Research Summary

We are wilderness explorers: A review of outdoor education in Canada

Outdoor education in Canada generally focuses on the country’s history, environmental knowledge, outdoor-living skills, and personal growth

Journal of Experiential Education

Outdoor education (OE) is a recognized academic discipline and an educational approach characterized by experiential learning, immersion in nature, and challenging activities.  This description of OE applies to many different settings and allows for a wide variety of teaching strategies. In fact, the proper implementation of OE requires attention to the place, time, and culture in which it is conducted. OE, in other words, “ is not a universal teaching approach.” While distinctive characteristics of OE are documented in some countries, this is not the case for Canada. Despite having a rich history of OE, the “Canadian way” of doing OE is not clearly understood. This study aimed to “(a) identify the underlying factors guiding OE programs in Canada and (b) describe the learning outcomes and psychosocial benefits of engaging in OE from the students’ perspective.”

This research consisted of a systematic review of qualitative studies that examined OE in Canada. In addition to being conducted in Canada, included studies represented one of three OE program types (e.g., summer camp, kindergarten to Grade 12 school program, or postsecondary school program) and used qualitative methods to collect data from students. Twenty-one studies reporting the OE experiences of 508 students met the inclusion criteria. These studies were published between 1994 and 2017.

Most of the studies reported on school programs serving K-12 and post-secondary students. Four studies focused on summer camps; 14 involved wilderness expeditions of approximately 11 days. Other studies involved weekend trips or regular outdoor-based programming during the academic year. Children and youth involved in the studies ranged in age from 4 to 26 years. Outcomes of the OE programs included (a) gains in environment knowledge; (b) the development of outdoor travel and camping skills; (c) understanding of culture, heritage, and place history; (d) improved confidence, self-awareness, and leadership skills; (e) enhanced communication skills and perspectives; (f) and bonding with peers.

Researchers categorized the learning outcomes and psychosocial benefits of OE into eight themes: Developing outdoor living skills, Risk and challenge, Gaining environmental knowledge, Personal growth, Sense of community, Building connections, Having fun in nature, and Lasting impacts. They used these themes and overall findings to develop a model of OE in Canada that describes the common teaching components, learning process, and short-term outcomes.

This review --by providing a synthesis of OE published research in Canada – may “help form a unified voice and a distinctive national identity for OE in Canada.” Additionally, this review may become “a doorway for increasing Canada’s participation in international discussions of OE where the Canadian experiences can be shared to enhance the understanding of OE globally.”