Learning outside the classroom

When I framed my research broadly, at the intersection of “education” and “outdoors,” it was easy to find Norwegian case studies. Norway has strong cultural ties to nature, and the Norwegian value of friluftsliv, (‘open air living’) specifically relates to spending time outside and feeling joy in the interaction with nature. Before I knew it, I was observing at a forest kindergarten, a coastal school camp, a ski week for children with disabilities, a moose hunt reenactment at the Norwegian Forestry Museum and a “Food on the Fire” day course for local sixth graders. There is no dearth of Norwegian programs teaching children in outdoor settings!

Berry-picking in the fall

Marine biology on a canoe trip

I began focusing my research more—looking specifically at the barnaskole age, 1st-7th grade (though those preschoolers sure were cute) and at compulsory programs (as opposed to extracurricular). Finally, I narrowed my topic down to the specific Norwegian concept of ‘uteskole,’ or ‘outdoor school.’ This is defined as an educational methodology of compulsory activities out of the classroom on a regular basis, applicable to all ages and subject matter (Jordet, 1998). An official definition that begins to address some of the motives and benefits:

Uteskole is a working method where parts of the everyday life in school [are] moved out of the classroom—into the local environment. Uteskole implies regular activities outside the classroom. The working method gives the pupils the opportunity to use their bodies and senses in learning activities in the real world in order to obtain personal and concrete experiences. Uteskole allows room for academic activities, communication, social interaction, experience, spontaneity, play, curiosity and fantasy. Uteskole is about activating all the school subjects in an integrated training where activities out-of-doors and indoors are closely linked together. The pupils learn in an authentic context: that is, they learn about nature in nature, about society in the society and about the local environment in the local environment (Jordet 1998).

At first it was hard to find uteskole research – most of it was in Norwegian! Luckily, I was able to observe at several schools practicing uteskole, and thus see it for myself. Since then, I have grown increasingly interested in how Norwegian outdoor schooling fits in the bigger picture of the international movement to utilize the outdoors as a learning arena. I was surprised by how little crossover there was between Norwegian and international research: Norwegian-language articles are absent from the large-scale literature reviews, and while Norwegian studies reference English-language theorists, they mainly cite articles in Norwegian, Danish or Swedish (all of which are similar enough that a native speaker could comprehend).

Some people define uteskole as “outdoor education,” but that term usually connotes a more extra-curricular activity, often emphasizing personal growth, skill acquisition or adventure. The field of experiential education is exceedingly vast, and my focus narrows down what might otherwise include afterschool clubs, one-time field trips to distant locations, adventure learning trips, camp programs and more. On the other hand, uteskole –as a mainstream, curricular endeavor—could be more properly considered “outdoor learning” or “learning outside the classroom.” Both these terms have been used to describe progressive programs, specifically in the United States, Great Britain, and New Zealand.

My next task was to characterize uteskole as a Norwegian concept and determine whether there was something about it that was distinctly national. Many outdoor researchers stress the importance of avoiding overgeneralizations and assumptions; one cannot assume that what exists in one place is the same as in another place, even if they go by the same name. Andrew Brookes wrote that the discourse of outdoor learning “has been dominated by universalist and decontextualized understandings of outdoor education which fail to account adequately for the development of particular programmes, ignore important social, cultural, geographical and historical differences, and are flawed as a basis on which to build outdoor-education theory” (2002, p.405). Therefore, I viewed my research with the premise that Norway’s uteskole concept had unique characteristics arising from these contextual differences.

I read uteskole research conducted by the Norwegian pioneer in this field, Dr. Arne Jordet (who, fortunately, was also my faculty advisor in the fall! In the spring, I’ve been lucky to have a leading scholar in the field of friluftsliv, Dr. Kirsti Pedersen Gurholt). According to the specifications, uteskole can be further characterized as: compulsory educational activities that occur regularly (a full day every or every other week), carried out by the teacher, for the 7- to 16-year-old age group, in an outdoors setting either on the school grounds or the local community. The theory behind outdoor learning builds upon ideas of progressive education pragmatists, including John Dewey, who sought to make learning relevant by bridging the divide between actual experience and classroom education.

Eventually, the time came to go into the field and begin observing uteskole sessions! I observed at four different schools scattered throughout Norway: one in an urban center (Oslo), one on the outskirts of an urban center (still Oslo, but 30 minutes from downtown and 5 minutes from the forest), one in a small town, and one in a rural community of 450 people. In each school, I observed outdoor lessons, chatted with students, interviewed teachers, cooked my lunch over the bål (campfire), and scribbled notes madly on crumpled sheets of papers. I observed uteskole for grades 1-7, with outdoor lessons that covered the range of subjects. Often, in the States, outdoor learning tends to focus on natural science – here there was also math, Norwegian, social studies, art and physical education. I observed days focused on measuring, Vikings, flowers, intertidal life, the sense of sound, tree life cycles and fractions.

Second grade teacher leads a mini-lesson around the fire pit

Each school approached uteskole in a slightly different way, although there were also similarities. For instance, all schools did go outside for a whole day, either once a week or once every other week. They all went off-campus, by foot (once by ski), with travel times ranging from 15 minutes to 55 minutes; the average journey time was about 35 minutes each way. The one ski trip was two hours up (but that day was focused on the journey). Here are the typical components of an uteskole day:

  1. Pre-activity (in the classroom, setting the scene.
  2. Journey to uteskole site
  3. Free-play
  4. Lesson/activity 1
  5. Lunch
  6. Lesson/activity 2
  7. Journey to school
  8. Post-activity

Of course, it took slightly different forms depending on the school and the age group. The 1st and 2nd graders tended to have more free-play, and sometimes only one lesson. Some teachers provided activities for the journey to uteskole: either a type of scavenger hunt, or stations where students stop and answered questions in groups. Some teachers did their pre- and post-activities on different days, trying to maximize their outside time on uteskole day. Often, post-activity took the form of a journal entry in a special uteskole book, but some schools used the journal as the pre-activity.

When I interviewed teachers, these were some of the main questions I asked:

  1. Why do you choose to do uteskole?
  2. What are the benefits and challenges of uteskole?
  3. What do you think it would take for more teachers to do uteskole?
  4. Do you feel like your uteskole practice relates to friluftsliv, and how?

Many teachers cited similarities in the benefits and challenges to uteskole, and they tended to echo what international outdoor learning research lists (more to come in future posts). However, it was interesting for me to hear how teachers’ main motives for uteskole differed. One school focused on providing students with a common, hands-on experience to refer to later—especially since the students came from a wide variety of backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. One emphasized the positive group relations that were built outside; in fact, this school cited social dynamic problems with their 8-10th graders and were planning to begin uteskole with them to try to address them. Another highlighted the ability to teach subjects in a memorable way that suited their naturally active students.

Free play in the forest

One teacher said:

“When we go outside, it gives the kids more space, space to move, space to talk, to listen, to meet different kinds of surfaces, to see a flower instead of reading about it in a book, to see a squirrel instead of reading about it in a book; it changes the way the kids learn. We have a lot of kids who are not that good in Norwegian, and they come to Norway and have little language skills. I realized when I was talking to them that I thought they knew all these regular words, like what a tree is or a rock or grass or a car or sky or clouds, things you take for granted. You think every kid knows this, but maybe there’s actually a lot of things they haven’t encountered. If they haven’t seen a squirrel in real life and have only seen a picture and that’s the basis of their knowledge and they have to write about it...well, there’s much greater learning potential in actually seeing a squirrel and then writing about it. To me the main thing is that they need to experience it.

“We have kids who go to Paris or France and have great holidays and we have kids who don’t do any of that. If I ask in class how many have been to Paris, I’ll probably get three who don’t even know Paris is a city. So then I realized that when I take the kids out into the forest and we all make a Viking village, then I can say, ‘Remember when you built a Viking village?’ and everyone knows what I’m talking about. It’s about a common experience, a shared experience. And that’s one of the main things I really look for – to give kids common experiences that they can reflect on, so that everyone has the same foundation in something.”

To read more accounts of my uteskole observations, check out these posts:

Viking Porridge for All!     - 6th grade, urban setting

Sea Critters and Monsters    - 3rd/4th grade, far north

Fighting the Morning Dark     - 2nd grade, rural 

 

Brookes, A. (2002). Lost in the Australian bush: Outdoor education as curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies. 34 (4), 405 -425.

Jordet, A.N. (1998). Nærmiljøet som klasserom: uteskole i teori og praksis. Oslo: Cappelen Akademisk Forlag.