Creating Meaningful Outdoor Learning Experience
Monday, 14 May 2018
Reduced stress. Increased happiness. Self-discovery. These are just a few of the highly touted benefits of going outdoors. Research has shown that outdoor education can promote physical health as well as mental health. But on young students, its impact can be even more far-reaching.
Outdoor school programmes, such as adventure camps, build resilience and character through mental and physical challenges. The process of overcoming their fears and challenging their limits helps students acquire important life skills, including communication and problem-solving skills. For instance, the ability to resolve conflicts.
“This is why I feel that the outdoor component to education is especially important for the next generation,” says Professor John Wang of the Physical Education and Sports Science Academic Group.
“With outdoor education, we can create opportunities for them to develop essential traits in life.”
Recognizing mental blocks to learning
Outdoor education is more than just going for adventure camps or incorporating outdoor activities during Physical Ed (PE).
An important yet often overlooked factor in outdoor learning is its psychological aspect, says Wang.
Many students perceive outdoor adventure camps as tough, or even torturous. This can result in fear and an unwillingness to participate even before the programme begins.
“We often hear about the benefits of outdoor education, but fail to understand the process of making it useful through certain basic principles such as mentally preparing students beforehand,” says Wang.
“In this aspect, I think we can do more. We should cultivate students’ love for outdoors and seek to allay their fears and other negative thoughts as much as possible.”
To maximize student learning during outdoor education, Wang and his team sought to better understand the factors that influence student satisfaction and learning outcomes. Although the research he shares was done with PE trainees, some of the findings are highly relevant to students, too.
Making it useful
“Learning and satisfaction is based on personal gain,” says Wang.
In studying the perceived learning outcomes of 343 pre-service PE teachers who attended a five-day OBS camp as part of their outdoor education training, his team found two important factors that influence how personally useful and valuable participants find such outdoor adventure camps.
First, quality of support resources such as the facilities, accommodation, food, and equipment used during outdoor camps matters.
“We need to ensure that participants are taken care of and supported in terms of food, equipment, and so on,” says Wang. “While the programme can be tough, simple things like ensuring they have enough sleep can improve morale and minimize injury.”
More significant than this, however, is the power of personal involvement in influencing participants’ learning outcomes and satisfaction.
Personal involvement, which varies from person to person, is tied to motivation and connectedness to an activity.
“It is about whether the participants see value in the camp, and this depends on whether it meets their needs,” says Wang.
While the value of an outdoor programme is ultimately relative to the profile of each participant, the study shows that caring for their well-being can make a difference on how much they learn.
“If we neglect their well-being, the participants will not enjoy the programme or achieve the learning outcomes we hope for. Conversely, participants who see personal value in the camp gain more from it.
“We should keep this is mind when we prepare Secondary 3 students who will be going for OBS from 2020 onwards,” says Wang.
(See box story below for the learning objectives of the camp for pre-service PE teachers.)
Enhancing motivation through preparation
To help maximize student benefit from outdoor learning, Wang believes that the most important thing to do is to first communicate to students the purpose of the outdoor activities.
One way to accomplish this is to give them a sense of what to expect through video clips or photographs showing what previous batches of students have experienced and learnt.
Another way is to give them the flexibility to choose from several dates when they would like to attend the camp.
Sharing sessions with their seniors can also help them see personal value in going for the camp.
“Instead of giving them the impression they will suffer under their seniors or instructors during the camp, the focus should be on enhancing their experience while maximizing their learning. [Make them understand that] it need not be a torturous process,” says Wang.
Equipped with greater awareness of how motivation and creating a conducive environment can affect learning outcomes, Wang hopes that schools will be better prepared to help students reap the character- and life skill-building benefits of outdoor learning.
Learning Objectives for Pre-service PE Teachers
To measure learning outcomes of pre-service PE teachers who are trained to facilitate outdoor education, John and his team identified 5 learning objectives.
1. Develop specialist knowledge
PE Teachers are expected to acquire knowledge of the theories behind outdoor education and the pedagogy of facilitating discussions and conducting outdoor lessons. They should also have an awareness of the trends and issues in outdoor education in other countries.
2. Acquire practical outdoor skills
PE Teachers should achieve proficiency in activities like canoeing, rock climbing, abseiling, orienteering, field cooking and so on.
3. Apply these outdoor skills in a school setting
PE Teachers should be able to apply the skills they learn through the course to their PE lessons; for instance, by turning their PE lessons into a mini orienteering course, or through team building activities for their students.
4. Team bonding
PE Teachers should have the ability to work together with others to achieve goals. They should also exhibit initiative and leadership when the need arises – to resolve conflict, make decisions and think ahead.
PE Teachers should be able to assess the risk involved in different situations or activities and take the necessary steps to minimize risk.
This article first appeared on http://singteach.nie.edu.sg/issue63-research02/.
Professor John Wang is a professor from the Physical Education & Sports Science Academic Group at the National Institute of Education. He is also Associate Dean of Research Management and Programmes at the Office of Education Research. His research interests lie in the areas of Sport and Exercise Psychology and Motivation.