Outdoor and Environmental Education

views updated May 21 2018


Outdoor education and environmental education are separate but closely related areas of study within the field of education. They share some common content and processes, although they are distinctive in other important ways. Various interpretations have appeared in the literature, but their original purposes have changed very little since their inceptions. This article will define the terms and show their relation to each other and to other related educational movements, describe their objectives and purposes, outline their commonly used instructional methods, briefly trace their historical development in the United States and abroad, discuss their status in American school curricula, and suggest several key issues, controversies, and trends.

Defining Terms

The term outdoor education emerged in the early 1940s to describe the instructional use of natural and built areas to meet student learning objectives in a variety of subject-matter disciplines through direct experiences. This type of contextual learning involving the local surroundings has also been referred to as taking field trips, excursions, journeys, or doing field studies. During the late nineteenth century in the United States, some educators realized that taking students out of the classroom to teach appropriate concepts, skills, attitudes, and values could improve education. Some of the early outdoor educators used camp settings during the regular school year to meet academic objectives and to improve students' social development and leisure skills. Because outdoor education activities were usually tied closely to the school curriculum, the field has adapted to early-twenty-first century reforms affecting the broader educational field.

The term environmental education arose in the late 1960s in the United States as a result of a national social phenomenon called the environmental movement. The classic definition, developed by William B. Stapp and his graduate students, appeared originally in the 1969 issue of the Journal of Environmental Education : "Environmental education is aimed at producing a citizenry that is knowledgeable concerning the biophysical environment and its associated problems, aware of how to help solve these problems, and motivated to work toward their solution" (Hungerford et al., p. 34).

Although public concern for improving and preserving quality environments existed earlier when national parks were set aside, and windblown soil created the dust bowl of the 1930s, resource use or conservation education increased in the 1970s. Some historians point to Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, published in 1962, as one event that helped to spawn the first Earth Day in April 1970. Spurred by federal legislation during the next several decades, environmental education expanded in public and private schools across the nation. Some critics accused educators of simply changing the names of their outdoor science, nature study, or outdoor education programs to environmental education but continuing the same programs as in the past. This practice of changing the names of these closely related fields in order to modernize the program content, methodology, or focus continues today.

Some of the practices in outdoor and environmental education programs do overlap. Although both fields are interdisciplinary, one difference is that outdoor education can be applied to any discipline that can be effectively taught and learned out-side. For example, outdoor education could mean teaching the concept of an acre by measuring a playing field (mathematics); or visiting a park to write poetry or draw pictures inspired by the setting (language arts and art); or recording the information found in a cemetery to learn about past events (history); or testing the pH to determine if a nearby stream is acid or alkaline (science); or climbing a hill to calculate student heart rates (physical education). It could also mean visiting zoos, parks, museums, fire stations, factories, water treatment plants, or any other built environment to create more effective learning opportunities. Environmental education can take place outside as well as inside classrooms and take local as well as global perspectives, but the focus is usually on studying an issue such as water, air, and soil pollution; solid waste and toxic disposal; urban sprawl and population; deforestation; endangered plants and animals; or drought and flooding, especially at upper grade levels. The line separating the two fields is blurred when teachers take students outside to study nature awareness and culture's impact on ecosystems. It makes little sense to argue over which label to apply to these kinds of outdoor lessons when their purposes blend.

Objectives and Purposes

The definitions of these fields reveal several similarities and differences. Simply stated, outdoor education programs are designed to help make the learning of certain knowledge more effective through firsthand experiences outside the school. According to Lloyd B. Sharp (18951963), outdoor education pioneer, a key principle is "that which ought and can best be taught inside the schoolrooms should there be taught, and that which can best be learned through experience dealing directly with native materials and life situations outside the school should there be learned" (Knapp 1996, p. 77). Most environmental education programs are designed to prepare students to investigate environmental problems. The question of whether or not students should try to resolve these problems is controversial. Gregory A. Smith (2001) and others critique this debate in detail. Although both fields advocate the use of broad subject-matter content, environmental education is generally taught within the social studies and/or sciences at the upper grades. At elementary levels activities usually span more of the academic curriculum and also incorporate social and recreational objectives leading to teamwork, cooperative and service learning, citizenship skills, and lifelong outdoor pastimes. Nature awareness activities can be justified at all levels as integral aspects of both fields. One indication that these are distinct fields of study can be found in the organizational structure of the U.S. Department of Education's Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) system. Across the country there are sixteen information clearinghouses covering the field of education. Outdoor education informational services are offered through the Clearinghouse for Rural Education and Small Schools (CRESS), and environmental education informational services are offered through the Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education (CSMEE). Each clearinghouse is responsible for collecting and disseminating a wide variety of educational resources in their assigned areas, although some overlap does occur. The CRESS center also has assumed the responsibility for collecting information from adventure or experiential education, another similar but distinctive field.

Instructional Methods

Although both outdoor education and environmental education are offered mainly through schools, nature centers, and outdoor residential facilities, the instructional methodologies are selected from the general field of education. Environmental and out-door educators primarily advocate experiential (hands-on) learning strategies. Although both fields draw from conventional instructional technologies, such as textbooks, periodicals, computers, videos, and overhead transparencies, these educators stress the importance of contextual, direct, and unmediated experiences used in problem-based learning situations. They want their students to use a variety of senses in exploring the content to maximize active learning.

History and Status in the United States and Abroad

Both fields are considered as innovative, educational reforms designed to accomplish specific objectives that are not being met effectively by traditional practices. Although the idea of using direct experiences existed for hundreds of years in Europe (e.g., the Czech theologian and educator Johann Comenius [15921670], the French philosopher and author Jean-Jacques Rousseau [17121778], and the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi [17461827]), little was written in the professional literature. Beginning in the early 1900s the American nature study and camping movements gained momentum. Their purposes were to expand the students' cognitive and affective connections with basic processes, such as obtaining food, shelter, recreation, spiritual inspiration, and other life needs. These nature contacts countered the negative effects of increased urbanization and more complex technologies. Attempts were made to make learning conditions more active and less passive, more closely linked with community activities and less abstract, and more focused on practical knowledge for immediate social use rather than only for the future. These and other goals were incorporated into the Progressive education movement, which was introduced in some U.S. schools during the first half of the twentieth century. The American philosopher, psychologist, and educator John Dewey's Laboratory School, operating in Chicago from 1896 to 1904, exemplified this Progressive philosophy. As Progressivism began to wane in the public schools in the 1940s and 1950s, outdoor education gained in importance. American outdoor education reformers looked to Germany, Britain, Australia, South Africa, British Honduras, and Scandinavia for program models. Because many outdoor educators saw the value of immersion-type programs, camp settings were used in the beginning. Lloyd B. Sharp, who earned his doctorate at Columbia University in 1930, was instrumental in establishing leadership programs for many future outdoor educators in 1940. As residential outdoor education programs grew throughout the nation (mainly in Texas, Indiana, Illinois, California, Washington, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, New York, and New Jersey), the field flourished. During the late 1940s and early 1950s selected colleges and universities established camping and outdoor education courses to prepare teachers. Another key leadership development occurred in Michigan when the W. K. Kellogg Foundation pioneered community school camps in 1940 and supported further experimentation over the next few decades. Julian Smith (19011975), a Michigan administrator, was also influential as a pioneer outdoor educator. Additional support for outdoor education was given through state departments of conservation and education, as well as national educational agencies, professional teacher organizations, and other nongovernmental groups.

By the late 1960s conservation education was also contributing to the outdoor experiences and knowledge of many American and Canadian youth through federal, state, and provincial conservation agencies, although it maintained its largely rural focus. In the U.S. the funding of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 led to many innovative outdoor-related programs. The stage was now set for the emergence of environmental education. The U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare established an office of environmental education in 1968. In 1971 the National Association for Environmental Education (later the North American Association for Environmental Education) was formed to serve as one of the leading professional organizations. From then on, environmental education received federal, state, and local support to promote education about the many complex inter-relations between culture and ecosystems. Because of the politics of environmental decision making, the field has faced numerous controversies. Some debates have centered on questions such as: What is the correct definition and purpose of environmental education? Should the curriculum include environmental values and ethics as well as ecological and economic concepts and skills? What is the role of student action projects in remedying environmental problems? What is the proper role for teachers in conducting lessons about the environment? At what ages should students be introduced to environmental problems? What types of educational experiences should urban, suburban, and rural youth receive? What kinds of technologies can slow ecological destruction?

Issues and Trends

Some of the issues facing outdoor and environmental educators have already been suggested. Because of the politics inherent in many educational and environmental decisions, the field of outdoor and environmental education has never been static. Educators continually devise better ways to define and refine their philosophies and practices. One way to accomplish this has been to change the names of the fields and redesign their theories and practices. Some early-twenty-first century terms include earth education, bioregional education, Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, use of the environment as an integrating context for learning, ecological education, nature awareness, locally focused teaching, and place-based education. The more than sixty labels for educational movements related to the outdoors and the environment demonstrate the importance and vitality of the fields. One promising development has been the identification of an eighth category of human multiple intelligences by Harvard professor Howard Gardnerthe naturalist intelligence. This way of demonstrating expertise in recognizing and classifying the flora, fauna, and other physical and cultural artifacts is important because it provides another justification for integrating out-door and environmental education into curriculum and instruction.


Outdoor education has served as a significant educational reform since the early 1940s by promoting the use of outdoor learning settings. When environmental education emerged in the 1970s, it focused more directly on knowledge leading to quality local and global environments. Their forerunnerscamping, nature study, conservation, and adventure educationpaved the way for early school and community leaders to develop experiential programs aimed at living well on earth though understanding how it works.

See also: Alternative Schooling; Curriculum, School; Experiential Education; Progressive Education; School Reform.


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Cornell, Joseph. 1998. Sharing Nature with Children, revised and expanded. Nevada City, CA: Dawn.

Disinger, John F. 1998. "Tensions in Environmental Education: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow." In Essential Readings in Environmental Education, eds. Harold R. Hungerford, William J. Bluhm, Trudi L. Volk, and John M. Ramsey. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

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Hammerman, Donald R.; Hammerman, William M.; and Hammerman, Elizabeth, L. 2001. Teaching in the Outdoors, 5th edition. Danville, IL: Interstate.

Hungerford, Harold; Bluhm, William J.; Volk, Trudi L.; and Ramsey, John M., eds. 1998. Essential Readings in Environmental Education. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Knapp, Clifford E. 1996. Just Beyond the Classroom: Community Adventures for Interdisciplinary Learning. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.

Knapp, Clifford E. 2000. "Learning from an Out-door Education Hero: Personal Reflections about L. B. Sharp." Taproot 12:711.

Leslie, Clare Walker; Tallmadge, John; and Wessels, Tom. 1999. Into the Field: A Guide to Locally Focused Teaching. Barrington, MA: Orion Society.

Lieberman, Gerald A., and Hoody, Linda L. 1998. Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning. Poway, CA: Science Wizards.

Smith, Gregory A. 2001. "Defusing Environmental Education: An Evaluation of the Critique of the Environmental Education Movement." Clearing: Environmental Education Resources for Teachers 108 (winter):2228.

Smith, Gregory A., and Williams, Dilafruz R. 1999. Ecological Education in Action: On Weaving Education, Culture, and the Environment. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Stapp, William B. 1998. "The Concept of Environmental Education." In Essential Readings in Environmental Education, eds. Harold R. Hungerford, William J. Bluhm, Trudi L. Volk, and John M. Ramsey. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

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Traina, Frank, and Darley-Hill, Susan, eds. 1995. Perspectives in Bioregional Education. Rock Springs, GA: North American Association for Environmental Education.

Van Matre, Steve. 1990. Earth Education: A New Beginning. Warrenville, IL: Institute for Earth Education.

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2000. "Place-Based Curriculum and Instruction: Outdoor and Environmental Education Approaches." ERIC Digest, EDO-RC-00-6. Charleston, WV: AEL.

Clifford E. Knapp

Environmental Education

views updated Jun 11 2018

Environmental education

Environmental education is fast emerging as one of the most important disciplines in the United States and in the world. Merging the ideas and philosophy of environmentalism with the structure of formal education systems, it strives to increase awareness of environmental problems as well as to foster the skills and strategies for solving those problems. Environmental issues have traditionally fallen to the state, federal, and international policymakers, scientists, academics, and legal scholars. Environmental education (often referred to simply as "EE") shifts the focus to the general population. In other words, it seeks to empower individuals with an understanding of environmental problems and the skills to solve them.


The first seeds of environmental education were planted roughly a century ago and are found in the works of such writers as George Perkins Marsh, John Muir , Henry David Thoreau , and Aldo Leopold . Their writings served to bring the country's attention to the depletion of natural resources and the often detrimental impact of humans on the environment . In the early 1900s, three related fields of study arose that eventually merged to form the present-day environmental education.

Nature education expanded the teaching of biology, botany, and other natural sciences out into the natural world, where students learned through direct observation. Conservation education took root in the 1930s, as the importance of long-range, "wise use" management of resources intensified. Numerous state and federal agencies were created to tend public lands, and citizen organizations began forming in earnest to protect a favored animal, park, river, or other resource. Both governmental and citizen entities included an educational component to spread their message to the general public. Many states required their schools to adopt conservation education as part of their curriculum. Teacher training programs were developed to meet the increasing demand. The Conservation Education Association formed to consolidate these efforts and help solidify citizen support for natural resource management goals. The third pillar of modern EE is outdoor education, which refers more to the method of teaching than to the subject taught. The idea is to hold classrooms outdoors; the topics are not restricted to environmental issues but includes art, music, and other subjects.

With the burgeoning of industrial output and natural resource depletion following World War II, people began to glimpse the potential environmental disasters looming ahead. The environmental movement exploded upon the public agenda in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the public reacted emotionally and vigorously to isolated environmental crises and events. Yet it soon became clear that the solution would involve nothing short of fundamental changes in values, lifestyles, and individual behavior, and that would mean a comprehensive educational approach.

In August 1970, the newly-created Council on Environmental Quality called for a thorough discussion of the role of education with respect to the environment. Two months later, Congress passed the Environmental Education Act, which called for EE programs to be incorporated in all public school curricula. Although the act received little funding in the following years, it energized EE proponents and prompted many states to adopt EE plans for their schools. In 1971, the National Association for Environmental Education formed, as did myriad of state and regional groups.


What EE means depends on one's perspective. Some see it as a teaching method or philosophy to be applied to all subjects, woven into the teaching of political science, history, economics, and so forth. Others see it as a distinct discipline, something to be taught on its own. As defined by federal statute, it is the "education process dealing with people's relationships and their natural and manmade surroundings, and includes the relation of population, pollution , resource allocation and depletion, conservation, transportation , technology and urban and rural planning to the total human environment."

One of the early leaders of the movement is William Stapp, a former professor at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment. His three-pronged definition has formed the basis for much subsequent thought: "Environmental education is aimed at producing a citizenry that is knowledgeable concerning the biophysical environment and its associated problems, aware of how to help solve these problems, and motivated to work toward their solution."

Many environmental educators believe that programs covering kindergarten through twelfth grade are necessary to successfully instill an environmental ethic in students and a comprehensive understanding of environmental issues so that they are prepared to deal with environmental problems in the real world. Further, an emphasis is placed on problem-solving, action, and informed behavioral changes. In its broadest sense, EE is not confined to public schools but includes efforts by governments, interest groups, universities, and news media to raise awareness. Each citizen should understand the environmental issues of his or her own community: land-use planning, traffic congestion, economic development plans, pesticide use, water pollution and air pollution , and so on.

International level

Concurrently with the emergence of EE in this country, other nations began pushing for a comprehensive approach to environmental problems within their own borders and on a global scale. In 1972, at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the need for an international EE effort was clearly recognized and emphasized. Three years later, an International Environmental Education Workshop was held in Belgrade, from which emerged an eloquent, urgent mandate for the drastic reordering of national and international development policies. The "Belgrade Charter" called for an end to the military arms race and a new global ethic in which "no nation should grow or develop at the expense of another nation." It called for the eradication of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, pollution, exploitation, and domination. Central to this impassioned plea for a better world was the need for environmental education of the world's youth. That same year, the UN approved a $2 million budget to facilitate the research, coordination, and development of an international EE program among dozens of nations.


There has been criticism over the last 15 years that EE too often fails to educate students and makes little difference in their behavior concerning the environment. Researchers and environmental educators have formulated a basic framework for how to improve EE: 1) Reinforce individuals for positive environmental behavior over an extended period of time. 2) Provide students with positive, informal experiences outdoors to enhance their "environmental sensitivity." 3) Focus instruction on the concepts of "ownership" and "empowerment." The first concept means that the learner has some personal interest or investment in the environmental issues being discussed. Perhaps the student can relate more readily to concepts of solid waste disposal if there is a landfill in the neighborhood. Empowerment gives learners the sense that they can make changes and help resolve environmental problems. 4) Design an exercise in which students thoroughly investigate an environmental issue and then develop a plan for citizen action to address the issue, complete with an analysis of the social, cultural, and ecological consequences of the action.

Despite the efforts of environmental educators, the movement has a long way to go. The scope and number of critical environmental problems facing the world today far outweigh the successes of EE. Further, most countries still do not have a comprehensive EE program that prepares them, as future citizens, to make ecologically sound choices and to participate in cleaning up and caring for the environment. Lastly, educators, including the media, are largely focused on explaining the problems but fall short on explaining or offering possible solutions. The notion of "em powerment" is often absent.

Recent developments and successes in the United States

Project WILD, based in Boulder, Colorado, is a K12 supplementary conservation and environmental education program emphasizing wildlife protection, sponsored by fish and wildlife agencies and environmental educators. The project sets up workshops in which teachers learn about wildlife issues. They in turn teach children and help students understand how they can act responsibly on behalf of wildlife and the environment. The program, begun in 1983, has grown tremendously in terms of the number of educators reached and the monetary support from states, which, combined, are spending about $3.6 million annually.

The Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN), begun at the University of Michigan under the guidance of William Stapp, has likewise been enormously successful, perhaps more so. Teachers all over the world take their students down to their local river and show them how to monitor water quality , analyze watershed usage, and identify socioeconomic sources of river degradation. Lastly, and most importantly, the students then present their findings and recommendations to the local officials. These students also exchange information with other GREEN students around the world via computers.

Another promising development is the National Consortium for Environmental Education and Training (NCEET), also based at the University of Michigan. The partnership of academic institutions, non-profit organizations, and corporations, NCEET was established in 1992 with a three-year, $4.8 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Its main purpose is to dramatically improve the effectiveness of environmental education in the United States. The program has attacked its mission from several angles: to function as a national clearinghouse for K12 teachers, to make available top-quality EE materials for teachers, to conduct research on effective approaches to EE, to survey and assess the EE needs of all 50 states, to establish a computer network for teachers needing access to information and resources, and to develop a teacher training manual for conducting EE workshops around the country.

[Cathryn McCue ]



Gerston, R. Just Open the Door: A Complete Guide to Experiencing Environmental Education. Danville, IL: Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1983.

Swan, M. "Forerunners of Environmental Education." In What Makes Education Environmental?, edited by N. McInnis and D. Albrect. Louisville, KY: Data Courier and Environmental Educators, 1975.


Hungerford, H. R., and T. L. Volk. "Changing Learner Behavior Through Environmental Education." Journal of Environmental Education 21 (Spring 1990): 8-21.

"The Belgrade Charter." Connect: Unesco-UNEP Environmental Education Newsletter 1 (January 1976).

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