ERIC Identifier: ED448011
Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Berman, Dene S. - Davis-Berman, Jennifer
ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Therapeutic Uses of Outdoor Education. ERIC Digest.
Recent research has documented the positive effects on emotional well-being
of many outdoor education programs. This Digest highlights emotional well-being
that is intentionally or incidentally achieved in several program types:
adventure therapy, personal growth, college adventure, recreation, and camping.
education and experiential learning defined.
Following the philosophy of Dewey (1938), outdoor education involves
cooperative, democratic learning environments that stress an interactive process
among students and teachers and experiential learning. Experiential learning is
most simply defined as learning by doing (Boss, 1999). Chickering (1976, p. 63)
explained that experiential learning "occurs when changes in judgments,
feelings, knowledge or skills result for a particular person from living through
an event or events." The Association for Experiential Education (1994, p. 1)
defines experiential education as "a process through which a learner constructs
knowledge, skill and value from direct experience."
While we most often think about outdoor education as a way to develop
leadership abilities, environmental knowledge, and other useful knowledge and
skills, it can also be used to develop emotional strength and well-being as
evidenced in studies described below.
versus incidental growth.
Although many outdoor education and experiential learning programs enhance
emotional growth, they might not do so as their primary intent. Programs that
are intended first and foremost as therapy enhance emotional growth in a
purposeful, planned manner (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1994). Other programs,
like those found in recreation or in college orientation programs, do not have
emotional growth as the primary goal, but such growth may be a regularly
occurring consequence of participation. In this case, growth may be considered
incidental to the program goals.
Another way of making this distinction is to differentiate between the terms
"therapeutic" and "therapy." The first term, an adjective, indicates factors
that may be conducive to emotional well-being and may apply to a variety of
activities and programs. The latter term, a noun, involves a process of
assessment, treatment planning, the strategic use of counseling techniques
(including group dynamics, which are often a component of outdoor education
programs), and the documentation of change.
TYPES OF PROGRAMS
Many programs could be examined related
to a discussion of emotional growth, including more than 2,000 camps that are
members of the American Camping Association, and more than 700 wilderness
experience programs identified by Friese, Hendee, and Kinziger (1998).
Wilderness experience programs include programs designed for therapy,
rehabilitation, education, leadership, growth, or organizational development.
Interested readers are referred to a compilation of 187 research study abstracts
on impact of a variety of wilderness programs (Friese, Pittman, & Hendee,
1995). In this Digest, we will highlight therapeutic aspects of outdoor
education found in adventure therapy, personal growth programs, college
orientation, recreation, and camping programs.
Programs that use the outdoors as a part of therapy often take place in
wilderness settings and involve adventure. Most of these programs are geared
toward troubled youth (Berman & Davis-Berman, 1995), who often have been
diagnosed with mental health problems. Adventure therapy programs take many
forms and may take place in a variety of settings. Program variations include
games and initiatives, ropes courses, family therapy programs, adjunctive
therapy, and wilderness therapy (Davis-Berman & Berman, 2000). Sometimes the
adventure therapy program is the sole treatment modality, while other times it
is used as an adjunct to more traditional therapy approaches (Davis-Berman &
Russell and Hendee (1999) describe two basic types of wilderness therapy
Contained programs last up to three weeks and operate as expeditions, with
clients and staff remaining together for the duration of the program.
Continuous flow programs last up to eight weeks, with clients and staff cycling
in and out of the program.
Cason & Gillis (1994) conducted a meta-analysis of 43 programs that
provided evidence of adventure therapy effectiveness. They concluded that
participants became more internal in their locus of control, received better
grades, and had more positive self-concepts after completion of adventure
While these programs are not designed as therapy, they are intended to have a
positive impact on general psychological well-being. Participants are less
likely to have been diagnosed with a mental health problem or to be receiving
treatment than participants in therapy programs. An example of a personal growth
program is Outward Bound. Perusal of the Outward Bound Web site reveals the
emphasis on personal development as one of their core values:
...to perform tasks that are beyond perceived physical, mental and emotional
limits enhances students' beliefs in their own capabilities. ...developing
capacities of mind, body and spirit to better understand one's responsibilities
to self, others and community. Key areas of development are:
The ability to go beyond self-imposed limitations
Acceptance of responsibility
Leadership (Outward Bound(R)USA, n.d.)
Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards (1997) conducted a meta-analysis of
adventure programs, an undertaking they found to be complex and multifaceted.
They found that, in general, adventure programs positively impacted self-esteem,
leadership, academics, personality, and interpersonal relations, with
self-esteem change being most significant. These changes were shown to be more
stable over time than the changes generated in more traditional educational
The use of adventure to orient new students, introduced at Dartmouth in 1935,
continues today in colleges and universities across the country. Orientation and
other college adventure programs facilitate the emotional and social development
of students, who are experiencing a challenging and stressful period in life.
While these programs do not fall into the category of therapy, they do seem to
be therapeutic for the young adults enrolled.
Davis-Berman and Berman (1996) studied 50 wilderness orientation programs
describing their purposes, structures, goals, and other aspects of the programs.
More recently, Gass (1999) reviewed adventure orientation and other wilderness
programs to facilitate ongoing adjustment to college, training for resident
assistants, and pre-college programs. These researchers found that, of the
college offerings, orientation programs have received the most attention.
Although the programs vary greatly in design and type, they do tend to focus on
peer relationships, socialization, emotional adjustment to college, and college
retention (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1996; Gass, 1999). Orientation programs
have been shown to increase retention, and to positively impact interpersonal
skills and relationships (Gass, 1987). However, it is not clear if the retention
differences remain over time (Gass, 1990).
These programs do not attempt to facilitate emotional growth. Instead, they
gear up, activate, energize, and excite participants (Priest, 1999). Webb's
(1999) review of recreation programs suggests that their roots tend to be in
college-based programs. Some of these programs are connected to degree programs
but most are extracurricular.
In general, the goals of recreation programs are fun, enjoyment, and
recreation. However, program organizers identify skill development and moral
growth as secondary goals. Through the vehicle of recreation, different types of
skill development can occur. For example, participants can learn to become more
socially comfortable. They may also learn to be less inhibited and become more
open to trying new things and taking some risks. In recreation programs,
participants may also be exposed to different types of people, different ways of
responding, and alternative ways of thinking. Sometimes through these
experiences, moral and character development can also occur (Webb, 1999).
Due to the nature of the goals of recreation programs, outcome studies are
generally not done. Descriptions of recreation programs throughout North America
can be found in a recent publication compiled from a survey of college- and
university-based programs (Webb, 1996).
The organization of camps for the expressed purpose of facilitating the
emotional well-being of campers dates back to the early 1900s with Camp Ahmek in
Algonquin Park, Ontario (Dimock & Hendry, 1939). Improving social behavior
was a stated goal of this early camp, and extensive records of participant
progress were kept in an attempt to document personal growth. Camps continue to
be a popular outdoor experience, especially for youth. As with the recreation
programs, even camps that are not therapeutic in their intent often work to
facilitate personal growth in the participants.
Marsh (1999) conducted a meta-analysis on the influence of camp experiences
on self-concept in youth. He found a positive influence on self-esteem in those
programs that had a focus on self-enhancement. This increase in self-esteem was
most pronounced for pre-teens, but was positive across all ages.
Despite the wide variety of outdoor education
programs, a unifying thread seems to be the facilitation of emotional growth and
well-being. Certain program types, like therapy programs, intentionally build
emotional growth into their program structure. For others, like recreation
programs, this growth is incidental to the original program goals.
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WEB SITES OF INTEREST
Camping Association: http://www.acacamps.org/