Outdoor Education in Schools

Adolescent Development
& Outdoor Education in Schools

James Neill
Last updated:
16 Feb 2006
Written in 2001

Adolescent Development & Outdoor Education in Schools

Adolescents of today are ill-prepared for tomorrow.  The responsibility for providing developmental experiences for adolescents has increasingly been placed on schools.  Outdoor education offers an innovative approach to helping develop students develop their self-concepts, attitudes, and personal effectiveness.

Empirical evidence has indicated, and theory suggests, that outdoor education programs are comparable in their outcomes with other forms of innovative classroom-based affective education, and have the potential to be even more impactful.  Innovative experimentations are needed with outdoor education as a method for helping to guide adolescents into successful adulthoods in the twenty-first century.

Traditionally, adolescent identity development was facilitated via culturally-guided rites of passage involving physical and spiritual challenges.  However, in modern Western society, there is a lack of such experiences available for young people. 

Problem-behaviours such as delinquency and drug-abuse can be seen as natural risk-taking behaviours through which adolescents seek to explore their potential.  Well-known behavioural problems and the disturbing prevalence of adolescent psychopathology and psychological distress can be seen as symptomatic of young people do not feel adequately equipped to cope with the task of adulthood in the twenty-first century.

More recent forms of experiential identity development for adolescents have included military training, community service, religious practice, and apprenticeships.   Increasingly, however, such developmental roles are less available.  How, then, are we expecting young people to 'cut their teeth' on the world and forge for themselves a strong sense of personal identity and capabilities for handling the twenty-first century?

Over the past century, the responsibility for providing meaningful developmental experiences for young people has increasingly been placed on schools.  Schools have become the mass training ground for children and youth in Western society and, increasingly, are being seen as intervention sites for primary and secondary prevention programs.

Unlike the relatively uniform academic curricula in mainstream schooling, the degree of emphasis on, and methodology of, approaches to personal, social and community development of students varies substantially between schools.

The mainstream education system is often criticized for having lost touch with the inner and future needs of adolescents.  In responding though, there is a temptation to only respond to the most immediate, acute needs, such as suicide and drug-abuse.  However, more than ever we need preventative efforts which foster a secure sense of self and allow adolescents to develop a flexible repertoire of skills for navigating and creating their future.

One way in which our society has responded to the call for education of the whole person is by including personal and/or character development as part of the school curriculum, such as through classes focused citizenship, health and physical education, religious studies, etc.

A second way is by offering extracurricular activities (such as school plays, sporting activities, camps, etc.) as a companion to the mainstream curriculum.

A third way has been to adjust the whole curriculum and focus of a school to reflect a primary goal of providing personal development for students, such as in Steiner and Montessori schools.

One form of prevention program which is becoming increasingly utilized is outdoor education.  The outdoor adventure-based education approach provides structured, group-based adventurous challenges, using involving living and expeditioning in the outdoors. 

Activities often include camping, hiking, rafting, abseiling, and rockclimbing, but with a special focus on facilitating social, emotional, and intellectual growth.  Empirical evidence has indicated that outdoor education programs are at least as effective as innovative classroom based personal development programs (Neill, 1997, 2002, 2003).

The underlying philosophy of adventure education programs is that of ‘guided experiential learning’, in which adolescents have direct experiences of challenge and nature, whilst accompanied by a teacher who uses experiential learning methods.  At their best, outdoor education programs can provide adolescents with effective rites of passage in developing skills for life.

Some features of effective school-based primary prevention programs which can be recommended are that the program:

  • be physically oriented,
  • use the school context, but outside of the immediate school environment,
  • take place in a residential setting,
  • be of a long duration,
  • be conducted by therapists or trained group leaders,
  • incorporate the aims of adolescents, parents and teachers, and
  • include teachers, parents and others involved with adolescents as targets in the program (Neill, 1994).

Although such lists can be created, it important to remain open to a wide variety of ways in which we can better guide today’s adolescents towards effective adulthoods.  The only sensible way forward is an innovative approach, with active cycles of experimentation and evaluation with promising methods, such as outdoor education.


Davidson, L. (2001). Qualitative research and making meaning from adventure: A case study of boys experiences of outdoor education at school.  Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 1(2), 11-21.

Neill, J. T. (1994). The effect of Outward Bound high school programs on adolescents' self-concept, mental health, and coping strategies. Honours Thesis, Canberra, ACT, Australia: Australian National University.

Neill, J. T. (1997).  Outdoor education in the schools: What can it achieve? In Catalysts for Change: 10th National Outdoor Education Conference Proceedings Jan 20-24, pp. 193-201. Collaroy Beach, Sydney, Australia: The Outdoor Professionals.

Neill, J. T. (2002, January). Meta-analytic research on the outcomes of outdoor education. Paper presented to the 6th Biennial Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Research Symposium, Bradford Woods, IN.

Neill, J. T. (2003). Impactful education: Research says lets go outdoors!  Outdoor Education Research & Evaluation Center.

Quay, J., Dickinson, S., & Nettleton, B. (2000). Students caring for each other: Community building focusing on the student-student relationship. Paper presented to Community Building in a Global Context Conference, September 9-12, Hobart, Australia.