Outdoor experiential education & wilderness therapy

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  

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.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

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

  • Increased self-esteem

  • Increased self-concept

Potential Benefits

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

  • Improved mental health

  • Reduced recidivism

  • Increased academic achievement

  • Improved physical fitness

  • Improved family functioning

  • Improved social skills

  • Reduced substance abuse

What does the research say about effectiveness? This strategy is rated scientifically supported.

There is strong evidence that outdoor and experiential education and wilderness therapy programs increase participants’ self-esteem1, 2 and belief that they have control over events that affect them23. Wilderness therapy programs have also been shown to improve overall functioning and mental health among adolescents4 and appear to decrease recidivism among white adolescent males2. 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 participants1. Outdoor education may increase group work skills and improve attitudes toward group work among college students5. Wilderness therapy programs are associated with reduced substance abuse and increased levels of readiness to change among youth4

Research suggests that outdoor education and experiential education programs with a longer duration have stronger effects than shorter programs6. 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 program7; success of some other wilderness therapy programs does not appear to be affected by program duration2.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated no impact on disparities likely.
Implementation Examples

There are many outdoor and experiential education programs in the U.S. Examples include: 8, the National Outdoor Leadership School9, 10, and The Hero Project: Cultural/Adventure Rites of Passage11. There are also a number of professional and academic organizations for experiential educators, including the Association for Experiential Education12 and the Wilderness Education Association13.

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.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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

2 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.

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

5 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.

6 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.

7 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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