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Older adults, playfulness, and outdoor education

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Education-2nd Edition by Ken Gilbertson,Alan Ewert,Pirkko Siklander & Timothy Bates.

Not only children but also older adults can play and learn in nature. Playfulness decreases with age unless individuals consciously reinforce the spirit and attitude of playfulness. Playfulness denotes the quality of activities and thinking and also how individuals approach experiences and feelings. As with children, playfulness indicates well-being, and it helps strengthen resilience.

While outdoor education has traditionally been associated with children and younger students, especially those 12 to 18 years old, outdoor educators increasingly find themselves having adults as part of their student group. These adults come from a variety of backgrounds such as military veterans, professional educators, or many other occupations. Moreover, factors such as prior schooling, not being in an educational setting for a long time, or socioeconomic status can be key factors in the adult student’s self-confidence and willingness to engage in an outdoor education experience. Further, outdoor educational programs such as higher education outdoor programs, Outward Bound Schools, and nature centers have increasing numbers of adult participants (Petry and Gilbertson 2019). Adult participants have been found to have differing motivations to participate.

In this book, we refer to adult students as typically being 18 years or older, although issues such as emotional maturity can also play a role in ascertaining the appropriate educational strategy. Outdoor educators are charged with building the instructor–student relationship, the most effective teaching methods, and, in essence, the very structure of the course or experience.

It is important to discuss the characteristics of the adult student. It is equally as important to recognize that the following are generalizations, and you can always find differences or variations to these overall themes. According to Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (2012), a number of characteristics can be associated with adult students:

  • Readiness and willingness to learn
  • Learning related to a need or interest to know
  • Internally motivated and self-directed
  • Integrating background and experience
  • Belief that learning can be a life-expanding experience

One of the most distinguishing differences often present between younger and older students is that adult students typically display a greater readiness and willingness to learn. This is often related to an actual need to know or at least a greater interest in learning. For example, an adult student may be particularly interested in understanding flood cycles or changing weather patterns because they own a house in a floodplain. As a result, adult learners are often internally motivated to learn and self-directed in that learning.

Other characteristics that often involve adult learners is the integration of background and experience and the use of education and learning as a life-broadening event. As students, adults can often relate what they are learning to what they learned earlier in their lives. Learning about a particular species of fish can create a link to earlier in an individual’s life when fishing with friends or family was of great importance. For others, engagement in outdoor education activities can be used as a way to expand one’s belief system both about the environment and about themselves.

Whether an outdoor educator comes from a background in constructivism, multiple intelligence, or brain-based theory, taking into account the student’s individual experience is widely seen as key to learning and development for adults (Cherry 2020; Breunig 2005; Kolb 1984; Dewey 1938; Gardner 2006; Schenck and Cruickshank 2015; Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner 2007; Petry and Gilbertson 2019).

Knowles (1980), however, also points out that experience can hinder new learning with the belief that as we accumulate experiences, we develop mental habits, biases, and presuppositions that tend to cause us to close our minds to new ideas, fresh perceptions, and alternative ways of thinking. Accordingly, adult educators try to discover ways to help students examine their habits and biases and open their minds to new approaches. Thus, adult students who are often trying to balance outdoor education activities with career and personal responsibilities need to have well-planned courses or experiences with clear guidelines and planned outcomes.

Relative to adult student learning, outdoor experiences can be both positive and negative. Knowles (1980) distinguishes four means by which adults’ learning experiences can be enhanced:

  1. Account for a wide range of individual differences.
  2. Provide a rich spectrum of learning opportunities.
  3. Create learning situations where adults can appreciate the need to know and opportunities to integrate their past experiences.
  4. Design learning experiences that promote adults’ self-identity.

Working with adults often presents the outdoor educator with a unique opportunity that differs from working with younger students. Adult students often value the use of experiential activities, more individualized lessons, the use of collaborative learning techniques, and the promotion of a sense of independence in their learning experience. Finally, transference of the outdoor education experience to other aspects of their life is often a prime motivating force for the adult student.

Enhancing Adult Learning Through Outdoor Education

  • Need to know: Prior to engagement in the activity, develop ways to enhance the adult student’s understanding as to why the information can be useful, either now or in the future.
  • Personal responsibility for learning: Clarify the adult student’s responsibility to learn the material and seek further instruction if they do not understand the information or techniques being presented.
  • Personal experience: When possible, ascertain and utilize the past experience and knowledge that the adult learner possesses.
  • Type of knowledge provided: Capitalize on adult characteristics that are problem or task centered and how this knowledge might be useful in real-life situations.
  • Motivation: Within an outdoor education setting, many adults are motivated by an interest in learning or developing a new skill that they can use later in life. Do not underestimate the importance of a social experience and opportunity to meet other adults and develop new interests.
  • Preparation: Adults appreciate learning situations that are well organized using intentional designs and oriented to maximizing their learning experience.

Adapted from Outward Bound: Adults and Veterans (2010).

More Excerpts From Outdoor Education 2nd Edition