Outdoor Education Provides Education for Life

Office Admin

February 11, 2016

Editor’s Note: This year, the NCOAE blog is going to cover a variety of topics, written by a variety of our staff members. Topics will include best practices in Adventure Education (both in and out of wilderness settings), land use, history of course areas, flora and fauna, cooking, and why us “dirtbags” may be the best hope for the future of education. These topics will be explored through staff profiles, student work, submissions from our readers, and even video. Some topics will be more serious than others. When December rolls around, we hope that we have made you think, cheer, laugh and yearn to take your own adventures to the next level.

Outdoor Education Provides Education for Life
By Stephen Mullaney, NCOAE Staff Development Director

How often have you heard Outdoor and Adventure Education described as just running through the woods, climbing rocks and sleeping under the stars? This misconception is often accompanied by complaints that such outings offer no rules, no tests, no accountability and no “real” learning.

Take a minute to consider your own outdoor adventure story. Think back on the setting, the surrounding environment, the landscape and how that supports the story. Review what those participating went through and how they came out in the end. When you first heard someone else’s story, did you have a desire to be part of the event — even at its roughest, most trying times?


If I had to guess, the story probably took place in a memorable setting. The characters had to face serious obstacles, endure mishaps both humorous and terrifying — and the participants learned how to be resourceful. There were probably times of doubt, reflection and enlightenment. Yet, in the end there was success, changed perspectives, newfound strengths, resilience and an ability to navigate life with a newly acquired sense of confidence.

Adventure education, when facilitated at its highest level, unfolds just like your favorite films. Like many movie directors and authors, educators also place the characters (students) in amazing physical and social settings around the world.

And each day, those students face tasks and challenges that can bring about feelings of stress, fear and anxiety. With guidance from the educators and their peers, participants begin to experience success despite the difficulties and realities they undergo. And in the end, it is the experience that creates change: a shift in how they seem themselves, the world around them and the importance of bringing what they have learned into their everyday life.

If you have ever experienced such a course, you can often spot someone else who has gone through the same adventure by the way they walk into a room, the way they talk, how they overcome obstacles in new and exciting ways, and an inclination to help others see the best in themselves.

Here are just a few activities — along with the accompanying emotions — that are often experienced on an outdoors adventure course:

  • Rock climbing can engender fear, but promote self confidence
  • Punching through the rapids can also promote fear, but result in an accomplishment through group effort
  • Spending the night in a tent during a storm is uncomfortable, but builds a sense of pride for enduring the discomfort
  • Hiking with a heavy pack promotes physical and mental strength as well as a sense of pride)
  • Cooking meals in the woods promotes friendship, a mastery of skills, and a connection with those who share a meal in the outdoors.

You may recognize some of these people that have benefited from Adventure Education and organizations like The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) that believe in its power.

All of these experiences are available through courses offered at NCOAE. Our program features some amazing settings, which have included the Himalayas, Alaska, Nicaragua, the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, Deschutes River in Oregon, and coastlines on both the left and right sides of this country.

Outdoor and Adventure Education is so much more than paddling a kayak down a fast-moving river, or traversing a meadow in a remote forest or climbing a steep mountainside toward the peak.

It’s an experience unlike those found in a book, or a movie, or in the telling from someone who has actually accomplished such an adventure. Join us. We’re betting you’ll be back, time and time again, both with and without us.

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About the Author: Stephen Mullaney is the staff development director at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he is responsible for the training and education of NCOAE’s field instructors. He is a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and has taught within the Durham, N.C., public school system. Stephen received his undergraduate degree in English from Framingham State University, and his Master’s Degree in Education from North Carolina Central University.

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