The impact of outdoor adventure programs

A recent study conducted by the Centre for Adolescent Health’s Ian Williams, Lauren Rose, Monika Raniti, Joanna Waloszek, Craig Olsson, George Patton and Nicholas Allen, in collaboration with members of the Outdoor Youth Programs Research Alliance, suggests that outdoor adventure experiences have different impacts for different individuals.

The crossover trial examined a seven-day outdoor adventure program intended to promote positive adjustment amongst Year 9 Australian students aged 14 to 16 that were recruited across two Victorian secondary schools. Participants undertook various activities such as hiking, overnight camping, canoeing and rock climbing, included on the basis of encouraging group formation, communication, problem solving, challenge encounters, and experiences of nature.

Sixteen outcome measures were assessed on five occasions (twice before the program, and three times after returning) and included a range of self-reported social and health indicators. The study sought to address key methodological limitations in existing research literature and aimed to build on previous studies that have reported a range of positive outcomes of outdoor camps and adventure programs.

Contrary to prediction, the study did not find quantitative evidence that universal wellbeing benefits were experienced by adolescents taking part in the outdoor program. However, qualitative information gathered across the course of the study suggested that some participants had both positive and impactful encounters. These mixed findings indicate that different students may benefit from outdoor adventure experiences in different ways and follow different patterns of developmental change over time.

The study recommends that future work investigate how and why different adolescents might benefit from outdoor adventure experiences, and explore the question: “For whom does camp work, and in what ways?”

Read the full research report:

Key messages

  • Universal benefits were not seen across the participant group as a whole but some participants had both positive and impactful encounters.
  • Mixed findings suggest that different students may benefit from outdoor adventure experiences in different ways.
  • Robust research methods are critical to understanding the effects of outdoor adventure programs.
  • Future studies should focus on identifying who experiences benefits and how these benefits vary between individuals.
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