Outdoor education occurs, in one form or another, in most if not all countries of the world. However, it can be implemented very differently, depending on the cultural context. Some countries, for example, view outdoor education as synonymous with environmental education, whilst other countries treat outdoor education and environmental education as distinct. Modern forms of outdoor education are most prevalent in UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and to some extent Asia and Africa. A map is available of locations of outdoor education organisations, facilities, and people .
After the second world war many local authorities in the UK emulated the Outward Bound principles and set up their own outdoor education centres for school children. Visits to these outdoor centres were often subsidised, allowing many children from the towns and cities a unique experience of the outdoor world.
By the late 1980s most UK local education authorities had an outdoor education centre, and there was a growing private sector offering similar experiences. Government moves to offer more autonomy to schools have badly affected this provision. Under regulations for the local management of schools that took effect in England and Wales from 1992 onwards, the majority of the money spent on education in the UK now goes direct to the school, and local authorities often find it difficult to subsidise their outdoor education centres. As a result many have closed.
One of the most significant changes in outdoor education in Great Britain came as a result of the Lyme Bay kayaking tragedy in March, 1993. This tragedy accelerated governmental discussions until, in January 1995, the Activity Centres (Young Persons’ Safety) Act 1995 was passed through Parliament in January 1995 and an independent licensing authority, the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority (AALA) was formed.
Overall, the AALA appears to have succeeded in its mission, but it has also created debate regarding whether it is possible for young people to experience adventure in an 'educational way' within tight regulations. Some people view AALA regulations as tight and thus, restricting their opportunity to provide what they believe to be meaningful outdoor education.
One further area worthy of note is the Campaign for Adventure (Campaign for Adventure, 2000a). This campaign started in 2000 following a one day conference titled “A Question of Balance.” Since then the campaign has concentrated on lobbying political individuals and parties to support risk taking and to acknowledge and work against the increasing trends indicated by a “culture of fear.” This phrase is the title of Furedi’s (1997) book, which is heavily cited in recent UK outdoor education literature. As with most political campaigns it is difficult to assess progress but the work of those involved in the campaign can be followed on line (Campaign for Adventure, 2000a). Consistent with this position, a recent report from the Office of Standards in Education, which covers England and Wales, concluded that outdoor education is uniquely placed to offer structured opportunities for students to identify hazards, calculate the related risks and decide the significance of a risk in order to determine and implement the precautions necessary to eliminate and minimise risk. Students’ involvement in risk management makes them aware of potential harm and contributes towards their being able to take greater responsibility for their own and others’ safety. (Ofsted, 2004, p. 13)
While on the surface Ofsted may appear to be consistent with the Campaign for Adventure there are some significant inconsistencies here worthy of brief explanation. It appears that Ofsted is suggesting that the very idea of risk taking is to be avoided and the role of outdoor education could be to enable students to assess risk and then ‘eliminate or minimise’ it. A contrary position is taken by the Campaign for Adventure based on adventure and risk as, at least an educational value, and perhaps even as central to life and a way of being, which is threatened by a culture of fear. The Campaign for Adventure believe that life is best approached with a spirit of adventure and that absolute safety is unachievable.
Recently there has been concern expressed about the decline in the number and quality of school trips in the UK. In 2005 the Parliamentary select committee on Education published a report on 'Education outside the classroom'  which called on the UK government to do more to protect and promote outdoor education. In response the government promised to issue a manifesto for outdoor education, setting out what schools ought to offer their pupils.
The origin of outdoor education in the USA is difficult to pinpoint. North American culture, particularly since European colonization in the 17th century, has embraced a pioneering spirit. This contributed to the extensive development of organized camping programs during the 20th century, Outward Bound programs since the 1960s, as well as many related off-shoot programs including Project Adventure, the National Outdoor Leadership School, the ropes course industry, and many other applications including wilderness orientation programs within colleges and universities and adventure therapy. In the 1970's, the Association for Experiential Education was also formed, along with the Journal of Experiential Education which continues to have a strong focus on adventure education scholarship and practice.
- Main article: Outdoor Education in India
- Main article: Maori outdoor education
The term ‘outdoor education’ doesn’t seem to have an exact equivalent in the German language although Kurt Hahn, one of key figures in the development of outdoor education in the twentieth century was German. In general, outdoor or adventure education is not as widespread in Germany as in other developed regions, such as North America, Australia, and the UK. However, a closely related educational approach called experiential education (In German: “Erlebnispädagogik”) is commonly applied.
Most organisations and companies offering programs and activities based on experiential education for children and youth also offer similar programs for adults and especially corporate teams which are then mostly referred to as 'outdoor trainings'.
Judging from the kind of outdoor training programs available in an internet search, the main clientele of German outdoor training providers seem to be corporate teams and organisations seeking team building and personal development. There is also a wide range of organisations offering outdoor programs based on experiential education for children, adolescents, families and school classes with or without disabilities. German schools have seemingly started to make increased use of outdoor and experiential possibilities when planning their school trips but the experiential approach is rarely implemented in the normal school system and it is by no means as common for school students to experience outdoor education trips as it is other countries.
A more detailed summary of German outdoor education and experiential educational providers and networks is available.
- Knapp, C. E. (1994). Progressivism never died, it just moved outside: What can experiential educators learn from the past? Journal of Experiential Education, 17(2), 8-12.