The Terms

Just like with any field of study, there are terms that can get sticky and screwy. So when you’re out there in cyberspace (or in the real world) and you see some of these related terms thrown around, I want you to have an idea of what it means to someone in the industry, or at least to me.

Five Terms:

Outdoor Education: The general colloquial term for anything outdoor teaching related. This can and often does encompass the other terms. This is a good one if you’re not sure exactly what category it might fit in.

Environmental Education: Education aimed towards teaching information pertaining to the environment. This can be ecology, biology, sustainability, etc. People who do this are sometimes referred to as “Naturalists” as well, representing people who know a little bit of everything when it comes to the environment. Can often be classroom based.

Interpretation: A very specific type of education where you are not teaching as much as communicating. Think of interpreting a language, only here you are interpreting environmental language. Generally less formal, this is what you would come across with a tour at a national park, or if a zoo employee walked up and began to discuss things with you.

Adventure/Experiential Education: This is the more “adventurous” stuff. This can be things like rock climbing, canoeing, caving, kayaking, and shelterbuilding. So things that teach skills or give experiences a person might not have otherwise, not necessarily teaching a biological process or facts.

Challenge Education: Teambuilding. This is high ropes courses, low ropes courses, challenge initiative, ziplines, and climbing walls. This focuses on usually teambuilding, communication, and personal growth. Trying to get a person or a group of people to expand their comfort zone.

File:Two students collecting aquatic macroinvertebrates (5029713328).jpg
By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

To Me:

I’m not a fan of getting bogged down in the distinction between all of these terms. Here you’ll probably see me rotate randomly through each of the terms, for no apparent or rational reason. They’re just words, and to me the action is more important than what we call it. On that note, I tend to define Outdoor Education (and all the related terms) as having three basic components:

  1. Teaching people about the great outdoors.
  2. Getting people excited about the great outdoors.
  3. Creating the next generation of outdoorspeople, naturalists, nature guys/gals, and people who just want to be outside


Note: This whole page is biased towards what I think, so take it with a grain of salt.


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