Eight Reasons Why Organizations Should Learn Outdoors
By: Richard Milecki
“After the long and challenging activity, we turned left on the path, entered a small clearing between the native oaks and sat down in a small circle of stools. After the recent rain, the earth was moist, the rotting leaves exuded a sweet smell, the cyclamen leaves sprouted from everywhere and when looking up, the blue sky penetrated through the branches. Silence fell upon the senior management team and not a work was spoken, each manager deep in thought.”
The above description is a common occurrence for me and I am lucky to take working outdoors for granted. Yet recently when I was asked about the added value of carrying out organizational learning interventions outdoors, in nature, I was unprepared for the question and answered somewhat hesitantly. Upon reflection, I know that the same activity or discussion that takes place indoors is completely different when it occurs outdoors. Why?
I spent much of my childhood outdoors. The neighborhood I grew up in was close to a river with lots of open space that belonged only to us, the neighborhood kids. We built campouts, tunnels, fortresses and hangouts – anything that came into our heads. Every day I was outside until nightfall when my mum would call us in for dinner. This continued on to youth movement activities with hikes and summer camps in tents. Till today, I am at my happiest outdoors; a passionate gardener and the leader of family hikes. I always hoped that our teachers at school would take us outside for a lesson so that I could daydream and look at the grass and the sky, not necessarily at the learning material. At school nature was perceived as a place for enjoyment, escape, therapy, relaxation and fun, and not a structured learning process. Since then nature has moved into the mainstream of learning with outdoor and wilderness lessons at school. It has also moved in to the therapeutic field for example with Nature Therapy which can be defined as:
“…an innovative therapeutic framework that takes place through the direct and creative dialogue humans have with nature. It expands the classical concept of ‘setting’ while developing concepts and methods that place nature as a partner in the therapeutic process. It connects people with their strength, supports change and healing while expanding the therapeutic process and actively engaging humans with nature.”
This definition hints at the added value that nature provides. On the one hand clients do not ask for healing or clinical therapy but rather teamwork, communication, leadership and learning. On the other hand, nature is one of the central components of the learning environment in experiential learning.
Here then is a partial list of the contribution of nature to the process and outcomes of outdoor experiential learning, mostly from my experience:
A Change of Setting. Being in a different and unfamiliar place and even wearing casual and comfortable clothes have an effect on how people act and interact. Spending time in a different and neutral place levels the playing field for all and invites a new group contact. This new experience and learning may cause people to think anew about current norms. In nature, everyone is subject to forces and rules that are bigger than them, giving them a different perspective on the world, life and work.
Togetherness. One of the aims of most experiential workshops is the desire to bring people closer. Nature strengthens this feeling of togetherness and cushions it. Nature is always on the move and the mere sitting together in a natural setting turns into a shared experience and strengthens the connection between people.
Calm. In a lot of teams that work together there is tension around issues that may surface during a workshop. Nature calms raw nerves and sensitivities and allows the team to open difficult issues in a setting that is softer than one made of four walls. Not everybody is suited to board rooms. Some people prefer a natural setting in order to express themselves comfortably.
Disconnect. Modern life is filled with technological distractions. When disconnecting from walls and personal devices people are free to explore the learning content and process and connect to nature and to each other.
Risk. In nature, elements of danger and fear may be added. Trust falls, being lifted in the air, crossing a plank or cable or even walking on an uneven path are part of the agenda. Dealing with danger and fear in a managerial context provides a wealth of material for learning.
Pleasure. The mere exposure to nature, flora and fauna is enough to bring about positive feelings and fulfill a basic human need.
According to the “biophilia theory” the meaning of which is “the love of life and living systems”, ‘man desires in his subconscious to connect to different forms of life from himself,’ according to E.O Wilson.
The Weather Challenge. Participants often have to cope with cold, heat, rain or wind. The weather is not in our control and adds uncertainty. Unexpected weather challenges, just like in organizations where there is a high level of uncertainty and surprise, become part of the management and team challenge. Of course in the outdoors, the arguments about setting the air conditioning thermostat evaporate.
Escape. Some office and industrial environments can be described as alienating, artificial or simply unsuitable for humans. Being in nature provides an opportunity to communicate in a human-friendly environment. An unpolluted space, clean and beautiful to the eye, allows a momentary escape and the chance to get to know ourselves and our colleagues better.
So go out and learn in nature!
Wilson, E.O. (1984) Biophilia, Harvard.