Outdoor Education R&E Center

Trends, Change & Future
 in Outdoor Education

James Neill
Last updated:
27 Jan 2008


What's New?

Predictions: for Outdoor Education, Theory, & Research in 2003 & the Decade Ahead

1. Increasing disconnection between what academics interested in OE want to spend their time doing and what people and organizations in the field want from academics. Basically, academics want to study process, people in the field want evaluation outcomes.

2. Increasingly quiet OUTRES listserv because the new generation of content is emerging in web-form.  Basically, websites such as Active Reviewing, OutdoorEd.com, and the Outdoor Education Research & Evaluation Center are collectively serving hundreds of hits for research info each day, seemingly reducing traffic on listservs.

3. No significant changes in the quality or quantity of research and knowledge generation in traditional publication forms.  Basically, it appears that there are no current major initiatives in building substantial new research programs or generation of new theory, etc. that are likely to bear significant fruition in the coming year.  If I could pick one exception, it would be Keith Russell's work on AT research at the Wilderness Research Center, Uni of Idaho.  Don't get me wrong - there is other good work around - but there is little work that is appearing as part of a long-term knowledge-building strategy.  One study proves nothing - a series of cumulative studies can.

4. Increase in 'research at the fringes'.  OE methodology remains compelling and needed; it will continue to attract increasing attention from alternative-thinking psychologists, social workers, educators, etc. and this will continue to foster a bubbling of 'research at the fringes'.  Whilst tantalizing and interesting, such research is never going to go deep within OE to build a new platform of knowledge.

5. Domination of US-based research will begin to wane. In the beginning decades of OE since World War II, the UK generated the little research and theory-building that was conducted, then the US dominated in terms of programming, theory-building and research from the 1960s-1990s.  This domination may have peaked.  Little new seems to be emerging from the US, and there is too much focus on safety, liability, risk management, etc. issues.  On the other hand there are positive signs of knowledge-building growth from the UK and Europe.  A good example is the strong emergence of the refocused Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Leadership.  In the longer-term, future decades could see the significant emergence of OE knowledge-building from Asia.  The situation in Australia / New Zealand seems to be, like the US, somewhat stable or in possible decline.

6. Adventure Therapy - the one to watch. I have always felt optimism and excitement that within the practice and theory of adventure therapy, gems of knowledge can be discovered and polished which will shed new light on the way in which OE operates.  With the upcoming 3rd International Adventure Therapy conference being held in North America, and the ongoing challenges of people coping with Western society, adventure therapy may emerge during the coming decade as a significant hothouse for the development of OE-related theory.

7. Graduate Training will be sought. As organizations mature and become increasingly sophisticated, they will have an increasing need to have managerial and director-level staff who have received post-graduate training.  At the same time, universities are increasingly under the pump to bring in dollars, but most of this comes from undergraduate education.  Thus, there will be a widening gap in the current decade between the needs and provision of graduate training in outdoor education.

8. The big and small OE organizations are endangered.  The big organizations such as Scouts and Guides, Outward Bound, Project Adventure, and NOLS all faced a very tough decade in the 1990s.  The big movers now are the medium-sized, specialist organizations.  Small operators are going to continue to suffer greatly with all the increasing administrative challenges of running programs.  But it is the very success of the big organizations which has spawned this new generation, and they will not become extinct because they have some sound ideas - they will simply continue to adapt and fractionate.

9. The possible connections between outdoor education and other fields will become more apparent.  In the global, multiple age, a key strength to survival and evolution is investing in connections.  Thus, connections between OE and other fields will emerge as increasingly important in the coming decade.

10. The role and purpose of nature in outdoor education will become more apparent.  As society becomes more disconnected from natural environments, the primary importance of human experience in nature becomes more highly valued and studied.  Whilst the US-dominance of outdoor education during the 1960's-1990's lead to adventure programming approaches which place little emphasis on human relationship with nature, it is predicted that the role of nature will emerge during the next decade as being more critical in OE theory and research.


Attarian, A. (2002). Trends in outdoor adventure education. In Proceedings of the 16th Annual International Conference on Outdoor Recreation And Education (pp. 35-39), October 24-31, Charleston, SC.

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Ewert, A. W. (1987). Outdoor adventure recreation: A trend analysis. Journal of Leisure
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Heimlich, J. E. (2007). Research trends in the United States: EE to ESD. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 1, 219-227.

Priest, S., & Gass, M. (2001). The future of adventure programming. Adventure Safety International.

Southern Connecticut State University (n. d.) Future role of recreation and leisure studies.

Watters, R. (1997). Changing Times in Outdoor Education: An Essay.  In Proceedings of the 1997 International Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education, Rob Jones and Brian Wilkinson (ed.) Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, Boulder, 1998, pp. 228-230.