Australians relish their reputation as lovers of the great outdoors - all beach and bush - with an intimate relationship with the natural environment.
But as parents' working lives become busier, cities become more crowded and technology takes more of a grip on our lives, many people - particularly children - are spending more and more time indoors.
A child's contact with nature will influence health in adulthood, increase cognitive functioning, and lead to long-term gains in attitudes, beliefs, self-perceptions, interpersonal social skills and memory creation and retention.
Now the wisdom of this is being challenged by parents and by schools which are becoming concerned that children may be losing more than bush skills and suntans as they cut back on their time outside. Some Australian schools are implementing outdoor education programs to help redress the balance.
Outdoor education is often mistakenly confused with physical education or development, which is the care and development of the body. Outdoor education takes a more holistic approach to education, encompassing leadership, risk management, problem solving and personal development.
A recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity, based on data collected from primary schools in Melbourne, concluded that encouraging 10- to 12-year-old children to spend more time outdoors may be an effective way to prevent increases in obesity.
Dr James Neill, a lecturer at the Centre of Applied Psychology at the University of Canberra, believes Australian children would benefit greatly from being involved in outdoor education. ''In an ideal society we wouldn't need outdoor education, it would just be a part of life, but the fact is, it's not," he says.
Yet the approach to outdoor education in Australia is variable, Neill says, although Victoria is regarded as the leader. "Outdoor learning is more of a philosophy in Victoria, embedded into the curriculum, and as it is mandated there is equal access - it's not so much just the domain of independent schools,'' Neill says.
''In NSW outdoor education is considered more recreational and associated with PE. If outdoor education was part of the national curriculum, it would address the needs of all Australian children and attract better support. In some ways we are going backwards with providing outdoor education in schools - the curriculum is laden with other criteria teachers need to meet."
The benefits of outdoor education have been well documented overseas. The American author who coined the phrase ''nature-deficit disorder'', Richard Louv, has spent the past few weeks in Australia spruiking the academic, physical and social benefits of enabling students to return to the outdoors.
Louv is also the architect of the ''no child left inside'' movement - a response to the ''no child left behind'' policies that now dominate educational thinking and focus on classroom learning and standardised testing.
Louv says a push to get more children outside is a response to a growing realisation that many children are having fewer opportunities to play or learn outdoors. He says a significant percentage of school districts in the US have eliminated recess, so opportunities for going beyond the school walls is increasingly diminishing. "As young people spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and we deny them access to a fundamental part of their humanity."
Louv says that when students learn about any topic in an outdoor setting - including those unrelated to the environment - they perform better.
"A study under way in California right now has shown that kids learning science, but in a mountain setting, did 26 per cent better on testing," he says. ''Education research indicates that when nature is included in the curriculum, student achievement levels rise in core academic areas, including reading, maths and science, there is also a reduction in discipline problems and symptoms of [Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder].
''I can't tell you how many times teachers have told me that the troublemaker in their classroom becomes the leader in an outdoor setting."
The No Child Left Inside Act, now before the US Congress, proposes that states are given more funds to create opportunities for students to engage in learning outside the classroom.
Outdoor education enables individuals to connect with nature, with other people, and with themselves. Associate Professor Tonia Gray, from the University of Wollongong, says: "We should be inspiring a sense of wonderment in our students, but many parents instil a fear of nature and the outdoors - clearing a path through it by killing every spider or insect in their way."
Gray refers to ''the other three Rs'', namely relationship, resilience and reflection. "These are overlooked in the modern curriculum and we don't teach these concepts well at all, but outdoor education lends itself, beautifully, to doing just that.
''The main aim is life ownership - you own your mistakes as well as your successes. Outdoor education is the vehicle for teaching life ownership - when you are in the bush using a compass and you make a wrong turn, you only have yourself to blame - not another student, not the teacher. There are consequences for your action, or inaction," she says.
Students step outside their comfort zone and enter their courage zone - and this is when new skills are developed. The same can happen for teachers and so a different, respectful dimension is added to the teacher-student relationship. Gray says "students often say to me after a shared expedition that 'out there I am alive, but back here I am just existing' ".
She says opportunities to participate in outdoor education "are skewed in both directions - youth at risk are presented with more opportunities for outdoor education, as are students at some of the more elite private schools''.
''The Department of Sport and Recreation offer good camps, but on a continuum they don't offer the same depth in terms of education and development. Anything beyond seven days' duration will see behavioural changes," she says.
Paul Colagiuri, general manager of Camp Somerset, organises camps on the Colo River, north-west of Sydney, for about 7000 government and independent school students each year. He says schools are increasingly looking for meaningful outdoor experiences.
"But there is also greater emphasis on risk management, an increase in regulation, and more time spent communicating risks to parents and schools. Tragic incidents are rare in outdoor education but they do attract a lot of attention and have a ripple effect throughout the industry.
"It is true to say that we are increasingly seeing kids who have far less outdoor experience than we did a generation ago. It is a real joy to see kids sit around a campfire for the first time, a little bit dirty, and engage with mates - and for some, it is the first time they have been swimming in a river."
Colagiuri considers food an important part of the program. He talks about the three types of milk: at base camp in the dining hall, students have fresh milk on their cornflakes; at the established sites where there are composting toilets and supplies are delivered by esky, they move to long-life milk; and when they are trekking, bush camping and needing to carry their own supplies, they graduate to powdered milk. The camp experience is an opportunity to educate about food - where it comes from, its preparation - and students are rostered to prepare meals and wash up.
Colagiuri says: "I do a lot of parent information evenings, and it is clear parents are basing perceptions on their own camp experience from 25 years ago and not understanding how outdoor education has come a long way and is tailored to deliver very specific outcomes."
A research paper published last year by the University of Essex in England claims less than 10 per cent of children there play in wilderness, compared with 40 per cent 30 years ago. It cites evidence that a child's contact with nature will influence health in adulthood, increase cognitive functioning, and lead to long-term gains in attitudes, beliefs, self-perceptions, interpersonal social skills and memory creation and retention. This is recognised by the Office for Standards in Education.
According to the paper, children aged from six to 11 start to order memories in continuous narratives. Natural environments offer creative play experiences that are more engaging than the experiences in built playgrounds and so produce a more memorable impression. For 12- to 18-year-olds, when risks are taken and the limits of the world tested, nature can meet these developmental needs - maybe even replacing a need that can lead to other risk-taking behaviour such as binge-drinking or drug-taking. But the connection with nature ideally takes place before this stage, before young people become more independent.
The paper reports a significant decline in young people's understanding of the natural environment in recent years, due to more classroom-based learning and fewer outdoor learning opportunities (more textbooks and less butterfly nets).
Emphasis on global ecological issues over understanding local species and habitats, and survival techniques in the wilderness, is also implicated. Time spent in ''wild'' nature such as hiking has more positive long-term effects on children than time spent in ''domesticated'' nature such as picking flowers, or planting seeds or trees.
The paper also cites evidence that unstructured childhood experiences in the wilderness, with minimal supervision, increased the likelihood as an adult of returning to outdoor spaces when stressed.