Outdoor Education R&E Center

Psychology of Human Growth

Outdoor Education Theory

Psychological Aspects of Outdoor Education

James Neill
Last updated:
26 Apr 2007

Theoretical Psychological Aspects

Practical Psychological Aspects

Litany Against Fear (extended)

Fear is the mind killer

Psychological Theory & Outdoor Education

A wide range of psychological theories can be utilized to explain outdoor education processes and outcomes. Some of these theories are briefly outlined:

Physical Fitness

At their most basic level, outdoor education programs are physical.  For example, gains in participants’ mobility and fitness levels arguably occurs and contributes to overall psychological well-being.

Stress & Arousal (e.g., King, Stanley, & Burrows)

Outdoor education programs often put participants in situations that challenge them physically, emotionally, mentally and socially. The nature of this arousal has been studied both physiologically and psychologically (Work by Camille Bunting; Van Gelder, Richards & Neill, 1992; Wilde, 1994).

Coping (e.g., Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Richards; Frydenberg; Neill, 1994)

When faced with challenging situations, participants cope in different ways, some of which are effective, some of which are ineffective or even destructive.  The immediate feedback provided by the environment, group and practical situations can help outdoor education participants to develop more effective coping strategies.  Re-assessment of coping strategies was proposed by Hattie, Marsh, Neill, and Richards (1997) as one of the key possible theoretical factors in the notably positive meta-analysis results for the effects  of adventure education programs.

Resilience & outdoor education

Resilience refers to one's capacity to withstand stressors without going under.  In fact, a highly resilient person may actually thrive on problems, seeing them instead as opportunities.  Outdoor education philosophy, perhaps best exemplified in the work of Kurt Hahn, strongly promotes the idea that tough outdoor experiences are valuable for "toughening" people up and developing a greater ability to deal with real-world challenges.

Self-Concept (Shavelson; Marsh; Hattie; Neill, 1994)

Self-concept enhancement has been understood as a major aim of many outdoor education programs, such as Outward Bound.  While overall enhancement of self-concept is achieved, it has also been shown that there are specific and predictable differential gains in different dimensions of self-concept (Marsh, Richards and Barnes, 1986a,b; Neill & Heubeck (in progress)), an area worthy of further investigation.

Achievement Motivation (McClelland)

McClelland’s outline of a model for enhancing achievement motivation has used to structure aspects of outdoor education programs. Outdoor education programs often aim to enhance participants’ motivation to achieve.

Self-Efficacy (Bandura; Parle, 1983)

Self-efficacy refers to a person's belief in his ability to successfully do things.  Bandura, the key self-efficacy, argues that this cognitive belief has a strong relationship to actual performance.  Enhancement of self-efficacy should arise when actual skills are developed, but it may also be useful to directly foster a positive belief about personal capability.

Locus of Control

Locus of Control refers to the extent that a person believes he/she has personal control and responsibility over the events of his/her life and the larger events around him/her.  Several studies have been conducted examining the effects of outdoor education programs on participants Locus of Control.  In general, there are substantial shifts towards a more internal Locus of Control.  Outward Bound programs, for example, have been shown to produce a more internal locus of control in participants (Marsh, Richards & Barnes, 1986a,b).

Task Difficulty, Goal Setting and Feedback (Locke & Latham, 1994; Hattie, Marsh, Neill & Richards, 1997)

Outdoor education programs have tended to adopt Kolb’s experiential learning cycle to structure and facilitate many activities. Difficult goals are set, action and experience takes place, feedback is given and performance is reviewed, then new plans are made for improved performance.

Group Dynamics

Most outdoor education programs are group-based experiences. The dynamics of group interaction and group development are fundamental to the achievement of outdoor education aims and to nature of personal experiences in outdoor education programs.

Self-Categorization Theory (Turner; Morrison, 1995)

Changes in self-perception are intimately related to the perceived norms, values and identity of the social groups one belongs to. Outdoor education programs are like entering a new culture which leads to the formation and development of unique group values and norms that in turn influence the self-perceptions of group members.

Remedial & Recidivism (Marsh & Richards, 1986)

Outdoor-based education programs have been shown to achieve positive remedial effects on low academic performers (Richards & Richards, 1981). In addition, programs designed for at risk or delinquent students appear to contribute to reducing the likelihood of re-offending (e.g., Bacon, 1992).

General Well-Being (Neill, 1995; Heubeck & Neill, 1999)

Participants on outdoor education programs report better positive and negative psychological well-being after returning to their normal lives.

For more, see Theories of outdoor education


Eberle, L. (2003). "Executive Functioning" New research about familiar behavior. StrugglingTeens.com.

Heubeck, B. G. & Neill, J. T. (1999). Stability and change of adolescent coping styles and mental health. Paper presented to the 11th Australasian Human Development Conference, July 8-10, Sydney, Australia.

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. (Ed.) (in preparation). Psychological aspects of outdoor education: Exploratory papers Vol. 1.

Neill, J. T. (2002). Comments about change and psychological aspects of outdoor education.  In J. T. Neill.  Psychological Aspects of Outdoor Education: Exploratory Papers (Vol. 1).

Neill, J. T., & Heubeck, B. (1995). Insights into adolescents' mental health during Outward Bound programs. In Proceedings of the 9th National Outdoor Education Conference, Jan 15-20, Gold Coast, Australia.