A lot of schools that had been offering outbound school trips to students have come to realize that outdoor learning if conducted with thought and care, can provide a powerful & memorable experience that help build life skills.

Outdoor learning offers a powerful alternative to such traditional school trips by providing engaging and meaningful adventure-based learning. These schools believe that important life skills can be developed experientially while having fun. They also feel that the great outdoors lend themselves to instilling a sense of awe, which helps open young minds to introspection & new experiences.

There is a welcome trend across schools in India where visionary school leaders are complementing their academic curriculum with a ‘life skills curriculum’ that is designed to coincide with the various development stages of students, typically from class 4 to class 12. These experiences help students become self-disciplined, open up to new experiences, learn to care about and work with others, understand the larger society, and build a sense of what it takes to lead others. A lot of these programs also meet various requirements like CAS for IB Schools and life skills for CBSE & ICSE.

In addition to the “art” aspect of outdoor learning that stimulates natural learning, the “science” behind it is what can really build a memorable learning event for students.

The thought and hope behind outdoor learning

Back many moons ago as a student of a wonderful residential school in a valley surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains, I had many memorable opportunities (though it sometimes did not seem so back then!) to explore the great outdoors as part of the school’s culture.

We would plan our expeditions using tight budgets, figure out which dharamsalas to stay in, where to eat, how much to spend on relative luxuries, learn how to brave the weather, ignore the winding Indian hill roads, and somehow garner enough courage and skills to reach our destination.

There were moments when our backs hurt beyond measure and our knees were on the verge of collapse. And just when we least expected it, the weather would turn and we would also need to tackle the rain. We would then be tired, irritated, and wet!

But we still managed to dig in deep to find the resources and the resilience to get to the top, pitch our tents, light a fire, cook dinner, and even find the energy to crack jokes and mimic our teachers till we fell asleep. And all this with the knowledge that the next day could be even more challenging.

Having accomplished all this, we always came back to our school having grown in many different ways. At many reunions since, it is these adventures and challenges that we discuss and celebrate the most.

Built on the perspectives of legendary thinkers like John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, and Kurt Hahn, the experiential learning methodology is built on the notion that people learn best by direct, hands-on, and purposeful contact with their learning experiences.

As we all know from experience (the first time we learnt how to drive or our first struggle in the deep end of a swimming pool are great testaments to that!), learning happens best when our emotions are heightened, the challenge pushes us to think and be on our toes, and we have the support we need to stay engaged and motivated.

Such learning experiences in the great outdoors, are termed outdoor learning. They are designed to be hands-on, out of one’s comfort zone, intellectually meaningful, and memorable.

The natural environment brings with it a sense of awe and challenge that makes people, especially children, more receptive to both introspection and exploration. Thus, the outdoors has the potential to make a major contribution to one’s growth and development if it is used meaningfully and with thought.

The importance of building key life skills early

Legendary singer Rod Stewart beautifully sang an oft-expressed adult regret, “I wish that I knew, what I know now when I was younger when I was stronger.”

The outdoors possess limitless possibilities to design learning events that build key life skills in children that equip them for what lies ahead. They can test their assumptions, try different approaches, and manage consequences while the stakes are low. The same mistakes start costing a lot more, as we start engaging with experiences that have limited growth opportunities, ego-based considerations, and monetary profit motives!

Widely respected as a pioneer of outdoor learning, Kurt Hahn’s philosophy of learning was based on an inherent non-negotiable respect for adolescents. He believed that society tends to corrupt young minds, as they grow older. He also felt that if educated in the right manner, students could utilize opportunities for personal leadership by understanding accountability and consequence management. This is one of the reasons why he emphasized outdoor learning in his philosophy of education.

As we grow older, the three key life skills that truly help bring fulfilment and excellence in what we do are the:

(a) Ability to look inwards with honesty to get the best of oneself,

(b) Skills of working effectively with our teammates, and

(c) Capability to lead others with the commitment to excel and accomplish.

What better way to learn about leadership than to actively work with and motivate others to complete an outdoor challenge like an expedition (as opposed to memorizing the five ways by which one can become a leader!)?

You learn to understand and appreciate other perspectives, build consensus, leverage limited resources, and test your own limits.

And best of all, you build all these life skills while having fun!

How the learning process in the outdoors aids the growth of the child

The power of outdoor learning lies in centring the learning process on the experience. It is neither the teacher nor the learner that dominates the core of the learning process. This brings with it a sense of objectivity and freedom to experiment, take well-thought-out risks, and manage the consequences of one’s actions.

For instance, an outdoor experience can lead to an exploration of the following:

Who took the back seat? Who were the leaders? Did team members listen to one another? Were the quieter members engaged? What could have been done better?

Thus, the trek, the rock face, or the rafting experience can become a powerful metaphor for the learning objectives with the potential to reside in our memory banks, and tapped when needed in the future.

Mr Arun Kapur, Director of one of India’s leading day schools, Vasant Valley, feels that “during outdoor learning programs, students learn how to take decisions, make choices, and see the consequences of their choices immediately rather than in the distant future. Beyond fun, the outdoor learning experience is on another plane.”

Meaningfully designed outdoor learning experiences rely on both action and guided reflection. It is the reflection that truly harnesses the potential of the outdoor learning process.

After his participation in an outdoor learning program, teenager Madhav Nautiyal shared that he “never knew that others find me aggressive. I always want to do things perfectly and like to take charge but now I realize that I may be negatively impacting my friends.”

It is important that outdoor learning challenges are at the appropriate level for the participants. If they are too easy then there won’t be genuine a sense of achievement. On the other hand, if the challenge is excessive then the participants may come out of the experience more traumatized than thrilled!

The intent is to build confidence gradually and meaningfully with incremental challenges.

Confidence building, a popularly expressed outcome of outdoor learning programs was well articulated by Sharoon Gidwani, who noticed that her son “Mikhail returned from the outdoors bursting with a new found confidence. He is shy by nature but just can’t stop chatting about his awesome experiences at the camp, interacting with interesting people and exploring the wilderness.”


How Outdoor based learning can potentially Benefit a child

At an outdoor learning program, I was once asked to describe the one main benefit of outdoor learning and I simply said that “going outdoors helps you look inwards.” That to me is a great start for any learning process.

Following are five ways in which a child can benefit from a meaningful and well-thought-out outdoor learning program.

Enhance a sense of self: Each child can learn more about her or his strengths and challenges with objective fact-based data from the shared experience. This can help them build a sense of self, and subsequently layer it with self-confidence and a sense of self-worth.

Mukta Sharma felt that her son Anmol’s outdoor learning experience, “helped him reinvent his hidden capabilities and filled him with new energy and interests.”

Encourage team orientation: Outdoor learning can provide fantastic opportunities for embracing reliance on others to excel and succeed. Children build a sense of appreciation and understanding of others.

‘Nalini Pinto, principal of NSS Hillspring International School, Mumbai puts it across simply when she says, “outdoor programs have helped our students become more motivated and committed. They have learnt to work collaboratively with others, take on challenges, and learn how to lead a team.“

Learn to manage consequences: Children get immediate feedback on their actions and have wonderful opportunities to review and revise their actions in a low stake environment as compared to the real world.

Appreciate the larger world:  Learning first-hand about the local culture, environment, and people that may be living lives very different from our own is a powerful way to build a wider sense of the world and its inhabitants. This is way deeper than watching a show on National Geographic since the experience is your own.

Exercise leadership: The outdoor experience may be built around a task that students must complete, around a problem that the students must analyze and solve, or around a service element for the community that students must plan and execute. This provides an amazing training ground for exercising leadership at a young age with guided support.

Nooraine Fazal, CEO of Inventure Academy, a leading school in Bangalore believes that “students, when pushed out of their comfort zones, are more open to thinking about the kind of people they would want to be.”

Finally, the outdoor learning process has an inherent sense of commitment and determination that requires an attitude of embracing the challenge.

Sunaina Narang Mathur articulates this simply when she shares that her son Aaryam came back from the experience “all bitten and scratched, yet so happy that he discovered that he was way tougher than he thought.”

Children may feel overwhelmed and unsure of their abilities and capabilities along the way. But at the end, they almost always end up with a sense of fulfilment and deep self-realizations knowing and seeing that they have much more potential and reserves within than they previously thought.

And that in itself makes it worth it.

The article has been written by Saurabh N. Saklani, Co-founder, Inme Learning