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Inspiring Sustainable Change through Outdoor Learning: The Edinburgh Earth Initiative

Sophie canoeing and delivering a nature-based learning day on Loch Tay with a staff and student team at Firbush

I’m Sophie Zych-Watson, a current Postgraduate Earth Fellow with the Edinburgh Earth Initiative (EEI), where I have spent the last year delivering a project on Nature Based Learning.

How do you achieve sustainability goals? You inspire people, and you get people to care […] How do you get people to care? By taking them outdoors.

Having studied an MSc in Outdoor Environmental Education at the University, I am passionate about advocating for transformative learning that happens for, in, and with the environment. To me, taking learning outdoors is one of the simplest, yet most crucial, ways in which we can re-embed learning in a way that is both relevant to students and relevant to our efforts to mitigate climate change as an institution. Whether studying a STEM subject or a humanities degree, relating teaching to the world around us by spending time outside of classroom environments is an integral way of building a meaningful relationship with the world around us.

Learning in the outdoors

Over the past year, I’ve been immersed in an exciting Outdoor Learning project as an Earth Fellow with the Edinburgh Earth Initiative. The initiative collaborates with academics, students, staff, and partners to tackle the climate crisis head-on at the University of Edinburgh.

My project has focused on enabling teaching staff at the University to consider why teaching in the outdoors might be important and relevant to sustainable learning, no matter their disciplinary focus. There already exists a growing number of staff at the University passionate about driving curriculum change towards meaningful learning for sustainability.

In celebration of this growing movement, we have created a guide and resource to support development in this area. The resource collates the cutting-edge research and practice on outdoor learning that has been published by academics at the University of Edinburgh and acts as a stepping stone and guide for anyone interested in transforming their teaching practice.

You can’t start caring for something that you have no relation to.

The resource isn’t just a collection of ideas; it’s a culmination of paradigm-shifting theory and practical wisdom from both within and beyond the University. It’s designed to ignite transformation in teaching practices and serve as a roadmap for anyone eager to make a difference to transformative and sustainable learning.

Resource: learning in the outdoors

Key Findings

A key finding of the project has been the lack of guidance on delivering outdoor learning in the higher education context. Universities aren’t yet meeting the demand and growing passion for learning and living in new, more environmentally sensitive ways, and this is leaving students wanting more.

A recent Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS) survey found that 64% of students think their university/college should provide more opportunities for students to experience nature. In response, an important part of my project has also been to provide a platform for student voices calling on the University to make meaningful change around outdoor learning.

This short film, a collaboration between the Edinburgh Earth Initiative and existing students at the University, is a call to action from students to institution, asking for the University to step up to its sustainability commitment through the provision of hands-on outdoor learning opportunities.



The student voices captured by the film act as a powerful reminder that transformative change starts with personal connection. They ask us to recognise the outdoors as the most important classroom of all – a place that fosters learning, action, and deep engagement all at once. A window towards a deeper connection between one another and to the world around us. As put by current postgraduate student Sarah

Learning in the outdoors encourages an awareness of a wider world and how our actions make a difference on all kinds of scales.

Teaching Climate and Sustainability Spring Forum

I invite you to attend the Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability’s Teaching Climate and Sustainability Spring Forum on Tuesday 21 May. Open to staff and students, the forum will discuss the role of outdoor experiential learning for sustainability and identify how to engage with this pedagogy at the University of Edinburgh.

Beth Christie and Robbie Nichol, Community of Practice members and academics in Moray House School of Education and Sport, will be sharing their insights and experience to start the conversation. The resources I produced as part of the Nature-Based Learning project will guide the workshop aspect of this event.

Teaching Climate and Sustainability Spring Forum

Learn More

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, and engaging with work in outdoor learning at the university, please visit the website resource we have developed below.

Learning in the outdoors

Related Links

Edinburgh Earth Initiative

Sustainability in the curriculum

Support for teaching sustainability

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