ERIC Identifier: ED385425
Publication Date: 1995-08-00
Author: Berman, Dene S. - Davis-Berman, Jennifer
ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Outdoor Education and Troubled Youth. ERIC Digest.
Outdoor educators have explored the therapeutic uses of camping, expeditions,
and challenge courses since the 1930s. This Digest provides a brief historical
synopsis of the parallel development of both outdoor education and outdoor
therapeutic programs in working with troubled and adjudicated youth. The Digest
also describes the rationale supporting the use of outdoor approaches, the
findings from a recent study of outdoor therapeutic methods, and the findings
from the few research and evaluation studies that have been conducted to measure
the effect of these approaches.
Some of the earliest attempts using the
out-of-doors as a healing environment took place in the "tent therapy" programs
at state hospitals during the early 1900s (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1994). For
a brief period, a number of articles appeared in the psychiatric literature
reporting the therapeutic benefits of moving certain psychiatric patients out of
the buildings and into tents set up on the lawns of psychiatric hospitals.
Although these programs provided anecdotal evidence of benefits for the
patients, they were haphazard at best. By 1920, such accounts disappeared from
In the mid-1900s, more sophisticated camping programs for troubled youth
began, some that included observation, diagnosis, and psychotherapy components.
The University of Michigan Fresh Air Camp employed trained counselors and staff
psychologists to treat campers selected because of their mental health problems.
Similarly, the Salesmanship Club Camp (Dallas, Texas) was founded in 1946 to
serve emotionally troubled children. Its founder, Campbell Loughmiller, believed
therapeutic wilderness programs should include the perception of danger and
immediate natural consequences for lack of cooperation on the part of campers.
According to Loughmiller, successfully confronting danger built self-esteem, and
suffering natural consequences taught the real need for cooperation.
A parallel development of experience-based programming also was taking place
in schools and universities, beginning midcentury and continuing on into the
1970s. The two movements had many common influences, including early thinkers
such as John Dewey (1938) and Kurt Hahn, an important figure in the
international development of the Outward Bound program beginning in the 1940s.
Hahn believed that it was essential to develop both the bodies and minds of
students. He was also strongly committed to the notion of community and service
(James, 1993). These early ideas helped shape Outward Bound as one of the most
influential experiential programs operating to this day. The interested reader
is referred to Miner and Boldt (1981) and James (1993) for a history of Outward
From the decade of the 1970s to the present day, there has been growing
interest in experiential learning and outdoor programs. The Project Adventure
program, bringing experiential methods and techniques into the public school,
was founded in 1971. On an international level, the Association for Experiential
Education was officially founded in 1977, as was the Wilderness Education
Association (contact information for these organizations is listed at the end of
Since the 1970s, there has been a dramatic increase in the number and types
of outdoor programs geared specifically toward troubled youth. Prior to
discussing these programs we will briefly review the rationale behind the use of
the out-of-doors in working with troubled youth.
WHY USE THE OUT-OF-DOORS?
There are aspects of traditional
program settings that inhibit the emotional growth and education of some
individuals. Most change efforts involve verbal interchanges between staff and
participant. This is not an effective way of reaching many people, especially
adolescents who may be resistant to talking or who lack trust in adult authority
figures. Outdoor programs offer a physically active way for staff and
participants to relate to one another, so the emphasis is not solely on talk.
Outdoor programs also place troubled youth in unique settings where they are
often quite unsure of themselves. Moving out of the usual environment sometimes
serves to reduce defensiveness and change relationships with adult leaders. Many
programs incorporate an element of perceived risk, thereby encouraging
participants to move beyond their comfort zones and face their issues and fears.
Finally, many outdoor programs use a small-group format and encourage
interdependence among group members. In expedition programs, where participants
and leaders venture out into natural settings for extended periods of time, the
24-hour-a-day group experience becomes very powerful.
VARIETIES OF PROGRAMS
For purposes of this Digest, we
define troubled youth as those who have mental health problems (diagnosed by a
psychiatrist and considered in need of counseling) or who are in the juvenile
court system. The vast majority of programs for youths fall under these two
MENTAL HEALTH PROGRAMS. Information about mental health programs was
solicited in a national survey conducted by Davis-Berman, Berman, and Capone
(1994). The results included several major findings:
can be categorized as inpatient, outpatient, residential, or expedition types;
majority of all programs are offered by private agencies;
inpatient programs are also run by private agencies;
together, the programs deal with a wide range of problems and issues of youth;
most common problems and concerns include behavioral problems, school and family
problems, conduct disorders, self-esteem issues, depression, and suicidal
The extent of the use of the outdoor environment varied among the mental
health programs. Some programs, most notably those based in hospitals, use the
outdoors primarily through a ropes course experience. Other programs offer
backpacking or canoeing programs for youth who live in the surrounding community
(they return to their homes after trips). Still others offer more lengthy
expeditions. Participants in expedition programs usually reside at a base camp,
from which they travel.
The therapeutic approaches reported by these programs are often quite vague.
Those programs that focus on substance abuse issues use a 12-step approach.
Others mention "metaphor therapy," while some rely on more traditional
individual and group therapy approaches in their outdoor settings.
COURT PROGRAMS. There are far greater numbers of mental health programs than
there are court-related programs for juveniles. However, there is a great deal
of overlap between these categories. The majority of court-related programs are
residential in nature and long-term in their approach. They are often designed
as an alternative to traditional incarceration, and usually involve expeditions
led out of a more traditional treatment center setting. Some programs have
juveniles living in a base camp setting year round, augmented by intensive
wilderness outings run from the base camp. Other court-related programs use the
outdoor environment to a lesser extent. These programs use some of the ropes
course experiences or run short wilderness excursions.
DO THESE PROGRAMS WORK?
The effectiveness of outdoor
therapeutic programs is a critical issue, particularly when such programs are
used as alternatives to either incarceration or hospitalization for troubled
youth. A comprehensive discussion of the research in this area is beyond the
scope of this Digest. The interested reader is referred to the literature for
in-depth review and discussion of research issues (e.g., Davis-Berman &
Berman, 1994; Gass, 1993; Miles & Priest, 1990). Generally, the research on
outdoor programs has been sparse and has had some methodological difficulties.
However, a number of good studies have been done, which have provided evidence
of the effectiveness of these programs:
of mental health programs have shown widely reported increases in self-esteem of
participants and a positive impact on self efficacy.
studies on delinquency programs have shown similar positive gains in self-esteem
and reductions in recidivism rates compared with participants involved in
recent meta-analysis (Cason & Gillis, 1994) of 43 research studies using
experiential education techniques with troubled youth found effect sizes in the
These studies suggest generally positive results for outdoor programs for
troubled teens, but more research needs to be done. Presently most mental health
programs are not evaluating their effectiveness and those that do often have
CRITICAL ISSUES AND RESOURCES
Unanswered questions in this
field that would benefit from more study include the following:
can adventure education contribute to therapeutic programs?
which participants are outdoor approaches most effective?
what standards should therapeutic programs be held accountable?
should be the qualifications for professional staff in this field?
Yet, enough anecdotal evidence from early programs and evaluation results
from recent programs exists to warrant positive statements about the usefulness
of outdoor programs in addressing the needs of this complex and challenging
group of young people.
Cason, D., & Gillis, H. L. (1994). A
meta-analysis of outdoor adventure programming with adolescents. Journal of
Experiential Education, 17(1), 40-47.
Davis-Berman, J., & Berman, D. S. (1994). Wilderness therapy:
Foundations, theory and research. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Davis-Berman, J., Berman, D., & Capone, L. (1994). Therapeutic wilderness
programs: A national survey. Journal of Experiential Education, 17(2), 49-53.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. NY: Collier Books.
Gamson, Z. F. (1989). Higher education and the real world: The story of CAEL.
Wolfeboro, NH: Longwood Academic.
Gass, M. (Ed.). (1993). Adventure therapy: Therapeutic applications of
adventure programming. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
James, T. (1993). The only mountain worth climbing: The search for roots.
Unpublished manuscript. Garrison, NY: Outward Bound.
Miles, J., & Priest, S. (Eds.). (1990). Adventure Education. State
College, PA: Venture Publishing.
Miner, J., & Boldt, J. (1981). Outward Bound U.S.A.: Learning through
experience in adventure-based education. NY: William Morrow. (ED 215 811)
The organizations mentioned in this article can be contacted at the following
for Experiential Education
Aurora Avenue, #28
of Natural Resources, Recreation and Tourism
Collins, CO 80523