What is Outside of Outdoor Education? Becoming Responsive to Other Places

By David A. Greenwood

A review of Wattchow, B. & Brown, M.
(2011). A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World.
Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Press.

As someone who follows the literature around place and education, and who is always curious to see how diverse educators and learners around the planet learn from diverse places, I was very interested to read Brian Wattchow (Australia) and Mike Brown’s (New Zealand) book, A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World (2011). While it does not significantly address the local/global tensions inherent in contemporary place study (Heise, 2008; Nespor, 2008), this book represents a major contribution to the place-conscious educational literature. It is one of the first book-length inquiries in the genre that effectively blends theory and practice, cultural and ecological contexts, as well as personal and professional perspectives. Wattchow and Brown write with authority and affection about the places in Australia and New Zealand that they love and that they continue to learn from through their work as seasoned outdoor educators. Their stories of place should inspire people everywhere to pay attention to what nearby places have to teach. A Pedagogy of Place also raises significant questions about competing meanings of place, the value of adjectival educations and the complex ways in which learners might become more placeresponsive in the outdoors.

The kayak on the cover of Wattchow and Brown’s book is a good emblem for what one finds inside—an intellectual and embodied journey recounted in the voices of the two place-attached authors who have deep experience in outdoor learning. The journey begins with stories of how each author connected to outdoor places as children and adults and integrates these stories into descriptions of their experiences as outdoor educators. Next, the authors provide a convincing critique of the ironic absence of place-responsiveness in the field of outdoor education and offer a very insightful review of the meanings of place, which seem especially productive for continuing to build theory in place-responsive education. In the last part of the book, the authors narrate compelling case studies of place responsive outdoor education practice in Australia and New Zealand. The book ends with a discussion of “signposts to a place-responsive pedagogy.” These signposts provide an elegant framework for considering how educators and learners might become more responsive to the teachings of places everywhere, such as

1. being present in and with a place
2. the power of place-based stories and narratives
3. apprenticing ourselves to outdoor places
4. the representation of place experiences (p. 182)

It strikes me that any outdoor or environmental education theory or practice that fails to engage with any one of these powerful signposts is neglecting an opportunity to develop multivocal and multisensory relationships between learners and the places where they live.

The narrative writing style in A Pedagogy of Place (with the emphasis here on a pedagogy rather than the pedagogy or pedagogies) is very accessible and engaging, and the scholarship is also deep in its examination of outdoor education and its relation (or lack of relation) to the discourse of place and place-responsive learning. I find that the book would be an excellent introduction to place-responsive education for any group of educators interested in place. In its focus on getting outside for deep experiences that involve paying attention to place, the book offers an implicit critique of all indoor education, and also place-based experiences that are merely conceptual or too brief and disconnected to become storied place-responsive relationships that can only develop through a longer apprenticeship. This critique could be directed as well toward “cosmopolitan” views of learning that trade movement, speed or a “global” perspective for the presence and kinds of attention required to open to what places have to teach. In this regard, A Pedagogy of Place is a welcome reprieve from the deepening problematic trend that Aldo Leopold described over a half century ago: “[O]ur educational…system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land” (Leopold, 1949/1968, p. 223).

Inside and Outside of Outdoor Education

Wattchow and Brown’s main argument in A Pedagogy of Place is that it is important to critically review key assumptions of outdoor education and reconceptualise the field through attention and responsiveness to place. As someone who does not identify chiefly as working in the field of outdoor education, it was somewhat surprising to read how this subfield of education has often neglected local cultural and ecological contexts as it has become professionalized. On the other hand, lack of attention to place seems to be part of the professionalization of all branches of education and a problem with (post)modern culture at large. As professional fields and subfields evolve, the local social and ecological contexts where people actually live their lives are almost entirely forgotten while attention is placed on the established frameworks and routines that give a particular educational approach its identity (Gruenewald, 2005). As a result, Wattchow and Brown (2011) write of outdoor education: “The geographical locations where programs run can all too easily come to be seen as clinical sites, obstacle courses, testing grounds, venues or curriculum resources.” When places become clinical sites for outdoor education, activities, regimentation, standardization and even the implementation of models such as the experiential learning cycle can dominate curricula while unwittingly de-placing or de-contextualizing experience—all typical hallmarks of colonizing educational models. When this happens, according to Payne and Wattchow (2008), it is “increasingly difficult to confidently make the claim that outdoor education is an ‘alternative’ beyond the fact that some of it occurs in the outdoors” (cited in Wattchow and Brown, 2011, p. 50).

What, then, is outdoor education and what is its relation to place and to its cousin, environmental education? While reading Wattchow and Brown’s critique of outdoor education as a field, I continually found myself puzzling over the meaning of the label “outdoor.” I wonder about the limitations of any adjectival educational subfield (outdoor, environmental, placebased,land-based, culturally-responsive, experiential, Indigenous, sustainability, etc.) in relation to the larger goal of advocating for education that is responsive to places and how they are experienced by those who inhabit them. Does the proliferation of subfields (and strands within subfields) work for or against this larger goal? Can mutual interest in place provide a meeting ground for educators with a variety of complementary commitments and forms of knowledge? Or, does professional investment in, and politicized identification with, a particular group keep us focused on defending our turf, boundaries and vocabularies while screening out possibilities for building strategic alliances? In short, can the educational subfields with interests in the outdoors, places, environments, experiences, etc., develop better political strategy in the service of people and places rather than in the service of professional subfields? If the answer is yes, what might this suggest for how we manage the labels around which our professional work currently revolves? I think it might mean that we need to consider abandoning attachment to these labels, or at least work to de-centre them, as we learn to enact what Arjen Wals (September 22, 2011, personal communication) is calling “cross-hybrid learning.”

In their focus on place as a transformative construct, Wattchow and Brown demonstrate a welcome willingness to rethink the assumptions underlying a professional field of practice—though the focus remains on outdoor education as an insular subfield. As the authors note throughout their book, place and the outdoors are not the same. In the practice of outdoor education, the outdoors can simply become another decontextualized and colonized space for scripted learning outside of buildings; a place is where meaning is made through a reciprocal relationship of coming to know. While efforts are made in A Pedagogy of Place to expand the meaning of the outdoors in outdoor education to include multiple perspectives toward place, it is somewhat ironic that the case studies provided describe a placeresponsive pedagogy mainly through the traditional practices of tripping and journeying through the “natural” environment (albeit often to nearby, “mundane” or culturally complex places).

Clearly the authors share an interest in diverse meanings of place and in the educative potential of a wide variety of place-responsive experiences. Yet, in their stories of practice, the authors sometimes risk limiting the meaning of place to the conventional outdoors (mountains, deserts and rivers) and risk limiting the context of place-practice to hiking, camping and boating. Is this inevitable or desired in outdoor education? Inviting relationship through experience with the local and regional physical geography, and the cultural stories held in place there, is a vital component of educating for place-responsiveness. But what about other “outdoor places” and built-over lands and mindscapes—such as the streets people drive and walk on every day or commoditized and damaged places like mines, highways, strip malls, power plants, factories, schools—through which hums the global engine of neoliberal economic growth and development? What about all the regulated places, public and private, whereby we are constantly told to follow the rules? KEEP OUT! NO TRESPASSING! And what of the myriad other outdoor spaces, which, depending on one’s experience, may either invite belonging or enforce exclusion? In other words, the meanings of place or the outdoors and the possibilities for placeresponsive outdoor learning extend far beyond what the authors describe in their case studies, even as their work pushes on and extends conventional meanings of outdoor education.

Through their critique of outdoor education, their attention to place theory and the development of their case studies, Wattchow and Brown certainly gesture at making connections between embodied experience in outdoor, culturally significant places and the development of critical social conscience in everyday life (see Cameron, 2008). Yet the impact of these gestures seems somehow restricted by some of the more typical contexts of outdoor education they describe (hiking, camping, boating), journeys and trips signified by the gorgeous kayak emblazoned on the cover of the book. This observation is in no way meant to critique the power of experience in the pedagogically rich places the authors lead us to. I want to be in the kayak and on the campout and learn the ecological and cultural stories there with these authors and their mentors as guides. The only way to know the power of the journey or trip is to experience it fully. No doubt many of us facing lives of increasing boredom, incarceration, shut-in, medication and screen time (Louv, 2005) would benefit from outdoor experiences that offer much less than what Wattchow and Brown provide. The point is rather to rephrase a simple question the authors themselves pose with their important book: What constitutes the outdoors in outdoor education?

In an interesting section titled “Critical Outdoor Education,” Wattchow and Brown (2011) advocate for socio-ecological or critical place-based approaches over those focused on “social justice issues (gender, sexuality, race, equality of access and so on” (pp. 86–89). They rightly argue that critical social justice perspectives are often abstracted from a larger socio-ecological framing. However, many “social justice” issues have “outdoor” characteristics that are doubtless part of a larger ecology of place. One does not have to take a very long walk in most cities, for example, to witness many varieties of power, inequality, privilege and oppression, as well as the regimes of spatial exclusion. Additionally, since the start of the resistance movement to industrial capitalism (over 150 years ago), one does not have to look far for social or ecological conditions that need to be changed, or for local people calling for it. Today, worldwide, outside in the streets , people—including homeless people who live outside—are marching for local change in global contexts, raising critical social conscience through embodied and emplaced experiences. Does observing and participating in a street protest constitute place-responsive outdoor education? What about working with people who are homeless to change the local conditions that create homelessness? Or, should the meaning of place-responsiveness in the (sub)field of outdoor education remain concerned mainly with “natural environments” removed from the everyday street life of the crowd?
In other words, this book makes me wonder with the authors: What kind of places does the field of outdoor education privilege and which do they neglect? What is the potential range of places of practice for outdoor educators? Further, what is the relationship between outdoor education, geopolitical consciousness raising, and placemaking and re-making? The Occupy movement is only one example of the intersection between the outdoors and political experience and learning. In his remarkable book Blessed Unrest , Paul Hawken (2007) reports that there may be as many as two million organizations working to create localized change in communities all around the planet. Many efforts for local change have an outdoor dimension; the same can be said of activism around climate change. Community development and revitalization, including rural, urban and regional planning, happens outside in the interface Is this mundane political process of placemaking an appropriate context of outdoor education, or does the field prefer to privilege its traditional practices of tripping and journeying for the irreplaceable experiences that these practices deliver? Is it even possible to learn what a river trip by kayak has to teach without leaving the street protest behind (and vice versa)?

Such questions probably should not be posed as either/or dichotomies. But there is certainly a tension here for me, at this juncture in the evolution of place-responsive education, between the local, regional and geo-politics of placemaking and the aesthetics of nature-based place-experience (no matter how culturally responsive), which mirrors a more general tension between politicized and depoliticized environmental education. Neither is inherently better than the other and I believe we need both, as well as a more nuanced and inquisitive stance toward the tensions between them. Reading this book kindles my desire and my too-often denied need to connect with land and water for the experiences that only land and water can provide. Borrowing from Wattchow and Brown’s (2011) framework, I want to get outside onto the land or into the seat of the kayak. I want to become present in and with a place through deep immersion. I want to leave the street and Internet protests behind as I journey into another world—perhaps the real world—where the land is alive. I want to discover and be moved by the power of place-based stories and narratives, and learn with the people who hold these stories. I want to apprentice myself with others to outdoor places. And I want also to represent and communicate my experiences with places in meaningful, creative ways. Outdoor education that is responsive to place can be as worldwide protests for social, economic and environmental justice—protests which may lack the outdoorsy appeal of a paddle or a hike, but also represent a distinctly unique aesthetic and an embodied politics unlikely to be found on a river trip. Again, these musings are not a critique of A Pedagogy of Place , but an invitation to extend the critical question that is the thesis of the book: How might a consideration of place transform outdoor education?


Cameron, J. (2008). Learning country: A case study of Australian place-responsive education.In D. Gruenewald & G. Smith (Eds.), Place-based education in the global age: Local diversity (pp. 283–398). New York: Routledge.

Greenwood, D. (in press). A critical theory of place-conscious education. In R. B. Stevenson, M. Brody, J. Dillon, & A. Wals (Eds.), International handbook of research on environmental education research. New York: AERA/ Routledge.