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)
Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes
Improved mental health
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-esteem1, 2 and belief that they have control over events that affect them2, 3. 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.
Impact on Disparities
There are many outdoor and experiential education programs in the US. 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.
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.
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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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