This is an excerpt from Teaching Lifetime Outdoor Pursuits by editors Jeff Steffen and Jim Stiehl.
Several reasons account for the increased popularity of outdoor pursuits in physical education programs. First, for some young people the most appealing physical activities are those that provide excitement, challenge, and a degree of risk while minimizing the importance of winning and losing (Stiehl, 2000). Second, more physical education teachers are recognizing the many benefits that students can derive from outdoor pursuits and are considering these benefits when preparing objectives and activities. These benefits include the following:
- Self-confidence. Having self-confidence can lead to a greater willingness to handle challenges and to learn from and admit to mistakes. Many students with limited physical skills experience a swift success in outdoor pursuits that leads them to believe in their ability to succeed. Learning how to read a map, for example, can help a student plan a travel route that is efficient and enjoyable for everyone. More specifically, by understanding a map’s contours, the student can not only avoid potential hazards (e.g., moving water, exposure to lightning) but also conserve energy by avoiding unnecessary elevation gain or loss. By matching the difficulty of the route to the abilities of the group, the student supports the group while also experiencing a sense of accomplishment. Acquiring a new technical skill empowers and encourages continued involvement in an activity. Students are better poised to take on new challenges when they feel genuinely capable as a result of gaining new proficiencies.
- Mutual support. Group efforts sometimes fail because of conflict among group members. Therefore, an important aspect of successful outdoor pursuits programs is the emphasis on working together and respecting others. This necessitates a combination of interpersonal skills and appropriate communication. Rock climbing, for example, involves cohesiveness and trust between climber and belayer. Good belayers provide climbers with the reassurance to push their physical limits by giving them the knowledge that they can do so without worry. Another aspect of mutual support is the need to belong, which is a strong motivator. When students feel connected to others and safe enough to try new things, their willingness to persevere at a task increases. But they also must understand that conflicts may arise and must know how to resolve potential conflicts. Outdoor pursuits develop enthusiastic and contributing group members who view their roles as an important component of an effective team.
- Fitness. Different outdoor pursuits involve different types of fitness. For instance, some activities can be vigorous, requiring cardiorespiratory endurance. Cycling up a steep incline provides the steady, sustained exercise recommended for health and weight control. Bouldering, on the other hand, demands power, agility, and flexibility. Any outdoor activity can provide opportunities for people of all fitness levels to be challenged and included. Cycling can be adapted to individual fitness levels, and bouldering involves certain skills that can compensate for insufficient power (e.g., relying more on the legs than the arms or using techniques for shifting weight and resting). Consequently, students can experience early success with accompanying increases in fitness.
- Excitement and fun. An element of risk, whether perceived or real, adds to the excitement of outdoor experiences. And as students cope successfully with risks, many of them learn to be more autonomous and self-sufficient. There is also a sense of excitement associated with trying something new. For instance, caving often includes squeezing through cramped, shadowy passages that may be steep or slippery. This task can be a daunting, even threatening, proposition, especially for students who are claustrophobic, afraid of the dark, or concerned about spiders, bats, and other mysterious cave-dwelling critters. But it also can help students learn how to cope with fears and anxieties. Furthermore, the fun of outdoor pursuits cannot be overemphasized. If an activity isn’t enjoyable, students will not willingly experience more of it. According to Karl Rohnke, “Rediscovering the capacity for play can be an extremely powerful experience” (Rohnke & Grout, 1998, p. 11) and can lead to a more resilient, playful spirit.
- Wonder of nature. In his popular book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv (2006) suggests that too many young people today have what he terms a nature-deficit disorder.According to Louv, a broken bond with natural surroundings reduces not only the richness of our human experience but also our mental, physical, and spiritual health, which all depend on such a bond. Nature offers something that the street, gated community, or computer game cannot. Moreover, using our own power to arrive at a destination unexplainably adds to our appreciation of beauty. Although climbing high peaks presents important challenges, an equally valuable experience may be sitting still in a quiet place away from the usual distractions and listening to the breeze or observing a vast landscape or delicate flower. As Texas Bix Bender says, “See the heavens, smell the air. . . . On a good day, that’s all you need. On a bad day, that’s all you need” (Bender, 1997, p. 39). Finally, of considerable value is the possibility of an increased sensitivity to taking care of the surrounding environment. As we often remind our students, it isn’t about how long you’re in a place—it’s about what you do while you’re there. Did you leave it a better place for being there? Although having more immediate significance in an outdoor setting, this important lesson also applies to students’ schools and neighborhoods.
Read more from Teaching Lifetime Outdoor Pursuits.