The extraordinary power of outdoor experiential learning

Mr Bruce Parr1

1Bruce Parr

The extraordinary power of outdoor experiential learning.

The full dark of a moonless night. North Queensland, 1987, waiting for the bus. Jungle behind me, beach in front. 17 people got off the bus to meet me. 14 of them were physically or mentally disabled. Another was the clinical psychologist in charge and the remaining two were psychiatric nurses.

“John” was the most obviously disabled. 28 yrs old, born with ‘motor disconnect syndrome’, he walked normally on smooth surfaces but on gravel or rough surfaces he shuffled jerkily, with his right hand floating beside him as he struggled to keep his balance.

My contract was positive behaviour change in two days and the referral came from my recent work with habitual criminals.

The results, especially for John, were extraordinary. Over the two days John shouted and screamed as he went through the activities and struggled mightily with his disability.

John rewired his brain and his body over those two days, and the psychologist was so shocked when he saw John walking normally across the beach, across the rocks, and across the tidal rubble, that he fell off his chair and spilt his coffee, saying “It’s gone!” Then – “I need to write a thesis on this!”

I didn’t need a thesis, I already had a new theory of outdoor experiential learning that was simple and repeatable and it worked. Now it’s time to pass it on.

The workshop will present a basic outline of how the theory was applied including the learning objective, principles and application, and how I believe John changed his mind.

It will then be thrown open to delegates to brainstorm how they can move forward with this in the context of their own outdoor ed programs.


Bruce has been involved in outdoor education since 1965 when he qualified as a special forces operator. On leaving the military in 1971 he promised to pay back to the community the $6 million spent on his training. Since then he has trained and facilitated in outdoor experiential learning over a full range of clients. He has written training manuals on rock climbing; abseiling/rappelling; leadership and high performing self managing teams; and has successfully delivered them in the field. He has had notable success in facilitating positive behavior change in criminals, disabled people, and years six and seven school children.  This workshop presentation was accepted for inclusion in the 2008  international conference on experiential learning but was forced to cancel due to a family emergency.  Bruce has twice presented at national outdoor ed conferences as a member of OEAQ.

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