Championing original and authoritative research


Gray and Mitten on Taking Social Science Outside

In this article Tonia Gray and Denise Mitten, editors of The Palgrave International Handbook of Women and Outdoor Learning, discuss social science's role in outdoor learning environments.

Being outside in nature conjures up many thoughts and feelings for people. In this day many people experience nature with pervasive fear and avoidance (Mitten & Woodruff, 2010). Although some might not associate outdoor learning environments (OLEs) with the social sciences, body image, gender studies, group dynamics, leadership, and many more disciplines can be taught through the research and practice informed by OLEs. This expansive literature comes from lived experiences and scholarly work undertaken in outdoor settings. Additionally, experiential activities in the outdoors can amplify the learning in many of these areas. For example, if group members learn about group dynamics and then experience time in the outdoors forming a team and learning how to live together sustainably, they have the opportunity to put theory into practice and use that learning for future studies or practice. (Warren, Mitten & Loeffler, 2008). 

A myriad of research using a variety of methods, including lived experiences, is reported and described in The Palgrave Macmillan International Handbook of Women and Outdoor Learning. It is a comprehensive space for the progressively diverse and complex area of interdisciplinary research about gender and outdoor learning environments and related topics.

Why do we care if anyone goes outside, let alone women?

Compared with the roughly 30,000 generations humans have spent as hunter-gatherers, the 500 generations spent as agrarians, nine generations passed in the industrial era, and the one to two generations spent so far in the emerging post-industrial era are increasingly small drops in the bucket of human’s evolutionary story. Biologically and pschologically, humans probably have not  adapted to the environment in which we now find ourselves—one in which there continues to be a shift away from frequent time spent in close connection in the natural world with other people. Indeed, an epidemic of emotional estrangement and physical separation from nature in Westernized countries may be at the root of many personal, familial, social, and environmental challenges. Humans are connected to everything in the universe, including natural environments, even if we are estranged.  As people spend less time in the outdoors, the profession advanced to help people enjoy and be safe in the outdoors. The mainstream portion of this profession began with a focus on conquering, including conquering nature, conquering fears, conquering whitewater, conquering mountains, and more. 

Building healthy relationships with nature may be crucial to humans’ survival. Many ailments may be prevented or healed with the development of healthy attachment to nature. Women have modelled healthy relationships and have much to offer society in terms of creating healthy relationships to nature (Mitten & Woodruff, 2010). Many women have travelled and lived in the natural environment differently than conventional outdoor programs. These stories in The Palgrave Macmillan international handbook of women and outdoor learning talk about these non-conventional ways of being in the outdoors as well as women’s experiences in mainstream environments.

What sparked you to be in professions in outdoor learning environments?

Tonia: Being outdoors represents a sense of liberation, freedom and inner renewal which can be traced back to my childhood.  Nature was my playground. Getting dusty, sweaty, injured and scarred was synonymous with my formative years spent roaming freely on horseback over rugged landscapes and connecting with my equine companions. In my early 20s, the transition into outdoor learning (OL) was a natural progression following my graduation as a health and physical educator. However, when I first entered the OL profession 35 years ago, gender imbalance was overwhelmingly apparent. The work environment was highly masculinized and homogeneous in a range of ways: white, middle class, and able bodied. Against this asymmetrical backdrop, I remained drawn to OL as it offered a unique “playing space” for women to progress our quest for independence, health and well-being.

While the overall number of women in OL rose steadily since the 1990s, our academic recognition and professional footprint has stalled within Australia (Gray, Allen-Craig & Carpenter, 2016 & 2017) and internationally (Mitten et al, 2018). We lag behind our male counterparts in academic and professional status (Martin, Maney & Mitten, 2018) whilst also being disproportionately under-represented at the leadership table (Gray, et al 2017). This trend continues despite an influx of extraordinarily talented women; which begs the question Why has this issue become more acute over the past decade (Gray, 2016 & 2017).

Denise: Growing up I spent copious amounts of time outdoors and started going to to Girl Scout camp about second grade. Camp became an important anchor in my life. I enjoyed the activities, nature, and the all-female environment. When I was old enough I became a counsellor-in-training and then a counsellor. Because I worked in an all-female environment, I learned through example that it is normal for women to be in the outdoors and to be in charge and lead. That prompted me to get together with other women to start an adventure travel company for women, which operated for 20 years. Trips ranged from hiking near urban areas to mountaineering in Nepal. Our staff valued women and the strengths that women brought to outdoor learning environments (OLEs). Frankly, because I was socialized so differently, I was surprised when I began to travel in the outdoors in co-ed groups at many of the values and norms that were expressed by those leaders.  For example, I thought a leader should be compassionate (though at my age of this example, 21, I used the word nice). The males around me were saying above all a leader should treat everyone the same, which would be fair. Later that summer this difference showed when during a course, one student had to shoot a tied-up lamb after which all of the students butchered, roasted, and ate the lamb. One vegetarian woman student asked not to participate because she did not believe in killing animals for meat. I said she did not have to participate. When staff debriefed the course, I was told that I should have treated everyone fairly and equally and made her participate. That did not make sense to me; I could not figure out why they saw making everybody participate as fair. Now I realize it may have been our difference in leadership training and socialization.


Gray, T. (2016). The “F” word: Feminism in outdoor education. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education. 19(2) 25-41

Gray T, (2017). Gender asymmetry in outdoor learning environments, Te Whakatika, no 34, pp 18-21

Gray, T., Allen-Craig, S., & Carpenter, C. (2016). Selective hearing: The unrecognized contribution of women to the outdoor profession. The 19th National Outdoor Education Conference. Innovate–Educate–Celebrate. Queensland: Sunshine Coast University. Retrieved from http://outdooreducationaustralia.org.au/noec-2016/noec-2016-proceedings/#toggle-id-32

Gray, T., Allen-Craig, S., & Carpenter, C. (2017). Selective hearing: The unrecognized contributions of women to the outdoor profession. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 20(1), 25–34.

Gray, T., Mitten, D., Loeffler, T.A., Allen-Craig, S., & Carpenter, C. (2017).  Defining Moments: An Examination of the Gender Divide in Women’s Contribution to Outdoor Education. Research in Outdoor Education, Special 7IOERC Edition. pp. 47-71.

Martin, S., Maney, S., & Mitten, D. (2018). Messages about women through representation in adventure education texts and journals. In T. Gray & D. Mitten (Eds.), The Palgrave international handbook of women and outdoor learning. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mitten, D., Gray, T., Allen-Craig, S., Loeffler, T. A., & Carpenter, C. (2018). The invisibility cloak: Women’s contributions to outdoor and environmental education. The Journal of Environmental Education, Special Gender Issue, 48(2).

Mitten, D., & Woodruff, S.L. (2009). Women’s adventure history and education programming in the United States favors Friluftsliv. Paper presented at A 150 Year International Dialogue Conference Jubilee Celebration: Levanger, Norway.

Warren, K., Mitten, D., & Loeffler, TA. ((2008). Theory and practice of experiential education. Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.

Tonia Gray is Senior Researcher at Western Sydney University's Centre for Educational Research, Australia. She has been involved in outdoor education for over 30 years as a researcher, practitioner and curriculum developer, and in 2014 received the prestigious Australian Award for Excellence in University Teaching.

Denise Mitten is Graduate Chair of Adventure Education at Prescott College, USA, and is internationally recognized for her scholarship in outdoor and environmental pedagogy, and ethics and leadership.