Learning-Centered Planning Strategies in Outdoor Education Programs: Enhancing Participation and Self-Directed Learning

Article excerpt

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Outdoor education (OE) takes place within a range of program settings and contexts (e.g., recreational, educational, developmental, or therapeutic). Experiential learning is central to OE and focuses these programs around elements of inquiry, active learning and reflection in the outdoor classroom (Cooper, 2004; Dewey, 1938; Kolb, 1984; Priest & Gass, 2005). The personal, social and environmental benefits of OE have been well documented, however very little attention has been afforded to effective program planning strategies in order to achieve desired OE outcomes. This article describes useful learning-centered program planning strategies in OE. These strategies are transferable to a wide range of alternative physical education and sport coaching programs.

The case for learning-centered program planning in Outdoor Education

Outdoor education programs that focus on 'one-size-fits-all' activity-focused learning experiences and teacher-centered instructional methods are: 1) unlikely to be fully responsive to students' developmental needs and changing circumstances; 2) likely to constrain student creativity and quash their voices and opinions because they are not seen as particularly relevant, valid or informed; and 3) limit holistic learning outcomes. Essentially, students expect more from OE programs than simply being led through a range of activities such as climbing, hiking, camping, paddling, etc. Rather, they expect to experience meaningful connections between participation in outdoor activities and the development of valuable life skills (e.g., critical thinking, self-directed learning, decision-making, communication and team building skills). When students are involved in program planning strategies, they learn to take responsibility for various OE processes and outcomes. This, in turn, fosters a greater sense of community in the classroom and enhances student motivation, thus having a positive effect on future learning (Gilbertson, Bates, McLaughlin & Ewert, 2006; Robinson, 2005). Learning-centered program planning, therefore, is part of a broad range of active learning strategies in OE.

To what extent are students engaged in the OE program planning process?

Research examining program planning in various OE settings suggests that many OE programs tend to be planned in the absence of student input (Davidson, 2001; Garst, Scheider, & Baker, 2001). Furthermore, students are seldom consulted about their learning needs, activity choices and ongoing perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the OE experience. Interestingly, examples of learning-centered planning strategies implemented in OE programs occur in programs with diverse age ranges and abilities of learners, as well as at varying levels and types of OE program challenge (West, 2007).

Despite general program planning practices, it is known from everyday experience that most children intrinsically (although there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that this may be declining with the prevalence of computer games and highly structured activity programs) are very capable of organizing play and adventure in the great outdoors, where adults are not present. Under these conditions, students typically create their own games with democratic and appropriate rules that address safety issues, fair play, and inclusion of various numbers and age ranges of students for maximum participation. Furthermore, these experiences often result in memorable lifetime childhood experiences. So how can formal OE programs be organized to enhance learning-centered planning practices?

Learning-centered program planning practices in OE

A range of program planning opportunities in OE (e.g., learning objectives, field trip experiences, learning strategies, resources, assessment and evaluation) lend themselves to potentially different levels of decision-making responsibility (i. …