Outdoor experiential education & wilderness therapy

Outdoor education, experiential education, and wilderness therapy programs involve adventure-based activities and outdoor pursuits that emphasize inter- and intra-personal growth through overcoming obstacles. Examples include: camping, challenge courses, rope courses, and wilderness excursions such as trekking, canoeing, sailing, and cycling. Programs often focus on youth, and can be implemented alone or with other types of therapy.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased self-esteem

  • Increased self-concept

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Improved mental health

  • Reduced recidivism

  • Increased academic achievement

  • Improved physical fitness

  • Improved family functioning

  • Improved social skills

  • Reduced substance abuse

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that outdoor and experiential education and wilderness therapy programs increase participants’ self-esteem (Bowen 2013, Wilson 2000*) and belief that they have control over events that affect them (Wilson 2000*Hans 2000*). Wilderness therapy programs have also been shown to improve overall functioning and mental health among adolescents (Norton 2014) and appear to decrease recidivism among white adolescent males (Wilson 2000*). There are a variety of these types of programs, however, and some are more successful than others. Additional research and evaluation is needed to better understand the characteristics of the most successful programs.

Wilderness therapy and experiential education programs modestly improve academic performance, physical health, family development, and social skills among participants (Bowen 2013). Outdoor education may increase group work skills and improve attitudes toward group work among college students (Cooley 2015*). Wilderness therapy programs are associated with reduced substance abuse and increased levels of readiness to change among youth (Norton 2014). 

Research suggests that outdoor education and experiential education programs with a longer duration have stronger effects than shorter programs (Sibthorp 2007*). An evaluation of a wilderness therapy program for Canadian young offenders finds that a 20-day program has greater effects on social skills and motivation than a 10-day program (Paquette 2014*); success of some other wilderness therapy programs does not appear to be affected by program duration (Wilson 2000*).

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

There are many outdoor and experiential education programs in the US. Examples include: Project Adventure, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Outward Bound, and The Hero Project: Cultural/Adventure Rites of Passage (THP). There are also a number of professional and academic organizations for experiential educators, including the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) and the Wilderness Education Association (WEA).

Implementation Resources

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.

Addictions-Wilderness therapy - Addictions.com. Wilderness therapy.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Bowen 2013 - Bowen DJ, Neill JT. A meta-analysis of adventure therapy outcomes and moderators. The Open Psychology Journal. 2013;6:28-53.

Wilson 2000* - Wilson SJ, Lipsey MW. Wilderness challenge programs for delinquent youth: A meta-analysis of outcome evaluations. Evaluation and Program Planning. 2000;23(1):1-12.

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.

Norton 2014 - Norton CL, Tucker A, Russell KC, et al. Adventure therapy with youth. Journal of Experiential Education. 2014;37(1):46-59.

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.

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.

Paquette 2014* - Paquette J, Vitaro F. Wilderness therapy, interpersonal skills and accomplishment motivation: Impact analysis on antisocial behavior and socio-professional status. Residential Treatment for Children & Youth. 2014;31(3):230-252.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Project Adventure - Project Adventure (PA). Advancing active learning.

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

Outward Bound - Outward Bound. Experimental learning, expedition school and outdoor leadership program.

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

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

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

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