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Experience pedagogic | Outdoor education

An article by Gudrun Gassner

1. Current experience pedagogic

Outdoor education in youth work

In the past few years, “experience pedagogic” has moved in on different areas of public life including youth work (holiday camps), in standard as well as Christian youth work and more and more experience pedagogical measures are on offer and have been introduced to adult education.

However the aspect of “experiencing” is nothing new in education and was even relevant in the 1920’s and 1930’s under the pedagogical reform (representatives: Ellen Key, Maria Montessorei; their starting point was education relating to children). Kurt Hahn (1886-1974) also had ideas and concepts, which have been collected and used. (See point 3). Surely an unusual step, but successfully executed, is the therapy measures in the work with delinquent children (bicycle tours, canoe tours or the example “Survival training with violent youths in Corfu” or with children from children’s homes). Practicing extreme sports is, in my opinion, not included in the scope of experience pedagogic – not because it can be dangerous but because it encourages an addictive behaviour (the “kick”) and mainly because it goes beyond the real goal of experience pedagogic. (Some extreme-sports: Free climbing, hang-gliding, windsurfing, speed-windsurfing, water fall climbing, downhill, bungee jumping, ultraman, sky surfing.)
Which aspects of experience pedagogical work are important in the area of youth work? Here are a few thoughts (theses):

2. Experience pedagogic as a field of experience for youths and educators

Theses: [1]

Outdoor education in youth work
  • With the constant incessant attractions which flood in (media and environment) the young people cannot experience as much anymore. Instead of experiencing their own adventures, the television or film hero steps in.

  • The experiences that youths make in school, youth work and in their free time are often strangers to reality ("laboratory situation") and they find it difficult to translate these experiences, perceived in their heads, into daily life.

  • The freedom of movement for youths (outside of school and youth work) have become less available, but young people need the offer of such areas of experience, which are direct experiences and relevant to everyday life with a serious character.

For this reason, here are some possibilities and chances for experience pedagogical activities:

  • Long term effect on the youths through immediate experiences.

  • A better understanding of group conflicts, your own behaviour and limits.

  • Debate with physical efficiency (experiencing limits – which are not dangerous or socially sanctioned.

  • Group interaction (- how do I experience myself and how do I experience others etc.)

These experience pedagogic activities are also called "experience learning" [2]; Children, teenies and Youths find things interesting where something is going on, where games, fun, action, adventure and excitement is on offer, - this presents a very good opportunity to integrate these things in public youth work because it is based on “free choice”. "Experience learning usually deals with the action aspect but the pedagogical implications are always regarded and brings the link between external and internal experiences and the link between the inside world and the outside world. The outside world is more consciously differentiated and perceived more through "learning by doing" which touches the lives of children and youths" (ib.) Through common business another level/atmosphere results within the interaction between people - the "pedagogical walls“ between teachers and pupils in boarding schools collapse. The relationship between pupils and teachers is often more positive afterwards.

Experience pedagogic is directed toward the following didactic principles:

  • Do not talk, negotiate

  • A new definition of the relationship between youth worker and youths

  • Contrast experiences such as: a) New regulation of the relationship between work and spare time, (integrated life experiences), and b) out of the concrete jungle (new experiences with and in nature). In addition: everyone participates, everyone is jointly responsible, everyone learns about the consequences of their own behaviour and everyone takes small steps - together - to accomplishment the tasks.

3. Roots of experience pedagogic

Intellectual father and founder of the experience pedagogic is the reform pedagogue Kurt Hahn (1886 -1974). In 1920 he practiced „experience therapy“ in the boarding school „Castle Salem“ (Lake Constance). This means that he integrated experience-educational elements into the time table (physical training, expedition, projects, and emergency service). In 1941 he created the Outward Bound School in Wales (its goal: young humans must be prepared to deal with life. His inspiration: The English Sailor’s School and a ship prepared for sea).

Hahn analysed the society of the time and stated that society suffers from a so-called "civilisation illness" (the declination of compassion – this means a lack of human sympathy and human-human relationships, the decline of physical fitness, a lack of attention, a lack of initiative and sliding into a spectator mentality).

Hahn did something against this: physical training – hiking, running, playing, gymnastics, artistic exercises – as well as drawing and sculpting; practical garden work, work in the fields, in the workshops and building sites etc. These ideas can concepts from Hahn were developed later.

Today we speak of an integrated educational concept; experience pedagogic is “learning with head, heart and hand."

The four activities,[3] which Kurt Hahn introduced to his schools beside normal education:

  • Services for your fellow man – perhaps one of the most outstanding characteristics of his schools were the emergency services, in which the pupils were trained and even called upon: the fire-brigade, the coast guards and the mountain rescue.

  • The physical training: The purpose is obvious. Courage, overcoming strength and perseverance should be increased. However: The pupils learned to become a master of their own weaknesses and would build upon their strengths.

  • The project represented a possibility to master a task in a craft, a technical area of expertise or an intellectual area of expertise. This should promote the desire for "self creation" and promote the fun in „building something“.

  • The organisation of expeditions, which took place on a yacht, kayak, dingy or on skis or by foot over the mountains, should expel the lack of initiative and encourage decisiveness and the desire to overcome a task."

4. Goals (of experience pedagogical youth work) and its execution


  1. Individual learning / self experience
  2. Social learning in group processes
  3. Ecological learning


  • Dynamic group interactional games (e.g. new games, like: Gordian knots, trust exercises, blindfolded games) – mostly at the beginning of an experience pedagogical camp. The targets are: warming up and developing trust towards the other participants.

  • Experience and adventure orientated nature sports (e.g.: rock climbing, sailing, kayaking, caving, hill walking- and variation on the theme: tree climbing, raft building).


  1. A hill walk over a few days: (usually a “two-day tour”)

    The youth group (split into groups of 3-4 for example) should reach a destination goal together e.g. a farm which is located 30 km from the starting point. The group (or groups of 3-4) receives equipment which they will need for the few days walking e.g.: map and compass, provisions or money for provisions, cutlery for cooking/eating, tents etc. and then their own personal things:

    Sleeping bag, roll mat, suitable clothing etc. Everyone is responsible for their own things (whatever they take) and they must carry their own rucksack. They then receive their share of the things which are needed for the whole group; the group must discuss and agree on who packs what in their rucksack. This means that lots of things have be cleared up (the leader may not interfere nor give any tips – except at the beginning at general instructions how to use a compass for example), e.g.: the route, which point they want to achieve on the first day etc; everyone must take part. On this type of hike, the following must be “learned”: you are physically challenged and might reach your own personal limits (the heat and the heavy rucksack), you have get through unforeseen occurrences (getting lost, rain), you have to watch out for weaker group members and possibly help – by taking a piece of luggage from them, if someone cannot carry on/ has blisters on their feet), you have to accept the simple means and accept the cramped living conditions (tent), you have to learn to deal with conflicts and differences of opinion constructively (e.g. a fork in the road and group has a split opinion which way is correct). You have to stick together and look for solutions together, take responsibility for yourself and use your own initiative, but use this in the group too (who will go shopping, who will put up the tents).

    (Similar experiences will be made in all other activities and it can also vary depending on the element of experience pedagogic / type of sport.)

  2. Climbing trees:

    All members of the group climb together through high trees while attached to a climbing rope. The social competence of the participants is challenged. The group members need to be able to trust each other and encourage each other.

  3. Caving:

    This activity is often executed in connection with abseiling on a cliff or abseiling into the cave shaft; the conclusion is then exploring the cave. Apart from the above mentioned “learning possibilities”, the following is also challenged:

    • Experience possibilities for every individual with experiencing physical and emotional limits (as this activity focuses more on the individuals than on the experience in a group context) – e.g.: Abseiling into the cave is a very physically and emotionally intensive experience; climbing back onto the rope requires lots of effort, power and stamina.

    • The possibility to maintain the positive experience of personally experienced success for the participants, who might have experienced frustration (hanging in the cave and not being able to carry on).

    In all of these activities, the aspect of “ecology/environment” can quite easily be seized, with targeted observational tasks (e.g. in the cave) or can be used as reflection after the activity (what did you notice, what did you see). The environment can be experienced in such a different way; and intensive nature experience is bound to become a 2-day tour (with hiking, camping overnight, dealing with being thrown out to the elements; heat, rain, and fog: managing to climb mountains and dealing with heights, crossing over rivers etc.)

    The important thing in these activities is that you execute the tasks with competent, experienced leaders (experience educators or other competent leaders).

    A basic prerequisite is the guarantee of the highest possible safety standards and also that the participants are carefully instructed in all activities and instructed how to use the necessary material for climbing and abseiling (etc...) along with other safety precautions (safety knots for an emergency when tree climbing). All of this should be practiced beforehand.

5. Experience pedagogical elements and activities integrated with Christian teenager and youth work

(I will not go further into the enquiries, critical points and limits of experience pedagogic and Christian beliefs.)

There are generally very good opportunities to build experience pedagogical elements into Christian camps and trips; it can be enrichment. You can bring over practical aspects of belief to the youths because they have experienced this close up.

This can look a bit like this:
1. "If we abseil after climbing a cliff, this represents trust in the rope (an indirectly in the leader), then it is simply a vivid opportunity to discuss trust in God. Beliefs are clarified through personal experiences."

2. "If I am in a cave/canyon, I can talk about impressions on the catacombs and the persecution of the first Christians just as well as in a comfortable classroom."

3. "On a boat trip there is no need to talk theoretically about community and to philosophise. You will experience this." [4]

Hans Peter Royer [5] talks about a "Christian-orientated experience pedagogic". How he manages to reproduce the pedagogical and Christian aspects of his activities should be clarified in the following example [6]:


  1. General experience values: Darkness, surprising effect, narrow passages, dirt, bridges, deep shafts or sand and wind in the eyes (adrenaline kick)

  2. Swapping personal impressions on reactions to these feelings

    • Uncertainty on entering the cave
    • I was almost sick when I looked down
    • I nearly wet myself when we crawled through the gap
    • Claustrophobia
    • I really had to pull myself together
  3. Analysis of feelings

    • Why was I unsure / why was I scared?
      • Did I mistrust the equipment/cave leader?
      • Concrete things: cold, darkness, dirt, claustrophobia
      • Maybe I am generally scared/distrusting
    • What made me carry on?
      • Others encouraged me / the community
      • I gave myself a push to carry on
    • How can I use these experiences in everyday life?
      • I am allowed to be scared but the fear cannot take me over.
      • I recognise the need for people to depend on each other.
      • I always see the next ten steps or meters – I do not see the final destination. I am therefore living in the present.
      • I can translate this into everyday life.
  4. What have I learned from nature?

    • Respect and the correct
    • Dealing with nature.
    • Nature is generally not against me, but I must learn to act in the correct way with it (clothing, technique, fitness and partnerships).
    • The beauty and the violence of nature teaches me to be humble.
    • I am amazed, I am surprised and I have inner peace etc.
  5. Which principles do I learn about God?

    • The need for darkness and light
    • I recognise that there is no life without light
    • A flame gives life
    • ... I am the light of the world... John 8,12
    • ... You are the light of the world... Matthew 5,14
    • Make participants aware of the loss of a Godless world. People without a saviour live in a dark world.
    • Knowledge of the importance and uniqueness of the Evangelisms
    • ... In facing a lost world.

Only Christian-orientated experience pedagogic really enriches an experience. It enriches so much that the people really go home as a changed person, they find a fundament for their life which not only works in the bottom of a cave but also at home in everyday life."

From his work involving Christian-orientated experience pedagogic (EP), Royer Ziele formulated the following results which I would like to conclude here:

  • Following Jesus means: “and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ“(integration of life); (Philip. 3, 13-14; 2. Corinthians. 10,5)
  • That I am child of God is only the beginning; we should and will be qualified, to do good and to be a blessing for other people.
  • In front of God, what I do is not important, but how I do it.
  • Not knowing what the next hour will bring and what will come tomorrow.
  • Make others aware about the total dependence on God and dependence upon each other.
  • School others in taking responsibility for themselves - disobedience has consequences.
  • Faithfulness and keeping going (Revelations 2, 10).
  • Life in nature teaches you to be silent (Ps. 46, 10; Matthew 26, 36-39).
  • Make people capable again (Matthew 11, 28-30).
youth work

The sense of “Upward Bound” (amongst others) is that people should be made aware that God made us as a complete unity (body, soul and spirit). In doing this, Jesus gives us principles to live by and He himself is the principle for all of life’s levels and the answer to our problems (The hungry – I am the bread, in the darkness – I am the light, lost – I am the way, the thirsty – I am the water of life, outcast – I am the door, ensnared – I am the good shepherd, confused – I am the truth, death – I am the resurrection).

Belief should / can become an "Adventure of a higher order" [7], relying on yourself and recognising your personal limits on experience pedagogical activities is a part of this.

Even if not everything which is experienced on EP camps can be related and translated into Christian beliefs, it is my opinion that valuable pedagogical aspects are certainly an experience (for the youths).

LITERATURE and SOURCES on the subject of experience pedagogic (German references and only in German language):

1. Jugendstiftung Baden Württemberg (Hrg.): Erlebnispädagogik - Theorie und Praxis in Aktion, Praxishilfen der Jugendstiftung Baden-Württemberg, Münster: Ökotopia Verlag Münster, (1997, 3. Aufl.), 1993; Adresse: Jugendstiftung Baden-Württemberg, Schloßstr. 23, 74372 Sersheim.

2. Boos, Stefan, u.a.: Erlebnispädagogik - der Boom und was dahinter steckt, Kuckusei 1/94.

3. Royer, Hans Peter, u. a.: Christusorientierte Erlebnispädagogik, Blickpunkt Teenager Nr. 53.

4. Born-Verlag (Hrg.): Ausgangs- und Zielpunkte der Erlebnispädagogik, Blickpunkt Teenager Nr. 47.

5. Schwarzenhölzer, Andreas: Extremklettern und Zitterspiele, Sendereihe des e.r.f. junge Welle, 8.03.1995, Wetzlar: Evangeliums-Rundfunk (Hrg.).

6. Fischer, Dieter, u.a. (Hrg.): (Er)leben statt reden - Erlebnispädagogik in der offenen Jugendarbeit, Weinheim/München 1991 (2. Aufl.).

[1] Vgl. D. Fischer u.a. (Hrg.), (Er)leben statt reden, Erlebnispädagogik in der offenen Jugendarbeit, 2. Auflage, Weinheim/München, 1991, 37-41.

[2] Vgl. Autor unbekannt, (aus) Blickpunkt Teenager, Nr. 47, 60.

[3] Ebd., 58.

[4] Vgl. A. Schwarzenhölzer, Extremklettern und Zitterspiele, Sendereihe des e.r.f. junge welle, Evangeliums- Rundfunk Wetzlar, 08.03. 1995 (Sendedatum), 3.

[5] H.P. Royer ist staatl. gepr. Bergführer u. Skilehrer in Österreich, USA und Australien, Leiter einer Bergsteigerschule und Direktor des Christlichen Schulungszentrums "Tauernhof"; er führt Freizeiten und Seminare durch mit erlebnispädagogischen, christusorientierten Aktionen ("Upward Bound", "Outward Bound", u.a.).

[6] Blickpunkt Teenager (Hrg.), Christusorientierte Erlebnispädagogik, Blickpunkt Teenager, Nr.53, 7-8. H.P. Royer beschreibt in diesem Beispiel seine Zielsetzungen und Erfahrungswerte.

[7] Vgl. A. Schwarzenhölzer, Extremklettern und Zitterspiele, a.a.O., 4.

This article was provided with the kind permission of Gudrun Gassner from the “Lebenszentrum Adelshofen”. (bible school). The pictures are provided by Hans Hirling, YMCA/YWCA Magstadt (near Stuttgart in the south of Germany)

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