Real World LearningReal


Do learners get in touch with outdoor settings?

Experience“Science can only describe a flowering cherry tree; it cannot help us experience the cherry tree in its totality. To develop love and concern for the earth, we need deep, absorbing nature experiences; otherwise, our relationship with nature will remain distant and abstract and never touch us deeply.” (Cornell, 2011)

In our understanding, real experience in an outdoor setting is critical in terms of learning for sustainability. We believe there are four reasons why this is so.

1. If people are to develop a love and concern for the earth, they need these direct experiences; otherwise, their knowing remains remote and theoretical and never touches them deeply (Cornell, 1998). In the research focused on reasons why some people care for the environment, many respondents declared that it was because they spent a lot of time outdoors in their childhood. However this may be moderated by their next course of life, we can suppose that direct, repeated, and positive experiences from being outdoors play an important role for developing environmental sensitivity and because of this, it is crucial to help pupils to touch, see, and listen to the voice of nature in a safe, pleasant way (Bögeholz, 2006, Chawla, 1998, 1999, Palmer et al., 1998, 1999, Vadala et al., 2007). 

2. The second reason is that time spent outdoors promotes pupils’ general well-being and health. As Louv (2008) warns, pupils nowadays spend more and more time indoors, in the company of electronic media. Although it may be beneficial in another way, the lack of contact with nature can lead to what he called “nature deficit disorder”, the complex of mental and physical syndromes undermining the pupils’ opportunity to grow into their full potentiality.  Being outdoors, children have the freedom to explore and develop their physical boundaries, to take risks and to discover the real world with all their senses. This can have huge positive effects on a child’s self-esteem and confidence. Outside can be liberating; children have room to be active, noisy, messy and work on a large scale. The outside world is dynamic; you cannot predict what might happen, and as such it provides opportunities to experience and develop emotions and how to deal with them.

3. Not only is outdoor learning healthy, it may also be very effective for learning real-life phenomena. Experience-based outdoor learning aimed at discovery and enjoyment is the most ancient as well as the most efficient way of learning/teaching for humans to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Knowledge is gained both from the surrounding nature and from their own communities. Learning in the outdoors is sensually rich and, as Kovalik and Olsen (1994) summarize, our brains need context and information richness for grasping deep understanding. The level of our immersion and involvement into an experience is what makes the difference.

Listening to a presentation in the classroom, pupils learn only from what they see and hear, they often lack a context, connections, or alternative points of view. With direct physical contact with natural and cultural phenomena, we learn not only by seeing and hearing but also by smelling, feeling, tasting and touching.

The outdoor environment is where children can come into contact with the ever-changing systems of nature and the four elements. For instance, the seasonal changes and differing weather conditions provide children with a sense of time and place and offer endless investigation possibilities.

No doubt there are many parts of our curricula that are more practical to teach in the classroom, or with the help of models or simulations replacing the direct experience. The real-world teacher is always challenged: what can be taught directly, how can we plan and provide strong (but safe) experiences with a learning opportunity for our pupils?   How should we deal with unplanned experiences where pupils’ understanding may change literally 'out of the blue', as a result of a specific situation, words that were said or un-said, a picture that was seen…

4. The last reason for highlighting the role of real-world learning is because experiential learning is particularly effective for developing action competence.

The concept of action competence is connected to the idea of “action theory” promoted by Kurt Lewin and other psychologists of the 20th century. All the time, we have an idea (often unspoken) of how to best to perform our tasks: from caring for kids, to writing an essay, from organizing a party, to dealing with a real-world issue. This idea is called “action theory”. Many of our action theories may remain unchanged for a long time, many of them are in the process of being critically evaluated and modified. Experiential learning is the process of learning  from our experience, when we critically reflect on our experience (what has happened), analyze the action theory we used (what worked and what did not) and plan if/how to change it (Kolb, 1984, Johnson & Johnson, 2012).

For education for sustainable development, it is crucial that people believe they can really make a difference, i.e. they know what to do and how to deal with a challenging issue. Such a belief is often a result of previous successful experience with dealing with a similar issue (see Bandura, 1977). It is an opportunity for teachers: we may help pupils to test, evaluate and modify their action theories for managing the tasks of an increasing difficulty and as a result, promote their belief they are capable of bringing a change, and of feeling competent to face the problems challenging our world. 

Because we believe that experiences in real world settings are critical in terms of learning for sustainability, we should bear the following requirements in mind when developing our programs:

  • provoke and raise curiosity

Curiosity connects with learning in two important ways. It is a source of motivation and it is powered by questions, both the student’s and the teacher’s. Provoking curiosity is a crucial part of teaching. A simple story, an unexpected moment may start a process of dissonance leading to new questions and ideas.

  • increase sensitivity

In the outdoor setting we have the unique opportunity to challenge and develop peoples’ attitudes towards nature and environmental issues via direct contact with the environment and various kinds of sensory activities. It is the way to develop the environmental sensitivity of the pupils and promote their love of nature.

  • involve learners with head, heart and hand

Whilst education about the environment could be interpreted as being concerned with the head, and education for the environment with the heart, education in the environment can be seen as involving the hand.

  • use a variety of methods and reveal something new to the learners

Not a single educational model fits for everyone and everything. When we draw from a richness of methods and strategies, we also respect diversity of learning styles and individual experience of our pupils. Whatever methods we use, pupils should find new experiences relevant to their personal lives. Meaningful experiences can change the way we think, feel, or live. Meaningful experiences stimulate our learning.

  • remain open to the outcome

Facing wonders of nature, challenging a real-world issue, pupils always give their own meaning to their experience. Pupils’ learning is always theirs, not the teachers’. It is important to remain open to pupils’ ideas and respect even unpredictable outcomes as the source of our own learning.

  • provide opportunity for action and enjoyment in real world settings

Pupils should not only be informed about an issue but they should be provided with an opportunity to deal with that issue – to act upon it and to see a change. Experience of success can develop a belief in their capacity to promote a change and develop practical skills for dealing with environmental issues. If the learning process is enjoyable, positive emotions will be involved and learning will be more effective.




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Cornell, J. (1998) Sharing nature with children.

Cornell, J. (2011) The Importance of Deep Experiences in Nature.

Chawla, L. (1998). Significant Life Experiences Revisited: A Review of Research on Sources of Environmental Sensitivity. The Journal of Environmental Education, vol. 29, no. 3, s. 11-21.

Chawla, L. (1999). Life Paths Into Effective Environmental Education. The Journal of Environmental Education.Vol. 31, no. 1, s. 15-26. ISSN 0095-8964.

Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, F. P. (2012). Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning. Experience as The Source of Learning and Development. Prentice Hall.

Kovalik, S. J., & Olsen, K. D. (1994). Kid’s eye view of science. A Teacher’s Handbook for Implementing an Integrated Thematic Approach to Teaching Science, K-6. Kent: Center for the Future of Public Education.

Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books

Palmer, J. A., Suggate, J., Robottom, I., & Hart, P. (1999). Significant Life Experiences and Formative Influences on the Development of Adults’ Environmental Awareness in the UK, Australia and Canada. Environmental Education Research, 5, 2, p. 181-203.

Palmer, J. et al. (1998). An Overview of Significant Influences and Formative Experiences on the Development of Adults' Environmental Awareness in Nine Countries. Environmental Education Research, vol. 4, no. 4, s. 445-464.

Szczepanski, A. (2008) Knowledge Through Action Teachers ´perceptions of the landscape as a learning environment. Linköping: Linköping University Department of Culture and Communication.

Vadala, C. E., Bixler, R. D.,  & James, J. J. (2007). Childhood Play and Environmental Interest: Panacea of Snake Oil. The Journal of Environmental Education, vol. 39, no. 1, s. 3-18.  ISSN 0095-8964.