Outdoor Education R&E Center


What is Outdoor Education?
Definition (Definitions)

James Neill
Last updated:
20 Jan 2008


What is Outdoor Education?

Rather than suggest a universal definition, this pages provides many examples (to which many more could be added) and serves as a caveat and warning:

  • Brookes (1991) proposed that the meaning of outdoor education is relative to time and place.
  • To help illustrate the diversity of what might be meant by "outdoor education", several well-known and less well-known definitions are provided below, with loose organisation into two broad themes - psychosocial and environmental definitions. 
  • The definitions below have been selected as being somewhat representative of many more in outdoor education literature. 
  • Each outdoor education program and book/article has at a least slightly different emphasis in definitions.
  • Be warned -- definitions can and should evolve and transform across time, space and culture.
  • Taken too literally, universalist/abstract definitions of outdoor education (without local contextualisation) may be inappropriate, misleading, or dangerous (Brookes, 2004).



Outdoor education is...
the use of experiences in the outdoors for the education and development of the ‘whole person’
- The Outdoor Institute

Outdoor education is...
education in, for, and about the outdoors.
- Donaldson & Donaldson (1958)

Outdoor education...
appeals to the use of the senses - audio, visual, taste, touch, and smell - for observation and perception.
- Lewis, 1975

Outdoor education is...
an experiential method of learning by doing, which takes place primarily through exposure to the out-of-doors. In outdoor education, the emphasis for the subject of learning is placed on RELATIONSHIPS: relationships concerning human and natural resources.
- Priest (1986), p. 13

Outdoor education is...
a means of curriculum enrichment, whereby the process of learning takes place out of doors. Outdoor education broadly includes environmental education, conservation education, adventure education, school camping, wilderness therapy, and some aspects of outdoor recreation.
- Lappin, 2000

Outdoor education is...
an experiential method of learning with the use of all senses.  It takes place primarily, but not exclusively, through exposure to the natural environment.
- Priest, 1990

Outdoor education is...
interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary...an approach to achieving the goals and objectives of the curriculum.
- Hammerman, Hammerman & Hammerman, 1985

Outdoor education is...
going out into the natural environment, learning about and respecting the environment.
- Ketchie, n.d

Outdoor education is...
a learning climate for the things which can be learned best outside the classroom.
- Smith, 1955

Outdoor education is...
often synonymous with environmental education and outdoor recreation.
- Priest, 1988

Outdoor education is...
one of a range of mediums in which to offer informal educational opportunities addressing the personal and social development of both communities and individuals
- Outdoor Edinburgh

Outdoor education is...
a matter of many relationships.  These relationships concern not only the natural resources, but also people and society.
- Priest, 1986, p.13

I use the term ‘outdoor education’ fairly loosely to mean all purposely designed educational activities which have a common ‘growth through challenge’ philosophy and which utilize natural environments or other novel environments, such as living on board a tall ship.
- Neill, 2001

Outdoor education is...
an experiential method of learning with the use of all senses.  It takes place primarily, but not exclusively, through exposure to the natural environment.  In outdoor education, the emphasis for the subject of learning is placed on relationships concerning people and natural resources.
- Lund, 2002

Outdoor education is...
the use of the outdoors for educational purposes.  OE often involves small groups actively engaged in adventurous activities for personal growth under the guidance of an instructor or leader
- Neill, 2003

Outdoor education is...
an international, experiential education phenomenon which engages people in adventurous activities for enhancement of the well-being of individuals, communities, and the environment
- Neill, 2002

Outdoor education is...
a term that means different things to different people, cultures, and organizations.  Common themes include an emphasis on direct experience of the outdoors for personal, social, educational, therapeutic and environmental goals.
- Neill, 2003


Outdoor education is...
when small groups of people participate in organized adventurous activities in natural settings and primarily use themselves as the resource for solving problems
- Neill, 2003


Outdoor education...
addresses all three domains of learning, the triad of "knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
- Ford, 1981


Outdoor education is...
a phenomenon of post-modern Western society; it does not occur (as we currently understand and define it) in Eastern society or in pre-modern Western society because it requires a distancing of civilization from nature in order for “nature” to have novel effects and an “indoorisation” of education in order for “outdoor” to be considered worthy of identification.
- Neill, 2004




Outdoor Education Keywords & Related Terms

The main keywords for outdoor education are:

  1. education / learning

  2. outdoor

  3. environment / nature / wilderness

  4. adventure

Definitions of some related terms:

Terms which are commonly used and which are similar to outdoor education are:

  1. adventure education

  2. adventure programming

  3. outdoor learning

  4. outdoor recreation

  5. wilderness experience

  6. adventure therapy

  7. camping

  8. therapeutic recreation

  9. environmental education

  10. outdoor recreation

  11. A table of 45 similar terms

Articles with definitions

Articles with outdoor education definitions

Adkins, C., & Simmons, B. (2002). Outdoor, experiential, & environmental education: Converging or diverging approaches?   ERIC Digest, EDO-RC-02-1. [pdf]

Brookes, A. (1991). Thoughts on the conference theme. Proceedings of the 7th National Outdoor Education Conference, Monash University, Frankston, Australia.

Brookes, A. (2004). Can outdoor education be dispensed with? A critical review of some common rationales for outdoor education. Paper presented at Connections and Disconnections: Examining the reality and rhetoric. International perspectives on outdoor education theory and practice, La Trobe University Bendigo, Australia.

Donaldson, G., & Donaldson, L. (1958). Outdoor education: A definition. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 29(17), 17 and 63.

Ford, P. (1981). Principles and practices of outdoor / environmental education.  New York: Wiley

Ford, P. (1986). Outdoor education: Definition and philosophy. ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Digest, Las Cruces, NM.

Googlism. Outdoor education.

Hammerman, D. R., Hammerman, W. M., Hammerman, E. L. (1985).  Teaching in the outdoors. Danville, IL: Interstate

Hillbert, H. & Grimm, G. An operational definition and description of college outdoor programs.

Ketchie (n. d.) Benefits to outdoor education. Indigezine.

Itin, C. Definition of adventure-based practice and related terms.

Lappin, E. (2000). Outdoor education for behavior disturbed students. ERIC Digest.

Lewis, C. A. (1975). The administration of outdoor education programs.  Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt

Lund, M. (2002). Adventure education: Some semantics.

McIntyre, N. Adventure and the outdoors (contains definitions & models). [pdf]

Outdoor Edinburgh (n. d.) Outdoor education policy statement. City of Edinburgh Council's Community Education Department.

Priest, S. (2004). Definition of terms.

Priest, S. (1986). Redefining outdoor education: A matter of many relationships. Journal of Environmental Education, 17(3), 13-15.

Priest, S. (1988).  The ladder of environmental learning.  Journal of Adventure Education, 5(2), 23-25.

Priest, S. (1990).  The semantics of adventure education.  In J. C. Miles & S. Priest. Adventure Education.

Smith, J. (1955). Outdoor education and youth. Washington, DC: AAHPER

The Outdoor Institute. Definitions of outdoor education, development training and recreation.

Turcová, I., Martin, A. J., & Neuman, J. (2005). Diversity in language: Outdoor terminology in the Czech Republic and Britain. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 5(1), 99-116.

Turcová, I., Neuman, J., & Martin, A.J. (2004). Navigating the outdoor education terminological jungle: Outdoor education in the Czech Republic. Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 16(2), 25-27.

Articles with definitions related to outdoor education