Research in Outdoor Education


This study is aimed at better understanding the phenomenon of interaction between the individual and the natural environment from a human development perspective. It is a qualitative study focusing on the scientific study of the human experience in a natural environment The main theoretical context for this study is that of phenomenology (Husserl, 1859-1938), from which stems phenomenological psychology, whose founder Giorgi (1931- ) defined it as being the study of phenomena as experienced by enlightened human beings, and the research methods for the study of these phenomena (Giorgi, 1983). The focus is thus the Lebenswelt, which in Husserlian terminology designates the world originally lived, which comes before what is learned objectively in the world. On the other hand, the eidetic nature of the phenomenological approach to research helps us distinguish the essence of the experience of intimate interaction with nature from that which is accidental. What we are actually seeking to determine, through the diversity of the experiences, is their fundamental structure. In the review of literature, only one phenomenological research study was found pertaining to wilderness experience. Segal (1988) conducted the "communion with nature" experiment on six adults who had had previous wilderness experience. He described how these experiences resulted in what he calls "consciousness-raising on the sensory, emotional and spiritual levels." This research perspective is seen complementary to studies pertaining to the affective domain in outdoor environmental education as, for example, those reported by Crompton and Sellar (1981) and Iozzi (1989). The research design consisted primarily of field work, during which we invited 8 to lOparticipants to spend 10 days together in a natural wilderness environment Most of the participants were adult volunteers who were not familiar with the approach_ described below, although they were generally at ease spending several days in a wilderness environment We proposed activities encouraging the participants to explore their relationship with elements of nature ( e.g., trees, clouds, moss,) through body movement, and more specifically, dance. The focus was placed on a relationship that was experienced through the body, one that was felt rather than thought out We gave priority to what Merleau-Ponty called the pre-reflexive experience. In our approach, the _participants had to identify with these elements of nature. To collect data, three different techniques were used: (a) the self-report, (b) the interview, and (c) participative observation. The basic data obtained were essentially descriptions of these experiences of identification with and embodiment of elements of nature. For data analysis, the method used was that of phenomenological research (Giorgi, 1983; Van Mannen, 1989). Using an essentially descriptive technique applied to raw research data, the objective was to explain the essence or structure of the experience, eliminatlng as much as possible any philosophical or cultural presupposition. The results were presented in a descriptive format and defined the basic structure and the essential components of the phenomenon studied. In this paper, we referred primarily to two on-site experiments we conducted during the summer of 1987 (5 men, 4 women) and the summer of 1991 (3 men, 6 women) with adults aged 24 to 48. The study has led us to develop an approach to the educational experience in a natural environment as seen from the perspective of a productive dialogue between the individual and elements of nature. This interaction is experienced through the individual's participation in an interiorization-exteriorization process which emphasiz.es the place of a moving body as a feeling-oriented experience. This process helps the participants objectify their experience through symbols of identification with elements of nature (e.g. shifting moss). The study has led us to understand that what a symbol means for a person tends to reveal itself at different levels of meaning: the sensory level, the psychic level and the axiologic (value) level. Wilderness is thus understood as (a) a place of feeling-oriented experiences, (b) the seat of an unequalled diversity of phenomena which enable the individual to diversify that part of his or her potential which can be explored and fulfilled, and (c) a life context promoting the development of a feeling of belonging to a whole which surpasses our comprehension. Our study has also led us to understand the primary role of body movement in nature, as we approach it, as not solely the embodiment of elements themselves, but also as the embodiment of the the movement of unfoldment of the three different levels of rneaning. The embodiment of the intrinsic natural movement of true symbols towards the revelation of these levels or possibilities of meaning is understood as & developmental experience, but also as an aesthetic experience. Body movement in nature, even in its simplest form, when approached in the perspective we have described, supports and activates the aesthetic dimension of wilderness experience. It puts in a concrete form a dimension often left out of wilderness educational programs because of its intangible "nature.