Formats of Outdoor Education Programs

James Neill
Last updated:
24 Aug 2003


Structure of outdoor education programs

Formats of outdoor education programs

Possible formats of outdoor education programs

Structure of Outdoor Education Programs

Common forms of outdoor and adventure education have been school camps, wilderness-based expeditions, and longer-term programs such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

Prototypical outdoor education programs take:

  • small groups of people (approximately 6 to 25 in a group) into

  • outdoor environments

  • under the guidance of an instructor trained in outdoor and educational skills.  The group engages in

  • a series of organised, adventure-based activities.

In the early format of outdoor education programs (1940's-1970's), such as Outward Bound, were conducted as expeditions consisting of sequenced adventurous challenges lasting up to several weeks (for more detailed descriptions see Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997; Marsh, Richards, & Barnes, 1986a, b; Richards, 1977).  There has been considerable adaptation of styles of outdoor education programming since the 1970's.

Nowadays, an outdoor education program could be:

  • very short (e.g., 2 hours),

  • use a single adventure activity (e.g., a ropes challenge course),

  • be conducted in non-outdoor settings (e.g., indoor rock climbing or city-based adventure programs), and/or

  • be integrated with the delivery of other services, such as within school classrooms or social work programs.

More recent innovations include employing specialist adventure education teachers in schools, placing more emphasis on personal development through dramatic and creative challenges, and utilizing adventure learning principles in the structuring of school and training curricula.

Formats of Outdoor Education Programs


Example Program or Organization



Residential Camp

Sport & Recreation Camps (Australia)

Summer Camps (USA)

Cost-efficient; residential; involves teachers

Recreational focus; Isolated experience; Not integrated with curriculum; Requires capital and established facilities; Limited research evidence

Adventure Expedition-Based

Outward Bound

Personal development focus; residential; involves teachers; research outcomes

Isolated experience sometimes integrated with curriculum; moderate expense; Dwindling access to wilderness areas

Science Expedition-Based

ANZSES (Australia and New Zealand Scientific Exploring Society)

Integrates with curriculum; includes intellectual challenge

Limited availability; limited research evidence

Environmental Expedition-Based

Green Corps

Can integrate with curriculum; challenges values; cost-efficient; community service

Limited availability; limited research evidence



Antipodeans (Australia)

Cultural challenge; involves teachers

Costly; Limited research evidence


Student visits to retirement villages

Integrates with community; challenges values and social skills; cost-efficient; school-based, many opportunities; involves teachers

Limited research evidence; extra demands on teachers

Specialist Teacher(s)

Outdoor Education Group (Australia)

Integrates program with school curriculum; involves school commitment/vision; trained teachers available

Limited research evidence

Specialist Resources(s)

Ropes Challenge Course; Yacht

Onsite access; integration with curriculum; involves school commitment/vision

Limited research evidence

Extended Stay Outdoor Education Programs

Timbertop; Glengarry

Integration with curriculum; lengthy experience; intact student cohort

Limited research evidence; Moderate-high expense; Major capital investment

Ongoing, extra-curricular

Duke of Edinburgh Award;


Ongoing, personal development focus, cost-efficient, targets multiple domains, adaptable to different students’ needs; involves teachers

Extra demands on students and teachers; Limited research evidence

Urban-based Adventure Education

New York Outward Bound Centre (USA)

Easy access to urban environment; integrates with community; cost-efficient

Limited research evidence

Indoor & Mobile Experiential Challenge

Project Adventure

Flexibility; on-site; access to different types of experiences; aseasonal; no capital investment

Limited availability; limited research evidence; not well known

Drama-based Experiential Challenge

Intertouch (Outward Bound Czech Republic)

Flexibility; adaptable to different learning styles; on- or off-school site; creativity-based challenge

Limited availability; limited research evidence; not well known


Retreats; Church camps

Focus on personal/spiritual development; involves teachers and possibly family; relatively low cost

Not all adolescents are receptive; limited research evidence

Expeditionary Learning

Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound (USA)

Full integration of curriculum with adventure-based learning principles; involves teachers

Limited availability; limited research evidence; not well known; major commitment

Possible Formats of Outdoor Education Programs





Marathon/Endurance Experiences

Adventure racing

Endurance-based adventure challenges could offer adolescents the chance to explore and extent their personal limits, to develop new maturity and confidence, to be a rite of passage

Extreme environment living

Antarctic; Sailing; Desert; Underwater

Through living in a completely foreign environment, students can come to know themselves better and learn new personal skills


Corroboree; Sweat Lodges

Through participating in indigenous, national (e.g., Coming of Age Day in Japan), or seasonal ceremonies (such as Spring Festivals), students can undergo shared rites of passage

Farm-based & Self-sufficiency experiences

Farm visits; Permaculture;

By living and working on a self-sufficient farm or expedition, students can acquire traditional practical skills, a different perspective on urban-based lifestyles, and undergo a rite of passage


Health food; relaxation

Personal development can be achieved via relaxing, healthy lifestyle living in an ‘ideal’ setting

Rite of Passage Expeditions

Vision Quest; Rites of Passage; Threshold

Adventure education expeditions can incorporate traditional rite of passage activities, such as finding one’s totem animal, doing a medicine wheel, sitting in a circle of stones, firewatching from dusk to dawn, etc.

Personal Coaching

Qualified psychologists with coaching training

Personal coaching by qualified psychologists could help guide a student through difficult stages of adolescence so as to maximise his/her potential

Alternative Challenges

Firewalking; Fasting; Sacred Run

Through taking on challenges from other cultures or belief systems, adolescents can develop new personal insight and confidence

Drug-facilitated Experiences

Peyote in Mexican Ceremonies

Adaptive uses of drugs to facilitate awareness and insight.  A utopian, futuristic perspective is provided by Aldous Huxley in “Island” (1970)

Virtual Personal Development

Project NatureConnect

The internet and WWW could be used to facilitate adventurous experiences amongst adolescents from around the world, to provide a novel, dynamic post-modern from of rite of passage (e.g. see http://www.pacificrim.net/~nature/.www.html)

Business Development Project

Fundraising; Business Planning and Operation

Students can be challenged to developed business ideas, raise capital and manage their own company.  In so doing, they can be supported in the development of new personal skills

Creative Expression

Creative writing; Singing; dancing

Through being challenged to explore creative expressions, adolescents can develop new understandings of themselves and become more confident in personal expression of ideas and feelings

Alternative Therapies

Meditation; Bodywork

Through experiencing alternative personal development techniques adolescents can become more aware of themselves and their possibilities

Construction Challenges

Building projects

By designing and building their own dwelling, transport, etc., students can be challenged to acquire new skills and get feedback about their thoughts, behaviour and capabilities

Animal Encounters

Horses; Husky-dogs; Chimpanzees

Through encounter with non-human animals, such as expeditioning with horses or protecting of rare species, etc. adolescents can develop new skills and self-learning in a novel way