Back to
Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage: Van Gennep 3-Stage Model & Outdoor Education - Commentary on Bell (2003)

James Neill
Last updated:
06 Dec 2003

Rites of passage involve a symbolic, often exhausting journey or challengeRites of Passage...for change & transformation

Article summary & comments: The rites of passage and outdoor education: Critical concerns for effective programming (Brent Bell, 2003).

Bell's article presents a conceptual connection between rnold Van Gennep's 3-stage model of "rites of passage" which was gleaned from anthropological study (1909/1960) (more information about Van Gennep's Rites of Passage) and the design of outdoor education programs (more information what is outdoor education?).  Van Gennep's three stages are Separation, Transition, and Reincorporation (see Figure).

Outdoor education has distinct elements of separation from the everyday environment and a period of time during which challenges are encountered and change is some desired directions is fostered.  however Bell argues that outdoor educators who claim that their programs are a rite of passage may be somewhat naive in doing so, because outdoor education programs tend to lack a focus on Reincorporation.  Bell suggests a) abandoning Van Gennep's rites of passage model, b) strengthening the Reincorporation aspects of outdoor education, or c) continuing as is, but recognizing that outdoor education programs lack a focus on the Reincorporation aspects of rites of passage.

Figure. Van Gennep's (1909/1960) conceptualization of the stages of rites of passage (above the line) and the social status of the individual (below the line)

I sensed from the article that Bell was a little too eager in suggesting that current outdoor education programs do not focus on stage 3, incorporation.  This may have been true in the past, but Reincorporation is becoming increasingly focused on in outdoor education programs.  Outdoor education programs of today involve linkages between program and home/work/school environments than ever before, with considerably more reincorporation work than ever before.  So, in this sense, Van Gennep's model seems to be becoming as relevant as ever to outdoor education.

As Bell points out, Western culture is, at least on the surface, disturbingly lacking in the distinct rites of passage of passage and this may be leading to a social pressure to view outdoor education programs as serving something of a rites of passage function.  And why not?  Given the reasonable fit, it might well be that outdoor education is evolving to play just that kind of role for society, and this may well be important.  This social pressure to generate genuine rites of passage is probably felt within and amongst outdoor educators, particularly in some organizations and areas of outdoor education, and from without, as society looks around for what healthy, guided rites of passage can be offered to people involved in developmental thresholds such as adolescence, young adulthood, and later life.  So, Bell's suggestion of severing the connection between outdoor education and rites of passage doesn't make sense.  A better option Bell suggests is to strengthen the reincorporation stage, since the followup period is generally felt by outdoor educators to present something of a challenge to participants to sustain their changes and continue to grow.  However, recent evidence (go to recent evidence about long-term changes in outdoor education) suggests that outdoor education programs are actually doing reasonably well with regard to sustaining positive personal development changes on a long-term basis, but that the short-term changes (i.e., from beginning to end of the intensive program) are small to moderate and vary widely between programs (Hattie, et al, 1997).  Thus, this evidence from thousands of participants actually suggests that more attention is needed to create powerful, consistent programs and that transfer/reincorporation, at least to date, seems to doing reasonably well.

Recommendations for Van Gennep's model & outdoor education

The long-term outcome evidence is not as paltry as Bell suggests and perhaps outdoor education programs are doing a reasonable job with regard to helping participants to transition their learning and changes to home environments. 

Perhaps also we shouldn't be too eager to discard a model which has been found to be relevant across many cultures over a long period of time, particularly when it seems outdoor education programming may even be heading more towards program designs which are increasingly cognizant of both pre and post phases and not just the intensive program phase.

What research would seem to simply is the intensification of actual program design and the way in which activities are run, to center more around the Transition process.  This should be in conjunction with the Separation and Reincorporation, but at the end of the day, the nature of the Separation and Reincorporation processes are entirely constructed around the engine room of the change process, the Transition period, the nature of the activities, the unique social atmosphere, the role played by the leader, and so on.  What perhaps is needed are theories which unpack the Black Box of psycho-social change and transition, and this is where Van Gennep's rite of passage model risks being limiting.  In this sense Maddern's (1990) 5-stage model (based on Australian Aboriginal rites of passage) may be more helpful.

  1. Symbolic Journey [akin to Van Gennep's Separation]

  2. The Challenge [part a - Van Gennep's Transition]

  3. Opening the Door to the Dreaming [part b - Van Gennep's Transition]

  4. Responsibility [given new role status,  between Van Gennep's Transition & Reincorporation]

  5. Community Participation: [akin to Van Gennep's Reincorporation]

With regard to improving the stage 3 of outdoor education programs, Bell emphasizes two aspects from the Van Gennep work - the role of community support after the challenge/change stage 3 phase (including role of ceremony) and the provision of a new role for each individual which has role characteristics which are strongly socially reinforced. Both of these are components which are reinterated in Maddern's 5-stage model and thus could be further emphasized by outdoor education programs which seek to emphasize holistic, role identity change.

It seems from the empirical research that probably the better outdoor education programs are able to sufficiently provide elements for fostering long-term change, though it may depend on the type of goal of the program (e.g., whether its personal growth or role identity change).  For major shifts in role identity, for example, a rites of passage model involving conscious programming around each of the three stages may be desirable.  iderable reincorporation (stage 3) may be ideal.  For other personal development outcomes, for example, self-confidence and social skills, full-blown rites of passage may not be necessary since the empirical evidence is largely supportive that short-term changes in these areas are sustained.


Bell, B. (2003). The rites of passage and outdoor education: Critical concerns for effective programming.  Journal of Experiential Education, 26(1), 41-50.

Gass, M., Garvey, D., & Sugarman, D. (2003).The long-term effects of a first-year wilderness orientation program. Journal of Experiential Education, 26(1), 34-40.

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

Maddern, E. (1990). What is it fifteen year olds need?  Notes on developing initiations appropriate to our times.  Adventure Education, 17(1), 29-32.

Neill, J. T. (in preparation).  Enhancing personal effectiveness: The impacts of outdoor education programs.  Doctoral dissertation, Department of Education, University of Western Sydney.