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Teacher perspectives on place-responsive outdoor education

Mike Brown
Abstract: 

 

Outdoor education is often perceived as a series of activities involving novel physical challenges in remote settings or at specialist residential camps. Unfortunately, such experiences can be somewhat distant from the everyday lives of students and expensive to conduct. This research investigates teachers’ perspectives on conducting local outdoor education programmes. The findings reveal that this approach is a viable means of outdoor education provision. It is hoped that other teachers will see opportunities to broaden how they conduct outdoor education programmes, and in so doing open up avenues for more students to be engaged in learning outdoors.

Journal issue: 

Teacher perspectives on place-responsive outdoor education

MIKE BROWN

Key points

Outdoor education programmes conducted in the local area:

can enrich cross-curricular links

help connect people to places of meaning

encourage students to be comfortable in the outdoors

are low cost and environmentally friendly

are seen by teachers as a viable form of provision.

Outdoor education is often perceived as a series of activities involving novel physical challenges in remote settings or at specialist residential camps. Unfortunately, such experiences can be somewhat distant from the everyday lives of students and expensive to conduct. This research investigates teachers’ perspectives on conducting local outdoor education programmes. The findings reveal that this approach is a viable means of outdoor education provision. It is hoped that other teachers will see opportunities to broaden how they conduct outdoor education programmes, and in so doing open up avenues for more students to be engaged in learning outdoors.

Introduction

In the preface to Nature First, Brookes and Dahle suggest that one of the most pressing educational questions of our time is “How can and how should individuals, families, and communities experience nature in the modern world?” (2007, p. viii). This is a question that is increasingly at the forefront of debates concerning the types of outdoor-education experiences we might provide for our students. Outdoor education is not easily defined, and some of the claims relating to its purported outcomes have been criticised. Alternative constructions of outdoor education are emerging in both national (Irwin, Straker, & Hill, 2012; Wattchow & Brown, 2011) and international (Beames, Higgins, & Nicol, 2012; Payne & Wattchow, 2008) publications.

This article investigates teachers’ perspectives on the introduction of place-responsive outdoor education as a way to reframe practice and locate learning in local contexts. The aim in seeking teachers’ perspectives was to determine whether they considered a place-responsive approach to be a viable means to conduct outdoor education. (Students’ perspectives of these journeys have been explored in Brown, 2012a; Brown, 2012b.) The data presented in this paper were derived from a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) conducted in two secondary schools in the Waikato/Bay of Plenty.

Outdoor education: ambiguity in definitions

Providing a succinct definition of outdoor education has proven elusive. For example, it has been defined both as a teaching method and as a subject with its own body of knowledge (Priest, 1986). In the Health and Physical Education curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1999) outdoor education was defined as a means by which students would be provided with “opportunities to develop personal and social skills, to become active, safe, and skilled in the outdoors, and to protect and care for the environment” (p. 46). Cosgriff and Gillespie (2011) have pointed out that in The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) outdoor education remains a key learning area in health and physical education, yet “no extended description of its intent or nature is given” (p. 9).

In a study of outdoor education in New Zealand, Zink and Boyes (2006) noted that there is “considerable ambiguity in terminology and understanding around teaching and learning in the outdoors” (p. 11). More recently, Boyes (2012) has suggested that outdoor education practice is undergoing a constant process of change. Rather than being a set of givens, outdoor education can be considered a social and cultural construction that draws on diverse histories and assumptions that serve a particular purpose (Payne, 2002). A prominent approach involving the use of adventurous activities, often in remote settings, is one form of practice that has its origins in British military traditions, and organisations such as Outward Bound (Cook, 1999; Lugg, 2004). The use of adventurous pursuits is popular in the New Zealand school context.

Critiques of outdoor education theory and practice

In recent years a number of articles have questioned some of outdoor education’s self-evident truths or fundamental assumptions (e.g., Brookes, 2003a, 2003b; Brown, 2008b; Brown & Fraser, 2009; Seaman, 2008; Zink & Burrows, 2006, 2008). These writers have been concerned with some of the claims made regarding the outcomes of outdoor education programmes and how these claims have influenced practice. For example, Lugg (2004) raised questions about the educational relevance of commonly used adventure activities in the Australian educational context that originated in other countries and different cultures. She asked, “Is it possible to avoid taking an instrumental approach to natural environments if we use outdoor adventure activity as the vehicle for interacting with those environments?” (p. 9). Closer to home, Brown and Fraser (2009) have questioned the positioning of risk in outdoor education and suggest that activities requiring constant supervision can prevent opportunities for authentic student decision making.

One of the more sustained criticisms is that outdoor education practices silence place and treat the location as a mere backdrop to the ‘real action’, which involves personal or social development outcomes (Brookes, 2000; Payne & Wattchow, 2008; Wattchow & Brown, 2011). An instrumentalist view of the natural world—as a site for proving oneself through arduous travel (e.g., conquering a mountain or a lengthy tramp)—potentially restricts the relationship we might have with nature. For example, research in New Zealand reveals that teachers’ beliefs about outdoor education have tended to focus on notions of personal and social development outcomes, with environmental awareness viewed as less important (Zink & Boyes, 2006).

Critiques of outdoor education theory and practice and the growing recognition that where we educate is an integral part of how and what we learn (Gruenewald, 2003; Seaman, 2007) have led to the exploration of an alternative conception of outdoor education, based on the importance of being place-responsive.

The concept of place

On a practical level we know that different places are associated with different activities; for example, our workplace, our home and the sports field involve different ways of interacting (Relph, 1976). Cameron (2003a) has suggested that place encapsulates “the relationship between people and their local setting for their experience and activity” (p. 3). Many of us will have strong attachments to places that resonate with a special event or time in our lives. For example, places such as the beach, a piece of bush, or even the school grounds may all bring to light different emotions and a sense of connection or belonging. Penetito (2004) has pointed out how place-based approaches have the potential to be inclusive of Māori students’ world views, given Māoridom’s long and “well rehearsed traditional and historically affinity to place based education practices” (p. 18). Mason (2000) has also clearly articulated the relationship between places, identity, mauri, and mana for Māori.

According to Relph (1976), the concept of place is not confined to location. Rather, it is the integration of elements of nature and culture that form a unique fingerprint. As Relph (1976) states, “A place is not just the ‘where’ of something; it is the location plus everything that occupies that location seen as an integrated and meaningful phenomenon” (p. 3). This combination of culture and nature means that places are an integral element in both what might be taught and learnt and how this learning might occur. Gruenewald (2003) states that

places teach as about how the world works and how our lives fit into spaces that we occupy. Further, places make us: As occupants of particular places with particular attributes, our identity and our possibilities are shaped. (p. 621)

The pedagogical role of place has, until relatively recently, been largely overlooked in discussions of teaching and learning in outdoor education. Wattchow and Brown (2011) have argued that outdoor education does have the potential to play an important role in connecting people and places in a way that can enrich learning for individuals, communities, and the places in which they live.

Place-responsive pedagogy

There is a growing body of literature on place-based educational initiatives in schooling contexts (e.g., Smith, 2007; Sobel, 2005; Tooth & Renshaw, 2009). Examples include community gardens, local environmental restoration projects, and involvement in local social action programmes. However, being based in a place does not necessarily mean that outdoor education is place-responsive. For example, residential outdoor centres (based in a place) that conduct activities (e.g., a ropes course, abseiling, or archery), regardless of geographical or seasonal variations, display a lack of responsiveness to place (Brown, 2012a). Being in a specific location does not necessarily require an empathetic response to the particular cultural, historical, or ecological conditions. As Cameron (2003b) reminds us, “the word ‘responsive’ carries with it the impetus to act, to respond” (p. 180). To respond is to enter into a relationship that requires sensitivity and empathy for place(s) and those who dwell there; both now and in the future (Brown, 2012a). My preference, following Wattchow and Brown (2011), is to think in terms of being place-responsive rather than place-based.

If places, and our relationship with them, contribute to individual and communal identity, how might outdoor educators encourage and enable students to feel safe and comfortable in place(s)? How can we expect students to care for place(s) if they have no attachment nor commitment to place(s)? These are certainly challenging questions for outdoor educators if it is believed that learning outcomes can only be achieved in remote or wilderness environments far removed from the everyday lives of most students. If we believe that outdoor education requires experiences in the remote wilderness, are we inhibiting students from developing connections with places that are central to the formation of a sense of identity? An alternative approach is to conduct outdoor-education experiences in areas that are closer to the students’ everyday lives so that this sense of being dislocated is replaced by a sense of belonging and connection.

The research project

These interviews were conducted as part of a larger TLRI project investigating the implementation of place-responsive outdoor education programmes in Mount Maunganui College and Ngaruawahia High School during 2010/11. In keeping with the objectives of the TLRI project, the development of the programmes was very much a collaborative endeavour between members of the research team, teachers, and a university researcher. Both schools developed local journey-style programmes1 that reflected their geographical and social context. For example, Ngaruawahia High School developed a 3-day journey that began at Maungatautari and finished at Ngaruawahia. The students walked and paddled from the starting point to their destination and took responsibility for planning the journey and organising the logistics. En route they stopped at areas of cultural and historical significance, and small presentations about pā sites or notable events were incorporated. Students paddled the Waikato River from Cambridge to Tūrangawaewae Marae at Ngaruawahia, and the significance of the river to Tainui was embedded in this aspect of the journey. This programme was designed to connect students with places of significance and reflected the cultural composition of the school (i.e., 74 percent of the students identify as Māori and 80 percent of these as Tainui).2

If places, and our relationship with them, contribute to individual and communal identity, how might outdoor educators encourage and enable students to feel safe and comfortable in place(s)? How can we expect students to care for place(s) if they have no attachment nor commitment to place(s)?

Both schools also modified aspects of existing residential camps to incorporate place-responsive principles (see Wattchow & Brown, 2011). Both teacher and student perspectives were sought through a series of interviews before and after the implementation of place-responsive programmes.

Findings and discussion

The sections of transcripts presented here are drawn from individual semi-structured teacher interviews conducted towards the end of the project. Four teachers participated in these interviews, which were transcribed and analysed inductively to identify recurring themes (Patterson, Watson, Williams, & Roggenbuck, 1998). The following themes emerged from the interviews.

Increased cross-curricula engagement

This was one of the more tangible and immediate outcomes from the introduction of this new approach. In both schools, outdoor education was previously seen as either the preserve of the Physical Education department or of teachers with a passion for the outdoors. Often other staff were coerced into attending and found little relevance to their subject area. The grounding of outdoor learning within a place-responsive framework clearly resonated with teachers in other curriculum areas. Lisa’s and Nikki’s accounts highlight the benefits and cross-curricula opportunities that arose.

The buy in from staff has been quite big now. Staff are now coming forward with ideas to respond to the place … So now rather than coming up with our contrived activities here at school and then taking them out to camp, the teachers are coming up with activities using that area, and I think it is having a way better staff buy in, because it is not me creating it, it is them looking at it and then coming up with their own ideas … music are looking at ideas around water as the theme … the science department is looking at this whole theme and how they can link with other subject areas, so they may have an activity out there which at the moment is around the plants and medicinal properties and then having scenarios where the students have to recall and use and apply that information. (Lisa)

I think one of the biggest benefits of going to a place-responsive pedagogy or experience is the place is actually the important thing, and so learning can evolve around that place, rather than a[n] activity-based experience where we are trying to ask curriculum leaders to fit a random activity into their curriculum and make it meaningful and follow through with that. So there was never any further curriculum development that could happen because it was contrived to start with. It’s contrived on the camp so how do you actually build meaningful curriculum and learning experience beyond the experience that took place? ... I have found that when the place is the focus of the learning, then the activities fit into that place, in fact the activities are defined by that place. (Nikki)

Nikki’s comments reflect an understanding that the subject matter should be, or certainly can be, based in the concrete experiential world in which school communities are based. The design of the programme that she developed responded to both the cultural and the geographical milieus that had relevance in the lives of the students. She expresses an awareness that contrived team-building activities (often sourced from textbooks) are often seen as divorced from the day-to-day reality of school life. In the student interviews I also became aware that students saw these team-building activities as “like little games” (Brown, 2012a, p. 114), which they viewed as largely irrelevant.

Building connections

Peter recalled a conversation about organising a venue for the overnight stay. He mentioned that he knew of a marae in the area and one of the students “turned around and said, ‘That’s my marae’, and that’s how that got started and that was really nice”. Peter explained how the marae stay was:

significant for me in my job and my understanding of where some of the kids I work with outside of outdoor ed come from. I have never been to that marae before. I know a number of students that are associated with the marae now that I didn’t know … it’s been one of the most powerful aspects of the trip, I guess, as far as connecting with, you know, what’s around us. (Peter)

Nikki provided an example of how a student was able to demonstrate his out-of-school knowledge on a bush walk. This student,

who is not the most motivated kid, was incredible on the walk, because his background is hunting and he was telling me about birds … and his grandfather came into the school and we caught up and was like, ‘Yeah I take John hunting’. So we got to connect on that level too, you know? His grandfather was really stoked … we spoke for about 5 minutes on tramping and what he has done with John. (Nikki)

Nikki compared her experiences on a traditional, more activity-based camp with her experiences of the programme that she ran with a place-responsive emphasis:

One of the big issues was that we had kids that were just not respecting the environment, you know? Like, just not respecting the place. They came in, they were visitors to it, they had no connection [with] it, no stories. They just had no idea, … so a lot happened there that it was straight out and out disrespect for property, for the people of that place, and they just weren’t connected. And one of [the] things I find with place-responsive and Māori and culturally responsive education is that kids, once you learn about a place and in Māori culture there is a lot of personification that occurs. Any time personification occurs and there is an identity to a place or to a mountain, or to a river, or to a[n] ocean or whatever, there is this inherent respect that comes from those kids because it’s a living entity … and that is one of the best things about place responsiveness, if you share those stories. (Nikki)

Nikki saw place as integral to fostering students’ cultural connections that had a bearing on identity and sense of belonging. The shift in emphasis to a place-responsive approach had a direct bearing on student engagement and behaviour.

Peter, who initially had concerns about conducting a local outdoor-education programme, commented how this approach appeared to enrich students’ connections to the local environment:

I was surprised at the way they embraced it. I was concerned that it would be, ‘Oh we have been here, done that’ … you know? You are paddling in the harbour, which is, you know, five minutes from school, but you might as well have been a million miles away in some respects, you know? … so I think I was surprised that it was, it was, you know, the kids were so positive about it [in] their evaluations, and their comments along the way as well were pretty positive on the whole … From the feedback we got from the kids, from the point of view of connecting to their local environment and maybe opening their eyes to what is here and what they can make use of with friends, families, et cetera, I think it was really good. (Peter)

It appeared that a place-responsive approach facilitated the establishment of connections at both an interpersonal level and also between the participants and the environment.

Lowered stress levels

Three of the teachers specifically mentioned that a place-responsive localised journey was less stressful than programmes run in areas that were further from school:

It was my most stress-free camp that I had been on. It was just amazing … as teachers we were comfortable, because we knew where we were, we knew that if we needed to go home for any reason we could, … it was, yeah, it was that comfort of knowing the places and the students knowing the places … you had confidence that everything that we did was achievable and we could adapt easily if we needed, and we did. So, yeah, it was really quite special. (Sarah)

Because of the familiarity with the environment I felt it was less stressful, significantly less stressful, than being a long way from home with a group of kids, significantly less. Because you are comfortable in that environment, you know that allows you to make some decisions quite easily. (Peter)

These comments are interesting and will perhaps resonate with many teachers who find issues of risk management to be both complex and stressful. The teachers’ perspective that their stress levels had decreased is certainly a welcome finding.

Reflections on pedagogy

Sarah explained that, in contrast to previous experiences where there was an emphasis on getting from A to B as fast as you could, this approach encouraged a fundamental change to focusing “on the journey and not the destination. Don’t worry about how far we are going to come, just enjoy where we are now, just look at the process and not the outcome.”

Lisa described how a more place-responsive orientation altered the nature of the learning that occurred. She described how after a raft-building activity, students and teachers engaged in learning that responded to the context:

It was travelling to the river and back home, where we go from water hole to water hole and look at asking natural questions like, Where is this water going? Where has it come from? You know? Why is this rock mossy here? And all that type of thing that became quite valuable. So more natural enquiry type stuff and just, yeah, the teachers becoming quite responsive to those learning opportunities I guess, yeah. (Lisa)

Sarah was quite open about the way the project had altered her pedagogical approach:

Yeah I’ve changed heaps how I teach in terms of the senior outdoor education, where it was, my emphasis used to be on that personal and social development and leadership skills, and now the learning is based about learning about the places we travel through, the students having a role in looking at the reasons why we go through and over different places, and a lot of it is setting it up for the students. So for me, personally, just my whole approach has changed. I still get excited when a student rolls a kayak for the first time and still feel real excited when they stand up surfing and things like that, but the approach in terms of, like, it put little tingles up and down my spine when students have done a good job and they are able to present to others about a place, and it has more meaning for them. (Sarah)

Lisa described the process as follows:

I think it is almost a slowing down, when you are teaching you can get so focused on what you are teaching and how many credits they need and have I covered it all? But if you slow down and you think this is where I was going, but these guys want to go in this direction, or learn this or look at this, you know? It’s like a hands in pocket, look around, what are these kids doing? Learning, and what do they want to learn? And how can I approach that differently? Yeah, way more reflection, way more reflection. (Lisa)

Peter, who came from a more adventurous activity-focused background, provided some interesting thoughts on the nature of challenge and risk.

For me, place-based means utilising and gaining a greater understanding of what is close, enabling the kids, I guess, to maybe not be so out of their comfort zones, so maybe they can … actually enjoy and embrace the surroundings, knowing I am close to home, you know, that I am pretty safe. In my mind it is using the local environment to do really cool outdoor things, and in a way that hopefully the kids can really take a few risks because they generally feel quite safe. There isn’t this overwhelming sense of ‘I’m in a strange place’, because you already have that level of anxiety from being somewhere different, then you put on a challenge on top of that, and maybe they are liable to step back and say, ‘I’m already feeling a bit nervous, because I’m in a place I know nothing about, I’m staying in a tent, I hate tenting and it’s a long way from home and I’m a bit homesick’, and whatever else. Place-based is using your local environment to enable students to be challenged in a way that they feel comfortable in, to enable them to see what is in their local environment, and because it is more local, they are more likely perhaps to do it again, and again, and introduce other members of their family too, or whatever.

Peter raises a very interesting point here about how levels of anxiety might have an impact on learning in the outdoor context. The belief that students learn best by being pushed outside their comfort zone, through the use of novel or risky activities, has a long history in some branches of outdoor education (Luckner & Nadler, 1997; Priest & Gass, 1997). This belief in the need to push students outside their comfort zones to learn has been the subject of critique (Brown, 2008a; Davis-Berman & Berman, 2002; Zink & Leberman, 2001). While it is unlikely that Peter was familiar with these debates, his insights reinforce concerns raised about artificially manipulating stress. As he points out, the fact that they are already in an unfamiliar environment may be disconcerting enough for some students. The use of contrived activities that add to this level of unease may in fact be counterproductive. Peter’s comment supports Brown’s (2008a) proposition that opportunities for “authentic risk taking where fabricated stress is minimised” (p. 10), and where there is personal choice, have greater potential for positive learning outcomes. Beames and Ross (2010, p. 106) have also argued that local journeys:

might actually have a much higher degree of authentic adventure than highly regulated ropes course and rock climbing sessions that are common at traditional residential centres. After all, Outdoor Journeys are unpredictable … and involve real-world risks that need to be managed (e.g., cars, exposure to cold).

Concluding thoughts

As educators we have an important role in structuring how students experience nature in the modern world. Consideration of how we interact, by either connecting with or largely ignoring places, is of profound pedagogical and ecological significance. The findings in this project indicate that place-responsive outdoor education can enrich cross-curricular linkages, enhance connections between people and places of significance, and reframe outdoor education pedagogy so that students feel more comfortable in the outdoors. One of the TLRI project’s research questions focused on whether a place-responsive approach to outdoor education offered a viable alternative to more traditional activity-based experiences conducted in more remote locations. This article has presented teachers’ positive perspectives on the viability of such an approach. Perhaps the greatest affirmation is that both schools have continued with this approach beyond the conclusion of the research period and both have extended the principles into other year levels.

A place-responsive approach facilitates forms of engagement with people and places that were viewed positively by the teachers involved in the delivery of outdoor education. From a purely pragmatic perspective the low costs, reduced environmental footprint and lowered teacher stress levels are clear benefits. The increased involvement from other subject areas and the fostering of relationships with people and places suggest that a place-responsive approach offers a viable means to deliver outdoor education.

Acknowledgements

My thanks to the teachers and students of the two participating schools and to the TLRI for funding. Thanks also to Jane Townsend and Tarena Ranui for providing feedback on the paper.

Notes

1For a more detailed description of these programmes, see Brown, 2012a; Brown, 2012b).

2Education Review Office, 2009.

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MIKE BROWN is is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, The University of Waikato. He was awarded a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) to investigate place-responsive outdoor education in two secondary schools in 2010–2011. He is co-author, with Brian Wattchow, of A pedagogy of place: Outdoor education for a changing world.

Email: michaelb@waikato.ac.nz