Outdoor Education R&E Center

Culture & Cultural Issues
in Outdoor Education

James Neill
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laluzdivinadetusojos Green waters The light of Tihany. Balaton Lake. Hungary.

What is culture?

Culture affects who we are, how we think, how we behave, and how we respond to our environment.  Culture can be described as the patterns of “thinking, feeling, and potential acting” that all people carry within themselves.  The source of these patterns lies in the social environments in which people grew up (Dunn & Marinetti, 2004).

Cultural patterns affect our the nature of our experience and how we learn.  In the context of outdoor education, culture has many possible points of relevance, including:

  • How are our understandings of outdoor education culturally constructed?
  • Do members of different cultures have equivalent access to outdoor education and do they derive equivalent benefits?
  • Is outdoor education a post-industrial cultural phenomenon?
  • How do members of different cultures interact with the outdoors, adventure and learning?
  • What words and ideas are used to describe outdoor education in different countries?
  • What is the culture of outdoor education?  What subcultures in outdoor education are there?

Cultural identity & outdoor education

One area of cultural research is with regard to personal and cultural identity and how this influences outdoor education experiences.

For instance, Purdie, Neill & Richards (2002) found that students who rated themselves as being "less Australian" also tended to report lower personal development gains from a government-conducted outdoor education program.  This at least indicates a need for further work in understanding how culture and cultural identity interacts with outdoor education experiences.

Purdie and Neill (1999) also reported on difficulties experienced by Japanese students in an Australian-based outdoor education program (e.g., reluctance around activities such as swimming in a river and dressing and undressing near fellow students in a coeducational setting).  Such observations are consistent with broad cultural and psychological research which suggests that cultural and personal identities are a powerful filter through which individual experiences are interpreted.

One of possible reasons for the nil or negative effects of outdoor education programs is culture shock.  Students who feel least connected with the culture promoted within outdoor education programs are at risk of experiencing culture shock, which results from loss of contact with familiar culture and the stress of trying to handle new cultural demands.

In many ways, entering an outdoor program is like entering another country where environmental and cultural differences require adaptation of a participant’s behavioral norms and expectations.  The circumstances of a novel outdoor community require participants to adapt to the new environment, establish new relationships, and redefine themselves within a new context.  Adaptation may be easy for participants who are familiar with outdoor settings or have had similar experiences, but for those who have had little exposure to the outdoors the process can create many personal and interpersonal difficulties. (Fabrizio & Neill, 2005)

Fabrizio and Neill (2005) have proposed similarities between the stages of cultural shock and the cultural adaptation that takes place during outdoor education programs:

  • honeymoon period (tourist phase)
  • crisis
  • adjustment and reorientation
  • cultural immersion (adaptation)

Models of cultural adaptation provide a useful framework for outdoor education program design for all students, and particularly for those who could benefit from extra support to move and learn through the crisis (culture-shock) of living in new worlds.  Essentially, the issues can be addressed in three phases:

  • pre-experience preparation
  • group processing
  • post-experience debriefing

Ultimately, successful adaptation in an outdoor program can lead to valuable learning of acculturation skills and cross-cultural competence.  Greater understanding of self and an ability to adjust and adapt to new situations are beneficial to learners and transferable to many areas of everyday life.


Although these speculations and pieces of research can be cited, the reality is that it is still early days in developing a mature understanding of culture, culture issues and the phenomenon of outdoor education.  Much remains.

Given the acceleration of changing demographics in the United States and internationally…comparative studies involving classifications of people from a variety of backgrounds and countries will become more vital when developing research designs in the future. Studies in culture and ethnicity, for example, have surfaced more substantially than ever before. Nonetheless, these topics continue to lag far behind other areas of inquiry. In a race- and class-based global society, our social science discourse must do a better job of reaching across cultures and different class structures in a shared human experience rooted in mutual respect and empowerment. The more knowledge we gain – “for the good of all” – will only advance experience education well beyond the usual rhetoric regarding the so-called enlightened virtues of research.
- p. 62, Roberts & Yerkes (2000)


Bacon, S. B. (1988). The effects of racially homogeneous and heterogeneous Outward Bound groups on the self-report survey scores and drop out rates of minority students. Greenwich, CT: Outward Bound USA.

Dunn, P., & Marinetti, A. (2004). Cultural adaptation: Necessity for eLearning. Learning in the New Economy e-Magazine (LiNE Zine).

Fabrizio, S., & Neill, J. T. (2005). Cultural adaptation in outdoor programmingAustralian Journal of Outdoor Education,9(2), 44-56.

Gray, M. S. & Roberts, N. S. (2003). Culture, competency and risk management: Where will the three meet? Camping Magazine, 76(6), 50-53.

Johnson, C. Y., Bowker, J. M., & Cordell, K. (2001).Outdoor recreation constraints: An examination of race, gender, and rural dwelling. Southern Rural Sociology, 17, 111-133.

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Purdie, N., & Neill, J. T. (1999). Japanese students down-under: Is Australian outdoor education relevant to other cultures? Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 4(1), 48-57.

Purdie, N., Neill, J. T., & Richards, G. E. (2002). Australian identity and the effects of an outdoor education programAustralian Journal of Psychology, 54(1).

Roberts, N. S. (2003). Teaching about diversity issues in natural resources and outdoor recreation courses: Challenges and complexities. In W. Timpson, S. Canetto, E. Borrayo, & R. Yang (Eds.), Teaching Diversity: Challenges and Complexities, Identities, and Integrity (pp. 227-246). Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

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Roberts, N. S. & Drogin, E. B. (1993). The outdoor recreation experience: Factors affecting participation of African American women.  Journal of Experiential Education16(1), 14-18.

Roberts, N., & Rodriguez, D. A. (1996). Multicultural issues in outdoor education. ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Digests.

Roberts, N. & Yerkes, R. (2000). Experiential education research: Where do we go from here? Journal of Experiential Education, 23(2), 61-63.

Rodriguez, D. A. & Roberts, N. S. (2005). Understanding the influence of gender and ethnicity on evaluations of outdoor leader effectiveness.  World Leisure Journal, 47(1),  32-44.

Seaman, J. (2005). Adventure as cultural borderwork. Journal of Experiential Education, 27, 300-304.

Washington, S. J. & Roberts, N. S. (1999). Adventure education for teaching cross-cultural competencies. In S. Priest & J. Miles (Eds), Adventure Education (2nd edition),  State College, PA: Venture.


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