CYC-Online 88 MAY 2006
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Therapeutic uses of outdoor education

Dene Berman and Jennifer Davis-Berman

Recent research has documented the positive effects on emotional well-being of many outdoor education programs. This Digest highlights emotional well-being that is intentionally or incidentally achieved in several program types: adventure therapy, personal growth, college adventure, recreation, and camping.

Outdoor education and experiential learning defined
Following the philosophy of Dewey (1938), outdoor education involves cooperative, democratic learning environments that stress an interactive process among students and teachers and experiential learning. Experiential learning is most simply defined as learning by doing (Boss, 1999). Chickering (1976, p. 63) explained that experiential learning “occurs when changes in judgments, feelings, knowledge or skills result for a particular person from living through an event or events.” The Association for Experiential Education (1994, p. 1) defines experiential education as “a process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill and value from direct experience.”

While we most often think about outdoor education as a way to develop leadership abilities, environmental knowledge, and other useful knowledge and skills, it can also be used to develop emotional strength and well-being as evidenced in studies described below.

Intentional versus incidental growth
Although many outdoor education and experiential learning programs enhance emotional growth, they might not do so as their primary intent. Programs that are intended first and foremost as therapy enhance emotional growth in a purposeful, planned manner (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1994). Other programs, like those found in recreation or in college orientation programs, do not have emotional growth as the primary goal, but such growth may be a regularly occurring consequence of participation. In this case, growth may be considered incidental to the program goals.

Another way of making this distinction is to differentiate between the terms “therapeutic” and “therapy.” The first term, an adjective, indicates factors that may be conducive to emotional well-being and may apply to a variety of activities and programs. The latter term, a noun, involves a process of assessment, treatment planning, the strategic use of counseling techniques (including group dynamics, which are often a component of outdoor education programs), and the documentation of change.

Types of Programs

Many programs could be examined related to a discussion of emotional growth, including more than 2,000 camps that are members of the American Camping Association, and more than 700 wilderness experience programs identified by Friese, Hendee, and Kinziger (1998). Wilderness experience programs include programs designed for therapy, rehabilitation, education, leadership, growth, or organizational development. Interested readers are referred to a compilation of 187 research study abstracts on impact of a variety of wilderness programs (Friese, Pittman, & Hendee, 1995). In this Digest, we will highlight therapeutic aspects of outdoor education found in adventure therapy, personal growth programs, college orientation, recreation, and camping programs.

Adventure therapy programs
Programs that use the outdoors as a part of therapy often take place in wilderness settings and involve adventure. Most of these programs are geared toward troubled youth (Berman & Davis-Berman, 1995), who often have been diagnosed with mental health problems. Adventure therapy programs take many forms and may take place in a variety of settings. Program variations include games and initiatives, ropes courses, family therapy programs, adjunctive therapy, and wilderness therapy (Davis-Berman & Berman, 2000). Sometimes the adventure therapy program is the sole treatment modality, while other times it is used as an adjunct to more traditional therapy approaches (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1994).

Russell and Hendee (1999) describe two basic types of wilderness therapy programs:

  1. Contained programs last up to three weeks and operate as expeditions, with clients and staff remaining together for the duration of the program.
  2. Continuous flow programs last up to eight weeks, with clients and staff cycling in and out of the program.

Cason & Gillis (1994) conducted a meta-analysis of 43 programs that provided evidence of adventure therapy effectiveness. They concluded that participants became more internal in their locus of control, received better grades, and had more positive self-concepts after completion of adventure therapy programs.

Personal growth programs
While these programs are not designed as therapy, they are intended to have a positive impact on general psychological well-being. Participants are less likely to have been diagnosed with a mental health problem or to be receiving treatment than participants in therapy programs. An example of a personal growth program is Outward Bound. Perusal of the Outward Bound Web site reveals the emphasis on personal development as one of their core values:

... to perform tasks that are beyond perceived physical, mental and emotional limits enhances students' beliefs in their own capabilities. ... developing capacities of mind, body and spirit to better understand one’s responsibilities to self, others and community. Key areas of development are:

Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards (1997) conducted a meta-analysis of adventure programs, an undertaking they found to be complex and multifaceted. They found that, in general, adventure programs positively impacted self-esteem, leadership, academics, personality, and interpersonal relations, with self-esteem change being most significant. These changes were shown to be more stable over time than the changes generated in more traditional educational programs.

College adventure programs.
The use of adventure to orient new students, introduced at Dartmouth in 1935, continues today in colleges and universities across the country. Orientation and other college adventure programs facilitate the emotional and social development of students, who are experiencing a challenging and stressful period in life. While these programs do not fall into the category of therapy, they do seem to be therapeutic for the young adults enrolled.

Davis-Berman and Berman (1996) studied 50 wilderness orientation programs describing their purposes, structures, goals, and other aspects of the programs. More recently, Gass (1999) reviewed adventure orientation and other wilderness programs to facilitate ongoing adjustment to college, training for resident assistants, and pre-college programs. These researchers found that, of the college offerings, orientation programs have received the most attention. Although the programs vary greatly in design and type, they do tend to focus on peer relationships, socialization, emotional adjustment to college, and college retention (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1996; Gass, 1999). Orientation programs have been shown to increase retention, and to positively impact interpersonal skills and relationships (Gass, 1987). However, it is not clear if the retention differences remain over time (Gass, 1990).

Recreation programs
These programs do not attempt to facilitate emotional growth. Instead, they gear up, activate, energize, and excite participants (Priest, 1999). Webb’s (1999) review of recreation programs suggests that their roots tend to be in college-based programs. Some of these programs are connected to degree programs but most are extracurricular.

In general, the goals of recreation programs are fun, enjoyment, and recreation. However, program organizers identify skill development and moral growth as secondary goals. Through the vehicle of recreation, different types of skill development can occur. For example, participants can learn to become more socially comfortable. They may also learn to be less inhibited and become more open to trying new things and taking some risks. In recreation programs, participants may also be exposed to different types of people, different ways of responding, and alternative ways of thinking. Sometimes through these experiences, moral and character development can also occur (Webb, 1999).

Due to the nature of the goals of recreation programs, outcome studies are generally not done. Descriptions of recreation programs throughout North America can be found in a recent publication compiled from a survey of college- and university-based programs (Webb, 1996).

Camping programs
The organization of camps for the expressed purpose of facilitating the emotional well-being of campers dates back to the early 1900s with Camp Ahmek in Algonquin Park, Ontario (Dimock & Hendry, 1939). Improving social behavior was a stated goal of this early camp, and extensive records of participant progress were kept in an attempt to document personal growth. Camps continue to be a popular outdoor experience, especially for youth. As with the recreation programs, even camps that are not therapeutic in their intent often work to facilitate personal growth in the participants.

Marsh (1999) conducted a meta-analysis on the influence of camp experiences on self-concept in youth. He found a positive influence on self-esteem in those programs that had a focus on self-enhancement. This increase in self-esteem was most pronounced for pre-teens, but was positive across all ages.


Despite the wide variety of outdoor education programs, a unifying thread seems to be the facilitation of emotional growth and well-being. Certain program types, like therapy programs, intentionally build emotional growth into their program structure. For others, like recreation programs, this growth is incidental to the original program goals.


Association for Experiential Education (AEE). (1994). AEE definition of experiential education. Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.

Berman, D. S., & Davis-Berman, J. L. (1995). Outdoor education and troubled youth. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 385 425)

Boss, J. A. (1999). Outdoor education and the development of civic responsibility. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 425 051)

Cason, D., & Gillis, H. (1994). A meta-analysis of outdoor adventure programming with adolescents. Journal of Experiential Education, 17(1), 40-47.

Chickering, A. (1976). Developmental change as a major outcome. In M. Keeton (Ed.), Experiential learning (pp. 62-107). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Davis-Berman, J. L., & Berman, D. (1994). Wilderness therapy: Foundations, theory and research. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Davis-Berman, J. L., & Berman, D. (1996). Using the wilderness to facilitate adjustment to college: An updated description of wilderness orientation programs. Journal of Experiential Education, 19(1), 22-28.

Davis-Berman, J. L., & Berman, D. (2000). Adventure therapy with adolescents. In L. VanderCreek (Ed.), Innovations in clinical practice: A sourcebook, Vol. 18. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

Dimock, H., & Hendry, C. (1939). Camping and character: A camp experiment in character education. New York: Association Press.

Friese G., Hendee, J. C., & Kinziger, M. (1998). The wilderness experience industry in the United States: Characteristics and dynamics. Journal of Experiential Education, 21(1), 40-45.

Friese, G., Pittman, J., & Hendee, J. (1995). Studies of the use of wilderness for personal growth, therapy, education, and leadership development: An annotation and evaluation. Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Wilderness Research Center.

Gass, M. (1987). The effects of a wilderness orientation program on college students. Journal of Experiential Education, 10(2), 30-33.

Gass, M. (1990). The longitudinal effects of an adventure orientation program on the retention of students. Journal of College Student Development, 31(1), 33-38.

Gass, M. (1999). Adventure programs in higher education. In J. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.), Adventure programming (pp. 373-83). State College, PA: Venture Publishing.

Hattie, J., Marsh, H., Neill, J., & Richards, G. (1997). Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference. Review of Educational Research, 67(1), 43-87.

Marsh, P. E. (1999). What does camp do for kids?: A meta-analysis of the influence of the organized camping experience on the self constructs of youth. Unpublished master’s thesis, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

Outward Bound(R)USA. (n.d.). About Outward Bound: Core values. Denver, CO: Author. Available at

Priest, S. (1999). Introduction. In J. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.), Adventure programming (pp. xiii-xiv). State College, PA: Venture Publishing.

Russell, K. C., & Hendee, J. C. (1999). Wilderness therapy as an intervention and treatment for adolescents with behavioral problems. In A. E. Watson, G. Aplet, and J. C. Hendee (Eds.), World Congress proceedings on research management and allocation (vol. II). Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, RMRS-P-000.

Webb, D. (1996). Outdoor recreation program directory & date/resource guide (2nd ed.). Boulder, CO: Outdoor Network.

Webb, D. (1999). Recreational outdoor adventure programs. In J. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.), Adventure programming (pp. 3-8). State College, PA: Venture Publishing.

This feature is an ERIC Digest and is in the public domain

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