Research Guide

The Effects of Outdoor Education Programs: Traditional Literature Reviews

James Neill
Last updated:
05 May 2007


About the research literature on the effects of outdoor education programs

Several hundred articles and approximately 30 books discuss the nature and extent of the impacts of outdoor education programs on participants’ personal and social development.  In addition, it is estimated that there are approximately 250 studies which have directly investigated the effects of outdoor education programs.  This estimate is largely based on Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards (1997)'s meta-analysis of adventure education empirical outcomes (based on 97 studies) and Rickinson et al's (2004) traditional review of 150 published outdoor education research studies.  In discussing reviews of research literature on the effects of outdoor education it is also helpful to consider reviews of outcome research literature from related fields, including residential camping, therapeutic recreation, and youth development.

Summary of traditional literature reviews on the effects of outdoor education programs

  • Rickinson et al 2004
    (reviews 150 international published research studies on the effects of outdoor adventure experiences on developmental and educational outcomes; finds reasonably good evidence for benefits of field trips, outdoor adventure programs and school/community greening programs; discussion from a UK perspective; executive summary available online; plus you can order a free hard-copy)

  • Barret & Greenaway, 1995
    (recommended review of literature; comprehensive, well organized, and very digestible; excellent overview, but currently out of print)

  • Crompton & Sellar, 1981
    (summary of the effects of youth at risk outdoor education)

  • Ewert, 1982, 1987
    (the 1982 review of self-concept is well-cited, containing summaries of studies, but its lacking in theoretical integration and overview)

  • Burton, 1981
    (includes "vote-counting" which counts number of significant studies)

  • Gibson, 1979
    (widely cited review of wilderness therapy theory and research outcomes, including  observational studies and a tabular summary of empirical studies, with methodological criticisms; the review's comments have continued to be applicable)

  • Godfrey, 1974
    (well cited, insightful, but getting dated)

  • Iida, 1975
    (useful overview and insights, but getting dated)

  • Shore, 1977
    (well cited, but very long, mainly an annotated bibliography)

Only one of the literature reviews mentioned above only one has been published in a peer-review journal (i.e., Crompton & Sellar, 1981).

Recommended related literature reviews


(If a reference you are looking for is not listed below, try this larger list of outdoor education research references)

Abbott, C. (1987, January). Does outdoor education really work? Perks, research and reality. Proceedings of the 5th National Outdoor Education Conference, Perth, Western Australia (pp. 38-45).

Barret, J., & Greenaway, R. (1995). Why adventure? The role and value of outdoor adventure in young people’s personal and social development. Coventry, England: Foundation for Outdoor Adventure.

Burton, L. M. (1981). A critical analysis and review of the research on Outward Bound and related programs. Dissertation Abstracts International, 42, 1581B (University Microfilms No. 8122147).

Catalano, R. F., Berglund, M. L., Ryan, J. A. M., Lonczak, H. S., &  Hawkins, J. D. (2002). Positive youth development in the United States: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs. Prevention & Treatment, 5, Article 15.

Crompton, J. L., & Sellar, C. (1981). Do outdoor education experiences contribute to positive development in the affective domain? Journal of Environmental Education, 12(4), 21-29. [.pdf; .9MB]

Ewert, A. (1982). Outdoor adventure and self-concept: A research analysis. Unpublished manuscript, University of Oregon, OR.

Ewert, A. (1987). Research in outdoor adventure: Overview and analysisBradford Papers Annual, Volume II. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University. [.doc]

Fraillon, J. (2005). A review of the outdoor and adventure education research literature as it relates to the Somers School Camp. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Friese, G. T., Puttman, J. T., Hendee, J. C. (1995). Studies of the use of wilderness for personal growth, therapy, education and leadership development: An annotation and evaluation.  University of Idaho Wilderness Research Center, Idaho. [.pdf]

Frumkin, H. S. (2001). Beyond toxicity: Human health and the natural environment. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 20, 234-240. [.pdf]

Gibson, P. M. (1979). Therapeutic effects of wilderness programs: A comprehensive literature review. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 13, 21-33.

Gillis, H. L. (1992). Therapeutic uses of adventure-challenge-outdoor-wilderness: Theory and research. Paper presented to the Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Symposium, Bradford Woods, Indiana University, Martinsville, IN.

Gillis, H. L. (2000, March). Going around in circles: Research and program evaluation in therapeutic adventure and adventure therapy. Paper presented to the Second International Adventure Therapy Conference, Augsburg, Germany.

Gillis, H. L., & Thomsen, D. (1996). A research update (1992 – 1995) of adventure therapy: Challenge activities and ropes courses, wilderness expeditions, and residential camping. Paper presented to the Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Symposium, Bradford Woods, Indiana University, Martinsville, IN.

Godfrey, R. (1974). A review of research and evaluation literature on Outward Bound and related educational programmes. Denver, CO: Colorado Outward Bound School.

Hattie, J. A., 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.

Iida, M. (1975). Adventure oriented programs: A review of researchIn Research in Camping and Environmental Education (Penn State HPER Series, No. 11). Pennsylvania State University. [.pdf; 1MB]

Lang, C. M., & Sletten, S. J. (2002). Alternative education: A brief history and research synthesis.  Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directions of Special Education.

McKenzie, M. D. (2000). How are adventure education program outcomes achieved?: A review of the literature. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 5(1), 19-28. [.pdf; .1 MB]

Newes, S. (2001). Adventure-based therapy: Theory, characteristics, ethics, and research. Comprehensive Exam Answers, Pennsylvania State University.

Priest, S. (n.d.) Corporate Adventure Training (CAT) program studies.

Rickinson, M., Dillon, J., Teamey, K., Morris, M., Choi M. Y., Sanders, D., & Benefield, P. (2004, March). A review of research on outdoor learning.  National Foundation for Educational Research and King's College London: UK.

Shore, A. (1977). Outward Bound: A reference volume. Greenwich, CT: Outward Bound Inc.