Evidence for Learning: Outdoor adventure learning

Outdoor adventure learning

A summary of the research evidence on outdoor adventure learning in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of outdoor adventure learning on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on outdoor adventure learning. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of outdoor adventure learning interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

Outdoor adventure learning typically involves outdoor experiences, such as climbing or mountaineering, survival, ropes or assault courses, or outdoor sports, such as orienteering, sailing and canoeing. These can be organised as intensive block experiences or shorter courses run in schools or local outdoor centres.

Adventure education usually involves collaborative learning experiences with a high level of physical (and often emotional) challenge. Practical problem-solving, explicit reflection and discussion of thinking (see also metacognition and self-regulation) may also be involved.

The research literature indicates that these programs are associated with a number of positive physical, social and emotional outcomes for students. There remain few Australasian-based studies that have examined the efficacy of these programs on academic performance, and the review articles written by Australian researchers have largely focused on American literature.

Ronalds and Allen-Craig (2008) conducted an Australian case study of a wilderness-based therapy program for adolescents and their families: Regional Extended Family Services (REFS). REFS focuses on early intervention, targeting young people who are deemed at-risk of removing themselves from the education system and potentially edging towards homelessness. The program demonstrated positive short-term effects on participants’ overall (self-perceived) personal effectiveness. Furthermore, it was found to have a significant positive impact on the overall life effectiveness skills of participants, suggesting the program provides participants with the opportunity to alter their self-perceptions.

An Australian case study by Eglington and Broderick (2008) of a curriculum-based outdoor adventure program for Years 10 – 12 at an ethnically diverse school found benefits for the meta-skills of decision-making, problem solving, personal development and leadership. Another benefit of the program was introducing students from ethnically diverse backgrounds to one another, including migrants who have limited knowledge of the English language. 

Anderson (2008) conducted another Australian case study of an adventure education program involving a high-ropes course, describing how outdoor education provides situations that elicit behaviour, such as an unadventurous person trying new activities. The author claims that for programs to have a lasting impact on participants, they need to be able to reflect on their experiences in the broader context of their lives.

An Australian case study of Indigenous Learning on Country by Schwab and Fogarty (2015) focused on connecting secondary students with the land, and involved Indigenous rangers, elders and community members sharing their knowledge of country. Students were engaged in their learning and program outcomes included increased school attendance, greater transition rates to further education, training and employment, positive community partnerships, greater knowledge of the environment, and an understanding of Indigenous protocols relative to the communities and their land.

The New Zealand-based study by Smith, Steel and Gidlow (2010) obtained firsthand accounts from a group of Year 10 students, from two secondary schools in Christchurch, who were provided with disposable cameras on which they were instructed to photograph their own experiences of a residential school camp. Photo-elicitation interviews with the 32 self-selected respondents (21 female, 11 male) revealed that school camp is an enjoyable, socially different and challenging experience where students are able to spend time with friends and develop their peer networks in a temporary community.

A systematic review of the impact of physical activity programs (which include outdoor education) by Australian-based authors found positive improvements in the social-emotional wellbeing of program participants compared to non-participants (Lubans, Plotnikoff & Lubans, 2012). A meta-analysis of 197 studies on adventure therapy by Australian-based Bowen and Neill (2013) found that programs typically utilise outdoor activities and experiential learning to help participants deal with their psychosocial problems. The short-term effect size for adventure therapy was moderate (g=0.47) and larger than for alternative (g=0.14) and no treatment (g=0.08) comparison groups. There was little change during the lead-up (g=0.09) and follow-up periods (g=0.03), indicating long-term maintenance of short-term gains. The strongest short-term effects were detected for clinical and self-concept measures. The only significant, but small, longer-term change was behaviour outcome. While the above systematic review and meta-analysis were based on American studies, the general findings help augment the Australasian research base on outdoor adventure learning as an education intervention.

Anderson, P. (2008). Challenging experiences: what do students learn?. International Schools Journal, 28(1), 55 – 58.

Bowen, D. J., & Neill, J. T. (2013). A meta-analysis of adventure therapy outcomes and moderators. The Open Psychology Journal, 6(1), 28 – 53.

Eglington, C., & Broderick, P. (2008). Great Outdoors: Outdoor Education Goes Mainstream. Teacher: The National Education Magazine, February 2008, 44 – 47.

Lubans, D. R., Plotnikoff, R. C., & Lubans, N. J. (2012). Review: A systematic review of the impact of physical activity programmes on social and emotional well‐​being in at‐​risk youth. Child & Adolescent Mental Health, 17(1), 2 – 13.

Ronalds, L., & Allen-Craig, S. (2008). Preventing family and educational disconnection through wilderness-based therapy targeting youth at risk. ACHPER Australia Healthy Lifestyles Journal, 55(4), 7 – 16.

Schwab, R., & Fogarty, B. (2015). Land, learning and identity: toward a deeper understanding of Indigenous Learning on Country. UNESCO Observatory Multi-Disciplinary Journal in the Arts, 4(2), 1 – 16.

Smith, E. F., Steel, G., & Gidlow, B. (2010). The Temporary Community: Student Experiences of School-Based Outdoor Education Programmes. Journal of Experiential Education, 33(2), 136 – 150.

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Outdoor adventure learning; school camps; Australia; New Zealand; achievement; academic achievement.