About Outdoor Learning

Rather like defining sports or the arts, describing outdoor learning in a concise and inclusive way offers challenges.

Being too generalised does not highlight the unique qualities of outdoor learning as distinct from outdoor recreation, leisure, community or competitive sport, countryside or farming.

Excessive detail can narrow the focus and exclude some of the wide variety of approaches, participants, activities, locations, and outcomes in the field.

Describing Outdoor Learning


This current IOL description includes the work of volunteers, part-role, and full-time professionals and providers across the sector:





Facilitated approaches

Whereas outdoor recreation can be described as a self-led approach for leisure purposes, Outdoor Learning is seen as a planned and purposeful facilitated approach led by an instructor, teacher, leader, coach, guide, etc. The term actively inclusive is both a celebration of the longstanding attitude within the field to working with participants as well as a call to continue to reach out and bring even more members of our communities into direct connection with outdoor activities and experiences.

Activities and experiences

In many sports and pastimes, the outdoors provides the essential backdrop or surface that makes participation and play possible. Outdoor Learning goes further. Whilst Outdoor Learning happens predominately, but not exclusively, in the outdoors, learning about the environment in which the activity and experience takes place is often a key part of the overall process of participation and learning.

Learning and change

The description adopts a broad view of learning that includes self-direction, direct education and all points in between and beyond. Outdoor Learning covers the acquisition or refinement of specific knowledge and skills as well as the sometime more subtle changes in behaviours and attitudes that can lead to increased health and wellbeing, and environmental awareness.


Informed by research

The descriptions of Outdoor Learning used in the field have evolved, and will continue to evolve, over time. The aim of the current IOL description is not to limit scope and redefine established and valued terms within the field but to include them and celebrate the rich breadth of outdoor learning as it is provided in the UK. Outdoor Education, Adventure Tourism, Outdoor Therapy, Environmental Connection, Forest Schools, and other similar terms are all seen as part of Outdoor Learning, each with their own distinct history, approach, and purpose.


Life-long progression

If people are to form a healthy, developmental, and sustainable self-led relationship with the natural environment they need a mix of outdoor learning experiences. This is true for any age.

  • Experiences made possible by others are the first step in inspiring self-led or independent adventures and connections with the outdoors
  • Instructed, taught or guided experiences can provide frontier adventures and memorable moments when benefiting from the skills, knowledge, and experience of outdoor learning professionals


The current thinking and description have been informed by research and UK wide consultation. Read the 2021 Horizons article by Neal Anderson, Dave Harvey and John Crosbie for:

  • History of the Term Outdoor Learning
  • Insights from two doctoral research projects
  • Scale of 2020-21 consultations informing the IOL description

Describing a childhood progression in outdoor learning

Childhood Progression Model v1.4 June 2018.png


The Institute has completed an initial map of the range of outdoor learning interventions across the UK that are designed to enable children and young people to form sustainable self-led relationships with the natural environment, and engage more effectively with education to benefit from better health and well-being (2015).

A Personalised Description of Outdoor Learning


Outdoor Learning Umbrella Description.png


Whilst the generic definition can be useful for many, the ability for individuals and organisations to customise the description to fit their audience and purpose is when it can be most beneficial. The starting point is answering five questions:


ICONS - HOW_1.png

How does the learning happen?

What methods, approaches, pedagogy or andragogy describe the way you are providing outdoor learning and underpin the theory of change for programmes?

ICONS - WHAT_1.png

What activities and experiences?

Which specific challenges, adventures, woodland skills, environmental education, field studies, camps, expeditions, outdoor sports and activities, etc. do you use?


Where does it takes place?

What are the locations and habitats where you offer outdoor learning on the land, sea and in the air?

ICONS - WHO_1.png

Who is participating?

Are you working with participants from a specific school, organisation, age range, community, location, need, etc.?

ICONS - WHY_1.png

Why is it of value?

What are the intended and actual outputs, outcomes and impact of the outdoor learning you provide?

By completing the how, who, what, where, and why, professionals and providers can create a description that can convey their unique approach and work in the outdoors.

Some examples:


Quote 4.png


Quote 3.png


Quote 1.png


Quote 2.png


Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Whether an outdoor learning activity or experience is for a few hours, over a weekend or lasting many years, the chosen location, equipment and people involved can make each event unique.


ICON - intrapersonal_1.png

 Lifelong activity and learning
At the intrapersonal level: strengthening self-confidence through engagement with activities and the environment leading to lifelong participation and outdoor competence. Learning through experiences and developing skills, knowledge, character, resilience, and a positive approach to risk-taking.


ICON - interpersonal_1.png

Appreciating and valuing differences
At the interpersonal level: providing a safe and supportive setting to enhance social skills, appreciate and value difference. Making time to meet and interact with peers and role models from outside the home, school or work environment. Encouraging meaningful relationships across generations that foster tolerance, respect and kindness.


ICON - community_1.png

Sense of place and community
At the societal level: providing space for spontaneous, in the moment events that are driven by the needs and interests of self and others. Developing a sense of place leading to greater engagement with the community and an appreciation of the opportunities available to live, learn and work in the local area.


ICON - world_1.png

Care for the worldwide environment
At the global level: giving people a chance to ‘unplug’ and foster a connection that leads to respect and care for the natural world, an appreciation of biodiversity and sustainability, and pro-environmental behaviours.


Making The Case for Outdoor Learning

Research, reports, policy documents and news items in support of Outdoor Learning impacts can be found on the Outdoor Learning Research website. There is strong evidence that Outdoor Learning activities and experiences can have positive impacts on:


Impacts of Outdoor Learning.png


In addition, the 2015 Blagrave report on The Existing Evidence-Base about the Effectiveness of Outdoor Learning found:

  • Almost all outdoor learning interventions have a positive effect.
  • The effect attenuates over time: the effect as measured immediately after the intervention is stronger than in follow-up measures after a few months.
  • Evidence for the value of longer interventions. The systematic reviews found that overnight and multi-day activities had a stronger effect than shorter ones.

Theory of Change


Theory of Change Graphic v3.png



The Institute recommends providers use their own theory of change model to describe the thinking (theory) behind how a designed programme or service will lead to beneficial outcomes and impacts for participants. The theory of change can be described and presented in many ways – the best way is that which is most appropriate to your audience.


Outdoor Learning Professional Graphic.png

The Outdoor Professional

Outdoor learning professionals provide safe activities and effective learning in the outdoors for the benefit of individuals, communities, society and the economy

7 Steps to CPD Logo.png

The 7 Steps to CPD Guide

The IOL 7 Steps to CPD guide is designed to help outdoor instructors, teachers and leaders decide the next steps in their continuing professional development. It describes an approach to CPD that can support the needs of an NGB, your employer, IOL and your development goals.

Standards graphic - cogs.jpg

Occupational Standards

IOL is the professional development body for the UK’s outdoor learning sector, committed to supporting, developing and ensuring professionals and organisations are acknowledged for contributing valuable cultural, community and educational assets for the UK.

WOL Image 1.png

Training / Education Guide

Gain the skills, knowledge and qualifications to work in the outdoors, Training / Education Guide, How to Advertise a Vacancy


Describing a childhood progression in outdoor learning

Describing a childhood progression in outdoor learning

The Institute is seeking to map the fantastic range of outdoor learning interventions across the UK. Interventions that are designed to enable children and young people to form sustainable self-led relationships with the natural environment, engage more effectively with education to benefit from better health and well-being. We are encouraging a debate and seeking support providers of outdoor learning and influence UK government through the ‘Outdoor Citizens’ campaign.

  • Outdoor learning can help build social, cultural and nature connection. Modelling, mentoring and local champions are all helpful with this, especially where families lack confidence in how to enable outdoor play and learning.
  • Identity, self-awareness and character may all be supported by defining ‘self’ in the context of the natural environment and in relation to others. However, creating opportunities for this to happen cannot be prescriptive due to varying pace of personal development and social and physical and cultural contexts.
  • Supporting a young person to achieve a sustainable, healthy (physical & mental) and self-led relationship with nature also needs to pay attention to experiential learning and reflective capability, not just variety of activity and location.
Childhood Progression Model v1.4 June 2018.png



Are you interested in commissioning outdoor learning

Whether you are looking to commission outdoor learning for a school residential, personal / social development programme, team development, management or leadership programme, education session, professional development or for any other reason, there are some simple things you need to look out for:

For working with young people, there are a number of different accreditations, qualifications, good practice guidelines and benchmarks that you can look for. Some are imperative, others voluntary. These will also vary depending on where in the UK you are. Simple things to look for are the AALA (Adventure Activities Licencing Authority) badge and relevant sporting awards for the activities you are doing.

If an organisation or individual is a member of the Institute, you can rest assured they have signed up to our code of conduct. For all our current organisational members, and to search for some in your area see here. We have also set standards for professionalism in our sector through our accreditation structure for individual outdoor learning practitioners. You can find a map of currently accredited individuals here.

Are you interested in getting into the outdoor learning profession?

Outdoor learning is an incredibly rewarding career and people come to it in so many different ways, from different places and at different times of their lives. 

Some people start out as outdoor instructors, on college and university courses, as teachers, as management & leadership specialists, in the armed forces, as youth workers and activity coaches. There is no one clear pathway in outdoor learning, but here are some journeys that we have mapped. You are likely to spend time outdoors with groups of people and seeing some really awesome stuff happen with those people. You will need to be responsible, personally and environmentally aware and emotionally intelligent.

Are you looking for specialist support and advice?

We have people local to you and nationally that can offer specialist support or advice in the area in which you are looking.

We have a variety of specialist groups within our membership, who’s remit it is to influence thinking in these areas. You can approach them with questions or join to talk about professional practice, discuss issues and emerging opportunities in their particular area. You could join one of these. Currently we have the following Sector Specialist Groups:

Still not sure who to talk to? Call us and if we can’t help directly, we will point you in the right direction. 

Are you spreading the word about outdoor learning?

We would love to hear what you are doing, and can share through our social media, newsletters and blogs what is going on.

If you have professional practice to share, why not write an article for Horizons?

If you are conducting research and want to add it to our research compilation, please get in touch.


Will you join us in Championing Outdoor Learning?

Belong To The Leading Network of Outdoor Learning Professionals

Join now