• Dave Harvey

Why outdoor learning?

A simple 'theory of change' approach to illustrating how and why it works.



Across health, education and recreation the outdoors has become increasingly valued for the contribution that spending time in nature affords. In education, the question 'why outdoor learning?' may be an obvious one to answer for some but for others,


faced with a range of pressures and constraints, the answer may not be so easy. Recognising that there is a need to be able to answer this question effectively and robustly, PI Senior Associate Dave Harvey worked with Dr Lucy Maynard (Brathay Trust) and Neal Anderson (Institute for Outdoor Learning) to develop guidance for practitioners and organisations to help them develop a ‘theory of change’.



What is a Theory of Change?


A theory of change, quite simply, is the thinking (theory) behind the change your programme or service wants to achieve. It makes very clear the rationale which your work is based upon. It’s also been called a ‘roadmap’ for all to see and understand and, in this sense, needs to be logical. What positive change is created through outdoor learning and why and how does it happen.

Who needs to know?


Courses and programmes are often supported by specific funders who want to know that their money is being wisely spent, and theories of change are accepted ways of being able to demonstrate the thinking behind specific interventions.


In the schools market for outdoor learning provision, being able to show how your activities contribute to specific outcomes and ultimately a long term aim means that the reasoning behind doing what you do is clearly understood by everyone - provider, staff, clients and funders (whoever they may be). The theory of change helps to make that case. Although most often used by organisations working in the education sector there is potentially scope for businesses to use the model as a foundation for social responsibility projects.


Being able to show how your activities contribute to specific outcomes and ultimately a long term aim means that the reasoning behind doing what you do is clearly understood by everyone.

How does it help?


A theory of change:

  • Helps the staff team work together to achieve a shared understanding of your programmes

  • Helps identify and open up new opportunities and understanding

  • Helps determine what needs to be measured (and what does not) enabling planning any evaluation activities

  • Encourages staff to engage with the existing evidence base.

  • Act as the basis for claims about the contribution a programme is making towards the impact that is being aimed for

  • Enables organisations to quickly communicate your strategy


Where to start?


A series of well-received blogs focusing on developing practitioner understanding and good practice in using a theory of change approach have been published on the IOL website. These blogs are specifically aimed at outdoor learning and are a great way to start adopting a theory of change approach in your work and organisation.


Dave Harvey has also worked extensively with Langdale C of E Primary School to develop their outdoor learning curriculum, based on a theory of change.



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