for doing OE in a place-responsive way. At almost the same time Beames, Higgins and Nichol published 'Learning Outside the Classroom' (2012).

In it they promote the idea of four zones of outdoor learning: school grounds, local neighbourhoods, day excursions and overnight stays / residential camps and expeditions. A message from both books is that there are opportunities for OE close to home as well as away on journey and camp. But what might a place-responsive version of OE look like?

To develop a relationship with place it is important that students have the opportunity to feel comfortable and relaxed in the environment. Taking time to allow students to become familiar with the smells, textures, and shifting moods of a place allows them to develop a rich sensory engagement with a place. This can start on the school grounds and in local parks. Sensory learning activities, play, exploration and quiet time to rest are all important here.

The effectiveness of this approach, especially with young children, can be seen in the rise of nature play and gardening in kindergartens and primary schools. But I still do these kind of activities with adult learners and find them very effective in getting learners to simply slow down, relax and begin to respond to outdoor places. Colleagues and I have run these activities as both short sessions and in ‘camp on campus’ programs.

Using place-based stories and story-telling can enrich these learning experience. Stories convey cultural values from one generation to another. I still read stories to university undergraduates on coastal education camps. The effect is wonderful. As the sun sets over the ocean, students lie in their sleeping bags on a large groundsheet and listen to Tim Winton’s 'Blueback' or Colin Theile’s 'Storm Boy' while the waves roll and tumble onto the sand. Both books have strong environmental messages. The next day students might talk about how place was such a powerful character in the story and set about writing some of their own place-focussed stories.

Outdoor educators generally want to see their students develop skills that will encourage them to participate in outdoor activities in the future. They also want to ensure that students will experience and understand how these activities can be conducted in sustainable ways.

I have often used Wendell Berry’s ('Home Economics: Fourteen Essays', 1987) three localising questions with students when discussing what we might do in a location and how we might go about doing it: "What is here?" "What will nature allow us to do?" "What will nature help us to do?".

This approach applies as well to outdoor activities like surfing, paddling, even bushwalking, as it does to environmental activities. It helps us work with the weather, the terrain and the seasons rather than against them. In this way teachers join with students on an unfolding journey that uses genuine decision making for students. Generally, I will have a ‘bag full’ of learning activities and ideas for a program and a place – it’s all about being attentive to both the place and the learners to make a sequence of learning that combines into a rich, meaningful whole.

There is a final phase to taking a place-responsive approach. As teachers we can help students develop their critical capacities in interpreting how outdoor places are represented in various forms of cultural media. For example, how has the place been represented on maps or in art? What does this say about valued knowledge, and whose knowledge system is conveyed and whose is silenced? Are there alternatives? How did early inhabitants make their way through, or settle, in this landscape? What representative markers did they develop and use, and what does this tell us about their relationship with the place. And what about all those images and stories of people on mountaintops or sailing across oceans?

Then it is important that learners to create their own interpretive works inspired by experiencing a place. Field notes, sketches, photographs, film clips can be taken home and become the basis for ongoing reflection and more detailed representative work over the next days and weeks. This is a significant way of extending the experience and connecting it to home. I’ve had great success with OE students making short films about their experience – not just showing what they did, but films that explore the meaning of the activity for them and how it reveals the character of the place.

There are many ways to begin your outdoor programs close to home. And those same approaches can then be applied to camps and journeys further away. There are plenty of opportunities to enrich your camps and journeys by responding to outdoor places. It all starts with the teachers and students being attentive to their surrounds and taking time to explore their connection to the place.

We'll have a number OE presentations and elective sessions coming up at our June HPE conferences for Secondary & VCE on 18 June and Primary on 21 June – save the dates!