Outdoor Education History

Outdoor Education Research

History of
Outdoor Education Research

James Neill
Last updated:
09 May 2006

Early Studies

The first research study, it could be said, was on the first Outward Bound program.  Although the statistics are not reported anywhere, the Outward Bound movement continues to claim that the survival rates of the young merchant seaman were significantly improved, and that thus the program was a success.  Whether such data ever existed is doubtful, but it made a good story and helped give justification for the continuance of Outward Bound programs.

In the USA, the first piece of outdoor education research was carried out in 1947 by the New York Education Department, examining the effectiveness of its camps (Ewert, 1983).  However, given the considerable history of camping programs, there was probably also earlier research conducted.  In this respect, the excellent bibliographies of camping research put together by Betty van der Smissen (1970, 1982) can be recommended:

There were more than 130 masterís theses and doctoral dissertations focusing on outdoor education in this era [1950-1960 in the USA].  Almost all of these fall within the concern of operations, and may be generally classified into four types: administration, general surveys, proposed programs, and curriculum articulation.  Not quite one-half of the studies are within the administration field, and include manuals, organizational structure, personnel, et al.  The other studies are fairly equally divided among the other three types.

In an effort to know what was going on both nation-wide and in specific state, at least fifteen of the studies, mostly in the latter 50s, were surveys.  Much of the research was very specific to one program in all of the other three types.  Studies of proposed programs outlined the development and structure of a program for a given school.  Many of the administration studies also were specific to operational concerns of a given school.  Because these studies were so operationally-specific, they had little impact on educational research in general.
- p. 117, van der Smissen (1980)

Classic Studies

Kelly and Baer in the mid-1960's to mid-1970's conducted the first major research studied into the effect of Outward Bound programs with delinquent youth, reporting positive, long-term benefits (Kelly, 1974; Kelly & Baer, 1968).  These studies provided a significant boost to Outward Bound programming for youth at risk and helped to spawn the emergence and legitimization of adventure therapy.  Related link: Outward Bound Research - The Early Days.

Marsh, Richards and Barnes (1986a,b) studied of the effects of standard Outward Bound Australia programs on multidimensional self-concepts.  The positive results were notable because:

  1. they showed positive effects of self-concept which lasted during an 18 month follow-up;
  2. there predictably stronger results in some areas of self-concept compared with other areas;
  3. a large sample (over 300 was used);
  4. the results were published in two major psychological journals.

Conrad and Hedin (1981) conducted a large study of experiential education programs around America.  This was a particularly well designed study, with national sampling on a variety of outcomes and independent variables.  A major (now difficult to get) report was produced plus results were reported in the Journal of Experiential Education, an article which is oft-cited and remains as one of the most often referenced research studies in outdoor and experiential education. Also see Conrad and Hedin (1979) and Conrad and Hedin (1982).

Cason and Gillis (1994) conducted the first meta-analysis of the adventure education literature, focusing on outcomes for adolescents.  This was followed by the major meta-analysis by Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards (1997) which reported small-moderate overall outcomes for adventure education programs, which lasted, even grew, over time, with the highest results being associated with Outward Bound programs in Australia, longer programs, and programs with adults.  Several other smaller meta-analyses have since been conducted or are in progress (Hans, 2000; Marsh, 1999; Bunting & Donley, 2002) and two summaries of the meta-analyses have been written (Neill & Richards, 1998; Neill, 2002)


Conrad, D., & Hedin, D. (1979). Johnny says he is learning...through experience.  Journal of Experiential Education, 2 (1).

Conrad, D., & Hedin, D. (1981). National assessment of experiential education: Summary and implications. Journal of Experiential Education, 4(2).

Conrad, D., & Hedin, D. (1982). The impact of experimental education on adolescent development." Child and Youth Services, 4, 57-76.

Kelly, F. J. (1974).  Outward Bound and Delinquents: A ten year experience.  Paper presented at Conference on Experiential Education, Estes Park, CO

Kelly, F. J., & Baer, D. J. (1968). Outward Bound schools as an alternative to institutionalization for adolescent delinquent boys.  Boston, MA:  Outward Bound, Inc.

Hattie, J., 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.

Marsh, H. W., Richards, G. E., & Barnes, J. (1986a). Multidimensional self-concepts: The effect of participation in an Outward Bound Program.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 195-204.

Marsh, H. W., Richards, G. E., & Barnes, J. (1986b).  Multidimensional self-concepts: A long term follow-up of the effect of participation in an Outward Bound program.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 12, 475-492.

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.

van der Smissen, B. (1980). Impact on educational research.  In W. M. Hammerman (Ed.) Fifty years of Resident Outdoor Education: 1930-1980: Its Impact on American Education. Martinsville, IN, American Camping Association.