Outdoor experiential education

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Inconclusive impact on disparities

Strategies with this rating do not have enough evidence to assess potential impact on disparities.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Outdoor experiential education programs involve adventure-based activities and outdoor pursuits that emphasize inter- and intra-personal growth through overcoming obstacles to develop participants’ independence, social responsibility, and leadership skills. Examples include camping, challenge courses, rope courses, and wilderness excursions such as backpacking, trekking, canoeing, sailing, and cycling. Programs often focus on youth and can be implemented alone or with other types of therapy. Programs are typically based in remote and natural settings, though some are offered indoors, in local communities, and even virtually1.

Outdoor behavioral health care, which includes wilderness therapy, is considered a part of the broader outdoor education field. This strategy does not cover wilderness therapy due to its controversial nature.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Improved social skills

  • Increased self-esteem

  • Increased self-efficacy

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Improved mental health

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is some evidence that outdoor experiential education can improve participants’ social skills, leadership skills, self-esteem and self-efficacy2, 3, 4. Programs vary and some may be more successful than others. Additional research is needed to better understand the characteristics of the most successful programs and long-term effects.

Outdoor education may increase group work skills and improve attitudes toward group work among college students2. Community-based experiential education programs with therapeutic elements appear to improve social skills and overall functioning among participants with mental health concerns5. A pilot study suggests outdoor programs can be safely adapted for cancer survivors and that participants can continue to experience improved mental health and self-confidence after the program ends6.

Research suggests that outdoor education and experiential education programs with a longer duration have stronger effects than shorter programs, especially for an individual’s ability to set and accomplish goals7. Program instructors who are empathetic, authentic, supportive, of strong moral character, communicate well, display courage, and are effective at fostering safety and facilitating autonomy may best support participant outcomes8.

Wilderness therapy programs are a subset of the broader field of outdoor education and typically provide services to individuals with mental health conditions including substance use, mood disorders, and behavior disorders. They combine therapeutic elements, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, and outdoor activities in a natural setting9. These programs are viewed as a part of the “troubled teen” industry, that is controversial due to allegations of abuse, preventable deaths, institutional corruption, and a lack of consistent and comprehensive regulation10. Evaluation research of wilderness therapy programs is limited in their ability to measure the impacts of treatment because control or comparison groups are not used9.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated inconclusive impact on disparities.

It is unclear what impact outdoor experiential education programs have on disparities in participants’ outcomes.

Participants of color, from families with low incomes, and of the LGBTQ+ community report that they feel marginalized in programming and have difficultly identifying with the outdoor curriculum15. An evaluation of instructors’ assessments of participant socio-emotional learning outcomes shows that instructors consistently rate white participants as having improved more than participants of color16. Experts suggest that course design and instruction should be more inclusive, with assessments that are more culturally sensitive, and develop a more diverse outdoor education workforce15, 16, 17.

Outdoor recreation programs may be promising for indigenous youth because activities are often connected to cultural values and traditional practices. Studies of outdoor recreation prevention programs for American Indian and Alaska Native youth suggest participation may be positively associated with resilience, improved mental health and social skills, and cultural identity9.

What is the relevant historical background?

Outdoor experiential education programs in the U.S. are often traced back to the 1940s with the Outward Bound model, a program that guides small groups of individuals through wilderness expeditions to build individuals’ sense of self, interpersonal skills, and lifelong learning. These programs grew throughout the second half of the 20th century. In the 1990s, the media reported on several preventable deaths of minors in the care of undertrained staff at multiple wilderness therapy programs. In response, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Center was founded as a third-party monitor to set standards for accreditation, cost-benefit analysis, outcome-based research and risk management10.

Equity Considerations
  • How can outdoor experiential education programs engage potential participants of color, and of various gender identities to design more culturally sensitive and inclusive curriculums?
  • What implicit and explicit biases do program staff and other adults (e.g., parents, guardians, teachers, coaches, etc.) have that might hinder youth participant’s full engagement in programs and prevent positive change?
  • Do youth of color and youth from families with low incomes have equitable opportunities to participate? Are programs available in their schools, neighborhoods, or other locations they can easily access? Are there systematic and/or structural barriers to program access and participation? How can programs eliminate these barriers?
Implementation Examples

There are many outdoor and experiential education programs in the U.S. Examples include: Project Adventure, the National Outdoor Leadership School11, Outward Bound, and The Hero Project: Cultural/Adventure Rites of Passage12. There are also a number of professional and academic organizations for outdoor educators, including the Association for Experiential Education13 and the Wilderness Education Association14.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

C&NN-Natural leaders - Arthur T, Browning M, Cook L, et al. Natural leaders network: Pilot version tool kit. Santa Fe: Children & Nature Network (C&NN); 2010.


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1 AEE-Experiential Education - Association for Experimental Education (AEE). A community of progressive educators & practitioners. What is experiential education.

2 Cooley 2015 - Cooley SJ, Burns VE, Cumming J. The role of outdoor adventure education in facilitating groupwork in higher education. Higher Education. 2015;69(4):567-582.

3 Hans 2000 - Hans TA. A meta-analysis of the effects of adventure programming on locus of control. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. 2000;30(1):33-60.

4 Hattie 1997 - Hattie J, Marsh HW, Neill JT, Richards GE. Adventure education and outward bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference. Review of Educational Research. 1997;67(1):43-87.

5 Vankanegan 2018 - Vankanegan C, Tucker AR, Mcmillion P, Gass M, Spencer L. Adventure therapy and its impact on the functioning of youth in a community setting. Social Work with Groups. 2018;42(2):127-141.

6 Lown 2023 - Lown EA, Otto HR, Norton CL, Jong MC, Jong M. Program evaluation of a wilderness experience for adolescents facing cancer: A time in nature to heal, connect and find strength. PLOS ONE. 2023;18(10):e0291856.

7 Sibthorp 2007 - Sibthorp J, Paisley K, Gookin J. Exploring participant development through adventure-based programming: A model from the National Outdoor Leadership School. Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 2007;29(1):1-18.

8 Povilaitis 2019 - Povilaitis V, Riley M, DeLange R, et al. Instructor impacts on outdoor education participant outcomes: A systematic review. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership. 2019;11(3):222-238.

9 WSIPP-Cramer 2022 - Cramer J, Wanner P. Wilderness therapy programs: A systematic review of research. Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP); 2022.

10 Guardian-Okoren 2022 - Okoren N. The wilderness ‘therapy’ that teens say feels like abuse: ‘You are on guard at all times’. The Guardian. 2022.

11 NOLS - National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). The leader in wilderness education.

12 THP - Youth Passageways. The Hero Project (THP): Cultural/Adventure Rites of Passage.

13 AEE - Association for Experimental Education (AEE). A community of progressive educators & practitioners.

14 WEA - Wilderness Education Association (WEA). Teaching tomorrow's leaders today.

15 Goodman 2020 - Goodman C. Landscapes of belonging: Systematically marginalized students and sense of place and belonging in outdoor experiential education. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership. 2020;12(2):261-263.

16 Germinaro 2022 - Germinaro K, Dunn E, Polk KD, et al. Diversity in outdoor education: Discrepancies in SEL across a school overnight program. Journal of Experiential Education. 2022;45(3):256-275.

17 Warner 2019 - Warner RP, Dillenschneider C. Universal design of instruction and social justice education: Enhancing equity in outdoor adventure education. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership. 2019;11(4):320-334.