Research Guide

The Effects of Outdoor Education Programs:
Key Primary Studies

James Neill
Last updated:
27 Jan 2008

Primary studies

There have been several standout, influential primary empirical studies, including:

  • American Institutes for Research (2005)'s evaluation of the behavior and learning impacts of week-long residential outdoor education environmental programs for 255 at-risk sixth graders from four elementary schools who attended three outdoor education programs in California.
  • Philliber Research Associates & American Camp Association (2005)'s 25-page summary report about a 3-year study (2001-2003) of the developmental effects in over 80 USA summer camps.  The study cost US$800,000, with the bulk of the support from the Lilly Foundation.  The study examined the claims that camps provide positive developmental experiences for young people.  Effects on 10 main outcomes were measured and categorized in terms of personal identity (e.g., self-esteem and self-confidence), social skills (including making new friends), leadership skills, physical and thinking skills (e.g., adventure experiences and environmental appreciation), and spiritual/value development.  Effect sizes of pre-post-followup change reported by campers and parents were small (~.1), whereas observed changes by staff were small-moderate (~.3).  These findings are consistent with estimates of camp program effects in previous research (Hattie, et al, 1997; Marsh, 1999).  The report, however, lacks a critical perspective and does not make comparisons with the broader research literature on personal and social change in other types of programs, nor does it offer strategies for improving the effectiveness of camp programs.  The study's instrumentation and psychometrics are downloadable.
  • Marcia McKenzie's (2000) and Jim Sibthorp's studies of the processes and outcomes of outdoor education programs.
  • Mike Gass' study on the long-term effects of university and college wilderness orientation programs on student development outcomes.
  • Simon Priest's studies during the 1980's and 1990's which examined the effects of corporate adventure training on various indicators of team and corporate performance; Priest's research work also focused on trying to understand the influence of various facilitation and program design factors, such as sequencing of activities and style of framing and debriefing by the instructor.
  • Marsh, Richards, and Barnes (1986a,b) on the short- and long-term effects of 26-day Outward Bound programs in Australia on multidimensional self-concepts of young adults - results were positive and lasting.
  • Conrad and Hedin's (1981) national study of experiential education programs in the USA using a good design and including a variety of good measures
  • Kelly and Baer (1971) on the recidivism of Outward Bound youth at risk participants


(If a reference you are looking for is not listed below, try this larger list of outdoor education research references)

American Institutes for Research. (2005). Effects of outdoor education programs for children in California. Paolo Alto, CA: American Institutes for Research.

Conrad, D. & Hedin, D. (1981). National assessment of experiential education: Summary and implications. Journal of Experiential Education, Fall, 6-20.

Kelley, F. J. & Baer, D. J. (1971). Physical challenge as a treatment for delinquency. Crime and Delinquency, 17, 437-445.

Marsh, H. W., Richards, G. E., & Barnes, J. (1986a). Multidimensional self-concepts: The effect of participation in an Outward Bound program. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 195-204.

Marsh, H. W., Richards, G. E., & Barnes, J. (1986b). Multidimensional self-concepts: A long-term follow-up of the effect of participation in an Outward Bound program. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 509-528.

Philliber Research Associates & American Camp Association (2005). Directions: Youth development outcomes of the camp experience.  Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.

Priest, S. (n.d.) Corporate Adventure Training (CAT) program studies.