The Evolution of American Outdoor Education in the Twentieth Century

Publication Date


Type of Culminating Activity


Degree Title

Master of Arts in History



Major Advisor

Lisa Marie Brady, Ph.D.


The Progressive zeitgeist at the turn of the 20th century brought the outdoors to the forefront of American education. Steeped in the Romanticism of the early 19th century, as well as an increased interest in nature writing and the natural sciences in the later half of the century, educators sought to teach children in the outdoors through the philanthropic Fresh Air Farms, Nature Study, and Woodcraft. These attempts both to recreate elements of a romanticized frontier heritage and to educate children about a disappearing wilderness evolved throughout the 20th century into camping, and later, environmental and adventure education. These emphases reflected American pastimes and concerns at the times, as well as larger historical and political trends. Yet approaching the turn of the 21st century, following the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, and passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2003, outdoor education lost support from the American public at a time when it should be considered most crucial. The mid-century shift to school camping obscured outdoor education’s early roots in nature study, leaving American public education bereft of vital outdoor and environmental values. Consequently, preparation for standardized testing receives increased time for classroom instruction as technology is emphasized over authentic, outdoor experiences. Private and charter schools have more flexibility to implement outdoor programs, yet this provides outdoor experiences to those who may need them the least. This thesis argues that as support for outdoor education has waxed and waned with larger cultural trends, there is a need for it to return to its early twentieth-century origins in order for it to be an effective component of American public education.


This document is available in print-only format through the Boise State University Albertsons Library collection.

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