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CONAPEDE The concept of nature to the test of outdoor education


September 2023 - January 2025


Outdoor education, collaborative action, concept of nature, interdisciplinarity

Education level involved



In the debate concerning environmental issues and in many appropriations of outdoor pedagogy, little consideration is given to what is meant by “nature,” often ignoring the fact that this concept has a long history and many meanings.

According to Descola (2005), it is a social construction of the modern West that reflects a cosmogony largely isolated from other worldviews. According to him, we should learn to position ourselves “beyond nature and culture.” What does this term “nature” encompass in the various practices of outdoor pedagogies? Is it the vegetal space outside the urban environment, outside school buildings? What is nature in relation to human beings, to students? As Delepière (2023) emphasizes, “in tension with multiple prisms such as the divergence between nature and culture (Descola, 2005), the question of the historical place of humans in common and philosophical thought is debated: does man dominate nature? Is culture superior to nature? Is man outside the ecosystem?”

According to philosophers Bruno Latour (2004), Isabelle Stengers (2019), and Catherine and Raphaël Larrère (2022), these epistemological and societal tensions conceal crucial issues in terms of environmental and political positioning.

As a result, several questions arise. Is the concept of nature politically invested by on-the-ground actors (teachers and students) and, if so, from what perspective? In particular, is nature perceived and understood as a “battlefield” from the perspective of political and social ecology? (Keucheyan, 2014/2018). What type of citizenship learning is fostered by outdoor schools, and to what type of social experimentation model do they align themselves? Do they correspond to a specific identifiable political project? Beyond reconnecting with “nature” and breaking down disciplinary boundaries, do outdoor pedagogies aim to transform our relationship to production, private property, or even rights and their subjects? If so, how? If not, why?

Project context

Alarming discourses on the Anthropocene and climate change now shape our relationship with the world. Numerous research works analyze these contemporary eschatologies (Chelebourg, 2012). In response, driven by their mission to educate the citizens of tomorrow, educational institutions are increasingly engaging with environmental issues, often through activities inside the classroom using traditional pedagogy to raise awareness on the subject. At times, and more frequently, they are experimenting new forms of pedagogy. Thus, under the terms of “education through nature,” “outdoor school,” “education in the open air,” or even “forest school,” to name just a few movements, initiatives around outdoor education have been multiplying in Europe for the past ten years, both in schools (Chereau & Fauchier-Delavigne, 2019) and in scientific studies (Ayotte-Beaudet & Potvin, 2020; Acheroy, Leterme & Faniel, 2020).

Several arguments are put forward to justify this enthusiasm: the direct positive links between outdoor education and students’ creativity, collaboration, or concentration (Ariena, 2019), which question many norms within the “traditional” school system; a positive correlation with science education; the “nature deficit disorder” in society in general and among young people specifically, and finally, the often inherently interdisciplinary nature of such pedagogical approaches. What is the reality of this interdisciplinary aspect, how does it convey, and what are the results on learning outcomes? In what sense do outdoor practices question the relationship to school institutions and the characteristics of the schooling system? Beyond the school institution, do these pedagogies allow to reconsider the liberal order, whether it concerns property (Vanuxem, 2018; Crétois, 2023), modes of production (Illich, 1973; Gorz, 1975; Tordjman, 2021), or (subjects of) rights? What kind of citizenship learning do these practices promote? These are the questions that will be the focus of our attention and will constitute the core of our investigations within this collaborative action research.

Project objectives

This collaborative action research aims first to improve our understanding of pedagogical practices ‘within’ and ‘with’ nature. More specifically, our research focuses on the actors’ on-the-ground understanding of the concept of ‘nature’ in ‘outdoor practices,’ considering the various philosophical and epistemological controversies surrounding this concept. Thus, it is with voluntary teachers from Marseille and Brussels that we wish to examine this notion of nature and, furthermore, produce, experiment, and evaluate interdisciplinary pedagogical and didactic approaches in collaboration with them.

This transnational research, therefore, has three main objectives:
 (1) The first objective is to problematize, through an analysis of controversies in various disciplinary fields, how actors on the ground apprehend the concept of ‘nature’ in outdoor pedagogies, in order to identify its political, social, and philosophical implications.
 (2) The second objective is to co-construct evolving interdisciplinary pedagogical and didactic approaches on the concept of ‘nature’ for multiple school levels.
 (3) Finally, the aim is to train teachers by supporting them in the experimentation and evaluation of new pedagogical and didactic approaches.

Methodological perspective

In this perspective, we wish to experiment, with researchers, trainers, and field actors interested in outdoor education, communities of practice in the sense of Duncan-Andrade and Morrell (2008), for whom they are groups of people who share a common concern or passion for something they do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better. The aim is to propose an approach that promotes critical and constructive reflection on educational practices through a cyclical process consisting of 5 steps that, through continuous questioning, contribute to positive social or educational changes.

More specifically, the goal is to produce, test, and evaluate pedagogical approaches with voluntary teachers from Marseille and Brussels, based on collaborative research (Bourassa et al., 2007; Van Nieuwenhoven & Colognesi 2015; Desgagné, 1997).

The community of critical praxis thus formed will have the characteristic of producing effects at two levels: the construction of new knowledge and the professional development of the participant. The interest also lies in the impact that participants can have on their colleagues, who benefit from the new resources brought by the participant. To foster these benefits, an interrelation must be established between the necessary conditions for the group to function (including symmetrical relationships and shared responsibilities) and the work process to be implemented (co-construction between partners, recognition of each other’s expertise, a sense of acknowledgment). In this way, a climate of trust and well-being conducive to exchanges can be established and generate perceived benefits for all actors.
To do this, in concrete terms, meetings between the different actors of this research partnership will be organized during the year 2023-2024: both remote and face-to-face at the national and transnational levels.

Project leaders

  • DELEPIERE Maud Delepiere (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

  • NAFTALI Patricia (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

  • ROLAND Elsa (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

Other partners

  • LERAY Morgane (Aix-Marseille Université)
  • VOTTERO Eric (Aix-Marseille Université)
  • HE2B Defré


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