Trying to identify tangible learning and development outcomes as a result of participating in Outdoor Learning can be quite challenging.  Lots of teachers, youth workers and corporate organisations commonly tell us they just know that the young people they work with have benefitted from Outdoor Learning.  That they are inspired by the differences in an individual’s performance, attitudes and behaviours, though they just find it incredibly difficult to pin point and measure the specific outcomes of such learning. 

Valuable but tricky to measure

Those same teachers, youth workers and corporate leaders tell us that Outdoor Learning is an investment for the future, as it provides very real opportunities to work as a team, manage a project or take on new challenges, that some people might not otherwise have.  In reality many young people can gradually become more confident or develop as a leader over an extended period of time.   It is then difficult to pin down whether it was actually the Outdoor Learning experience that was the catalyst/key developmental ingredient, or some other intervention or life experience.

To further muddy the waters many providers of Outdoor Learning readily claim generic personal development outcomes from participating in their programmes.   Most outdoor activities can be engaging and fun but if we struggle to measure outcomes and effectiveness, how can we be sure that these claims are valid. 

Steps to increase the likelihood of real personal development outcomes

I was recently asked what the ingredients of quality outdoor learning experiences are.  I approached the answer by saying if you were stood back to watch a quality experience, you might typically observe a number of things.  So, might it help if we can recognise what a quality experience looks like?

  • The instructor sets the scene early on and then steps back, making gentle interventions and oversees safety. More facilitation less direction.
  • The group will have been given some guidelines and taught some skills that they use to manage the activity. For example they might have been taught a knot to tie people into their harness – the instructor simply visually checks from a distance.  More empowerment less ‘spoon feeding’.
  • Individuals actively support and encourage each other. For example, it would be the group that gave an individual encouragement when climbing a pole on a High Ropes course and praised them when they have challenged themselves.  And on a hill walk, the group would be responsible for setting the pace, keeping everyone together and maintaining morale.  The instructor would not be leading this process.  More ownership of challenge and learning.
  • The participants take responsibility for managing problems, which means they would be actively engaged, talking and sharing ideas. They would be taking on different roles and responsibilities, encouraging each other to share ideas and listening to each other.  More engagement in group learning.
  • There are likely to be quiet times, allowing participant’s time to think and reflect. These may be facilitated by the instructor, though later in a programme it is likely that groups will create their own space.  More development of self and group reflection capabilities.
  • The environment in which the experience is taking place is inspirational and suitable. There is something special about walking up to the summit of a hill and getting a 360 degrees panorama.   Stunning natural environments.

Recognising and describing Learning and Development

Having described what a quality outdoor learning experience looks like.  I’d encourage instructors, teachers, youth workers and corporate leaders to take a couple of steps back and see if you can see these ingredients in your sessions.   If you are seeing a quality outdoor learning experience, it is not hard to record what you see and use this as evidence of active learning and development taking place.

The Lindley team are passionate about Outdoor Learning done this way so do get in touch if you’d like to review what you currently do or if you’d like to consider what’s possible.

Planning to develop your Outdoor Learning ?

Our team has been heavily involved in the development of free resources for teachers and youth leaders.  Here’s a couple you may find helpful :

Learning Through Outdoor Experience – Rank Foundation

High Quality Outdoor Learning – Outdoor Council