As the deadline closed for a crucial process, it urged us to write this article about how we must do better when it comes to the NSW Education system.
Yesterday, the New South Wales Education Standards Authority closed its feedback process for feedback on the draft creative arts K–6, HSIE K–6, PDHPE K–6, science and technology K–6, geography (mandatory) 7–10, history (mandatory) 7–10, PDHPE 7–10 and visual arts 7–10 syllabuses. As a representative of the Outdoor Education sector in New South Wales (NSW) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Outdoors NSW & ACT responded by the deadline with information that was compiled from our own Education Committee.
In general we provided information around having a balanced learning environment in which students learn resilience, social skills and skills for life whilst delivering the same curriculum in an outdoor environment with creative ways to engage the students, across many subject areas. The content of which has been provided below.
We have serious concerns about all current draft syllabuses. The syllabuses do not mention the outdoors, outdoor environments, or nature. It is important that children in the Primary years of school are exposed to outdoor environments in their school or in their community. This is an important precursor to the 7-10 PDHPE syllabus and to Secondary Outdoor Education elective. PDHPE cannot exist indoors only. For schools with limited outdoor spaces it is vital that they access natural environments beyond their school grounds. The Australian Curriculum has a significant document on Learning in the Outdoors developed in conjunction with Outdoor Education Australia, yet this is not reflected in the NSW PDHPE Syllabus or any of the other documents currently for review. For the health and wellbeing of our state's children and young people, we request that the syllabuses both acknowledges the wellbeing benefits of time in nature, and actually gets them active in the outdoors.
Results Based Recommendations
Outdoor Education has been proven for its results in mental health, self-esteem, resilience, and skills for life. The principles of Outdoor Education can be applied across many subject areas and not constrained within PDHPE or Geography, but understood and realised in other curriculum areas such as Mathematics, Physics and other sciences. A holistic approach in include mandatory Outdoor Education in all subject areas will only benefit learning outcomes but student well-being outcomes.
The benefits of outdoor education have been studied widely across international literature. One Danish study found that even an average of 2 to 7 hours of outdoor education per week over a 9-month experimentation period was positively associated with intrinsic and other autonomous forms of motivation compared to classroom teaching (Bølling et al., 2018). Additionally, an English study following the 2016 "Natural England project" (designed to implement more outdoor learning opportunities within junior schools) stated that 92% of teachers surveyed said that pupils were more engaged with learning when outdoors and 85% saw a positive impact on their behaviour (EDU-Quip, 2017). A 2013 US poll on school engagement levels demonstrated that 45% of 12th grade students in the US were disengaged from school learning citing that emotional engagement was the highest correlate of non-cognitive factors to academic achievement. This study suggested that in order to increase emotional engagement and motivation, outdoor education and immersion would need to supplement traditional classroom learning in order for higher level learning and critical thinking to take place (James and Williams, 2017). Canadian social scientists found that outdoor education was also suited to a wide range of students, all with different needs, backgrounds and learning levels. This included a study on temperament levels where children with easy-going or withdrawal (timid and less independent), temperaments were able to function easily in both indoor and outdoor environments with short-term benefits of increased vitality. However, children with mixed or difficult temperaments also increased vitality scores following extended periods of outdoor education in addition to reduction of unwanted behaviours often found in indoor settings (Fiskum and Jacobsen, 2012).
Perhaps one of the strongest commitments to outdoor education came from Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Finland and Denmark. This region follows the philosophy of 'Friluftsliv' (meaning 'outdoor life' in Norwegian) which theorizes that life should be lived outdoors no matter your age, physical condition, or the season. It prioritizes a connection with nature through a variety of activities ranging from extreme sports like skiing or mountain climbing to simple everyday activities like berry picking, dog walking or camping (Remmen and Iversen, 2023). This philosophy has become part of everyday life in Scandinavian countries with 96% of surveyed participants in a 2013 national Finnish survey using nature for recreational activity and nearly one third doing this daily. The natural environments of Nordic countries are well suited to outdoor education as natural environments are plentiful and have smaller population densities making distances to parks, urban greeneries and forests relatively short (Sjöblom, Eklund & Fagerlund, 2023).
The philosophy of Friluftsliv has been transformed into a functioning education system that prioritises physical and mental health, teamwork building exercises and exposure to outdoor learning. This is known as 'Udeskole' (translated outdoor school) which is defined by regular contact with outdoor education experiences across various school subjects such as science, mathematics, social science, language arts, and physical education (Becker et al., 2017). This concept has been led by teachers to demonstrate that just as aspects of outdoor life are interconnected (biodiversity, land, sea and sky and ecosystems), education should also follow this idea and encourages the overlap of subjects so that students may grasp how real-world systems are all interconnected.
Outdoor education in Finland mainly focusses on environmental studies combining biology, geography, chemistry, physics, and health education into an inclusive opportunity to explore natural environments. National curricula in Norway mandates that pupils go on outdoor excursions and do field research, and in science, pupils participate in fishing, hunting, and farming, and practice outdoor life. Unlike the other Scandinavian nations, outdoor education in Demark is not something that is firmly imbedded into their curriculums nor is it a statutory requirement from the Danish Education Department. Outdoor education primarily exists as a grass-roots movement where teachers promote and support each other in the integration of outdoor learning and has shown a significant rise in outdoor learning engagement presumably due to modelling their Nordic counterparts. The results of the ‘Rødkilde Project’ have shown benefits in social competencies and social relations such as self-esteem, self-confidence, trusting relationships, and the sense of belonging (Bentsen et al., 2018).
Sjöblom, Eklund & Fagerlund's (2023) research into experiences of youths and teachers participating in outdoor education provides some insight into how it can be modelled by other education authorities.
Singapore & Scotland also have relevant case studies to consider, as they too have seen the students’ outcomes increase by connecting more with nature and the outdoor environments. The Natural Connections project in Scotland focused mainly on areas of deprivation in Plymouth, Torbay, Bristol, Cornwall and Somerset, working in both urban and rural schools with varying school grounds and access to local green spaces. These areas are now developing innovative ways to continue supporting outdoor learning across the school networks they have established through the project.
Key findings were:
· 95% of children surveyed said outdoor learning makes lessons more enjoyable
· 90% said they felt happier and healthier
· 72%of children said they got on better with others
· 90% of schools said outdoor learning improves pupils’ social skills
· 92% of schools said it improves pupils’ health and wellbeing and engages them with learning
· 85% of schools saw a positive impact on behaviour
· 90% of staff surveyed found outdoor learning to be useful for curriculum delivery
· 72% of schools reported that outdoor learning had a positive impact on teachers’ health and wellbeing
· 79% of teachers surveyed said outdoor learning had a positive impact on their teaching practice and 69 per cent said it had a positive impact on their professional development
· 72% said outdoor learning improved their health and wellbeing and 69 per cent said it had a positive impact on their job satisfaction
Focus areas for the inclusion of more outdoor education
In relation to PDHPE syllabus areas of "Safe, active and healthy lifestyle choices" and the "managing risk and personal safety" there are easy opportunities to embed outdoor learning practices. However, as the literature review implies the regularity of outdoor connection across all curriculum enables effective learning and healthier, socially connected children.
A 2018 paper by Marsden Jacob & Associates estimated $508 million was saved in lifetime healthcare costs by people participating in outdoor pursuits in NSW alone. The Outdoor Youth Programs Research Alliance (OYPRA) reported from their nine-year study, the sharp rise in the youth anxiety and mental health challenges can be improved through participating in outdoor programs.
Tom Mulvaney, Psychologist and Co-Leader of Policy at the Australian Association for Bush Adventure Therapy saw the dramatic impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of children, young people, and families, and also the sectors now limited ability to mitigate that impact. “What we've been seeing in young people is the increased risk of loneliness and isolation ... Access to the outdoors obviously facilitates physical health outcomes, but also facilitates connection to other people, to the world around us, which ameliorates loneliness or isolation.
“There’s a lot of evidence to support young people spending time in nature directly, but there's a stronger evidence base for those therapeutic outcomes being enhanced when a person’s time in nature is guided by a professional. Guided time in nature has positive outcomes for young people who experience stress, depression, anxiety, social anxiety, relationship issues and so many of those clinical presentations that are on the rise as this pandemic progresses. We need to keep people physically and mentally well through a system that caters for safe, stable and connected time in the outdoors. Going outdoors is one cost effective and safe way to support physical, mental and social wellbeing and prevent longer-term ill health. We need to capacitate this as soon as possible to avoid long term, potentially irreversible impacts,” concluded Mr Mulvaney.
We at Outdoors NSW & ACT would like to work with the NSW Education Department on ways to embed the natural environment into education so that our students and teachers can benefit from the outcomes it provides.
A Marsden Jacob Report, New South Wales Nature-Based Outdoor Economy, key estimates and recommendations (a copy of the report can be provided upon request)  https://www.outdoorsnswact.org/copy-of-industry-resources