Outdoor Education R&E Center

History of Outdoor Education

James Neill
Last updated:
01 Mar 2007


What's New?

  • School's out: Open-air British schools in the 1930's
    (The Independent, 23 January, 2005)
    The idea of outdoor schools, primarily for health reasons, derived from the sanatoria that sprang up in Europe in the latter part of the 19th century.  In the sanatoria, fresh air and sunshine as much as medicine were used to treat tuberculosis (TB), with mixed success.  This idea was extended in Britain during the first half of the 20th century, with the focus on improving the health of children who were seen as sickly and susceptible to TB.  The schools were truly open-air (no walls) with purposeful, harsh (but supposedly healthy) environmental conditions, especially during winter, intentional.  By the 1940's there were 155 open-air schools and they aimed to improve both health and academics.  These open-air schools shared much with the philosophy with Baden-Powell's scouting movement and Outward Bound.

The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, on this familiar spot of ground walked other man and women as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own professional passions but now all gone, vanishing after one another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall be gone like ghosts at cockcrow.
- G. M. Trevalyn, Autobiography of a Historian

When did outdoor education really begin?  An overview

It is unclear where exactly the true beginnings of outdoor education lie.  In my view we need to look into the nature and evolution of the human species, which is the basis of a psycho-evolutionary theory of outdoor education, the essence of which is that it seems not unreasonable to suggest that the early hominids were the originators of outdoor education.  Homo sapien young spend an inordinate amount of time being "trained" to live in the world.  For at least several million years, virtually all of these years of learning and training was conducted in the outdoors.  Only recently were permanent walls constructed -- dramatically in the last 100 years in Western civilization.  Members of modern Western societies have become collectively "shielded" from natural living and challenges, rhythms and observations of nature, etc.  There remains an instinctual need to re-kindle our inbuilt sensitivities to nature (E. O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis).  Thus, outdoor activities, outdoor recreation, and outdoor education serve a psycho-evolutionary need within homo sapiens to collectively maintain some form of psychological and physical contact with natural processes and environments which are relatively untouched by post-industrial 21st century human lifestyle.


More on When Did Outdoor Education Begin?

A socio-cultural history of outdoor education

A sociocultural history of outdoor education suggests that outdoor education has emerged as a  semi-ritualized form of encounter with nature since Western consciousness moved indoors.

Some significant & defining moments

This is supplementary information to the timeline, to add some detail to what appear to have been some defining moments in outdoor education history.

Outward Bound comes to the USA in 1961

In 1961, Outward Bound took off in Colorado, which later spawned the creation two other major organizations,  Project Adventure in 1971 and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 1974.  Collectively, Outward Bound, Project Adventure, and NOLS became the "big 3" of outdoor education through to the present, in North America and to a lesser extent in other parts of the world. 

New developments in the 1970's and 1980's

Many smaller and more specialized adventure-based programs were developed.  For example, Project Adventure sparked the developed of the ropes challenge course industry.  In the 1980's there was a boom in corporate adventure training, which dipped and flattened in the 1990's.  Academic undergraduate and graduate programs were developed at several universities, particularly in the USA, UK, Australia, and Europe.

New developments in the 1990's and 2000's

In the 1990's there was a boom in adventure travel and eco-tourism and community development programs.  Also, during the 1980's and 1990's several university degree programs in outdoor education were developed.  Increased threat of risk and liability forced insurance premiums higher and put several smaller outdoor education programs out of business and reduced growth of larger programs such as Outward Bound, Project Adventure and NOLS.

The internet age brought the development of electronic resources for outdoor education (see recommended outdoor education links).