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Outdoor Education in the 21st Century

Over time there’s been a shift in the way we approach camps.

The SPW outdoor education program commenced with year level camps a number of years ago. In recent years we’ve shifted in the way we approach camps. No longer are they simply ‘fun’ activities. Rather the programs now provide purposeful new experiences for children and sequential development of 21st Century skills.

Together with camps, other experiences such as the SPW Canberra Tour, and Bay and City Experiences also fall into this area, with a focus of learning beyond the classroom. This is one aspect of the purpose of camps. Outdoor play is another factor to explore. There are many common threads between the two.

Looking back to my experience

As I look back, the camps I remember most fondly were those that were skill and outdoor education based. Mind you, at the time I probably viewed these as my least favourite; I was a child who would have preferred to stay home.

It’s actually the outdoor education based camps that lead to the passions and interests I still have today, for which I am now grateful. Camps can be quite polarising for parents. We often reflect on our own experiences and struggle to allow our children to experience it for themselves. Such events can be daunting for both children and parents. In supporting them to attend, the social and emotional skills they develop, even in such a short time, are truly beneficial.

The value of Outdoor Education

There are many articles regarding the benefits of outdoor education programs and the contrary views as well. So, indeed, you can argue both ways. Therefore it’s the mindset you have that will provide you with the positive outcomes for your child.

Overall, there’s a great deal of variability in evidence when comparing the outcomes between different studies and programs, and individuals. The potential value of outdoor education for school students is indicated by some studies which demonstrate highly positive learning outcomes.

We can learn from research

To ensure outdoor education programs provide positive learning outcomes for children we need to consider the following:

  • Embed the outdoor experience within existing programs, integrated with values, knowledge, and skills from within the classroom (impact is greater when outdoor education programs are fully integrated with a school’s curriculum and ethos).
  • Provide new and memorable experiences.

In turn, this can positively influence student relationships, resilience, self-confidence and wellbeing, achievement and engagement with learning.

What makes these experiences work?

There are further considerations supporting the development of successful outdoor education programs.

  • Consider the camp experience.
  • Develop a sense of community and opportunities to share experience with others.
  • Set challenging activities and opportunities to experience success.
  • Inspire ownership of and engagement with learning.

Building positive relationships

The strength of relationships developed can be significant and often unexpected. The evidence shows there are many benefits for students going away with staff who teach them. This includes maintaining improved relationships back at school, as well as providing opportunities to build on and reinforce learning.

Benefits include:

  • Taking on new challenges and living alongside their peers, which assists children to become more adaptable and confident, an important aspect of their development.
  • Encouraging successful learning and building positive attitudes, which subsequently leads to improvements in achievement and learning.
  • Contributing to a sense of belonging; feeling valued and the ability to make a positive contribution in the wider community.
  • Developing connection with the natural environment that can develop creativity and problem-solving skills, levels of motivation and possibly lower anxiety.
  • Positive impact on social skills, communication skills and teamwork.
  • Developing basic skills in bush craft, orientation and navigational skills (basic map-reading skills).
  • Developing positive attitudes to physical fitness and leisure.

Making time for outdoor learning

With a crowded curriculum finding the time, places and experiences for outdoor learning can be a challenge. After reviewing the benefits, it’s important to build these experiences into the children’s learning and the school year.

Such experiences can be a child’s first time away from home. For some, it’s their first experience without digital connection, and hence being responsible for planning their own entertainment.

Tips for parents when approaching camps

To conclude, as an educator, I have attended camps of all year levels over many years. Here are a few take-home moments for me that I feel can help parents approach outdoor education experiences:

1. Raising expectations

It’s always wonderful to see the involvement and risk taking opportunities for the students. Children cleaning the area, pitching a tent, cooking on a trangia and cleaning up afterwards – all in differing and varied environments, each with their own challenges. With these new challenges, they can feel proud of their achievements. We need to remind ourselves to let the children do things for themselves and not do it for them – it’s so easy to jump in and save or do it for them to save time. Encourage children to pack there own belongings for camps and be actively involved in organising themselves.

2. Building community

From travelling together on a bus/plane, sharing a tent or dorm, involved in rotational group activity and working in teams they have not chosen, there will be many opportunities for children to develop friendships. New friendship can be struck and older ones will develop. Remind children about the opportunities they’ll have to build new friendships on camp.

3. Building culture and developing connections

Observing the children on camp and watching them prepare a meal in pairs, organising the process and questioning one another, is certainly an incredible experience; as are many of the activities in which they are involved. This, in turn, increases their connection to being part of the community that has been established over the time of the camp. They develop a shared language and purpose; all this happening in over three to four short days. The children take on roles, learn to trust one another, make up team names, sit around a campfire, tell and listen to stories, organise entertainment nights and perform plays and songs. 

Give the children time after they return from camp, all smelly and exhausted, and then ask them about their experiences. There will be some common threads and their reflections will come flowing- the food, some tough activities, being outdoors and getting dirty, and most importantly, learning and having fun. All of which are marks of building culture.


Thank you to Simon Theel, Deputy Principal at SPW for writing this article. For more information on the Outdoor Education program at SPW please feel free to contact Simon.