Outdoor Education Research

A Review of Research
on Outdoor Learning
Rickinson, Dillon, Teamey, Morris, Choi, Saunders, & Benefield (2004)

James Neill
Last updated:
01 May 2006

Brief Summary

The best outdoor learning research review produced to date by a federal education agency.  Reviews 150 outdoor learning research studies between 1993-2003 and presents a succinct 2000-word online summary.  Focuses on primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors.  Outdoor learning studies are categorized as focusing on field work, outdoor adventure, and school grounds/community programs.  Finds that there is generally good support that outdoor learning has positive impacts on school students.  Makes useful recommendations for theory/research, policy and practice.

Critical Overview

This is the best federal review of outdoor education type research to date in any country and exhibits several notable strengths including:

  1. International emphasis of literature review
  2. Diverse conceptualization of outdoor learning - 3 categories - field studies, outdoor adventure and school grounds/community projects
  3. Systematic focus on contemporary research literature - 150 published studies 1993-2003
  4. Situating the literature review within a school/government education policy and practice framework
  5. Appreciation of and emphasis on the diverse findings which, whilst in general appear to be positive, actually vary widely between different types of programs and for different individuals
  6. Efforts to draw practical, synthesizing conclusions and recommendations which are related to current policy and social opportunities
  7. Useful and well organized appendices containing details of search strategies, types of information coded for each study, and reference list

The review seemed to be weakened by:

  1. Omission of the other major outdoor adventure research literature review from a UK perspective (Barret & Greenaway's "Why Adventure")
  2. Omission of articles from Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning
  3. Tendency to over-rely on some specific studies to the exclusion of other studies
  4. The quality of detail and analysis at the study-specific level was not as strong as the higher level writing of the summary/conclusion/overview sections
  5. Lack of critical appraisal of research evidence e.g., research artifacts such as publishing bias or file-drawer effect (tendency for positive studies to be published), Hawthorne effects, post-group euphoria effects, studies with low power, etc.
  6. Tendency to rely on significant test results (which are subject to statistical power problems) rather than comparison/benchmarking of effect sizes
  7. Lack of critical commentary on quality of instrumentation used to examine processes and effects of outdoor learning experiences
  8. Lack of comment/integration of the recent UK national Lotteries pilot programs and subsequent wide-scale funding of summer camp style programs for UK youth

Summary of Main Features

  • The best outdoor learning research review produced to date by a federal education agency.
  • Argues that due to increased concerns about risk and liability and increasing full school curricula, outdoor learning is increasingly difficult to organize, with fewer opportunities available to students and that policy makers need to respond pro-actively
  • Provides a brief, informative historical overview of the wide ranging development of outdoor learning in UK education since the early 1900s
  • Provides an informative overview of contemporary UK government policies and programs in the UK and describes several different types of outdoor learning programs and initiatives
  • Reviews 150 international English-language outdoor learning research studies, papers and books published between 1993 and 2003; did not include theses or unpublished material
  • Focuses on studies of outdoor learning in school-settings, across three levels of education:

    • primary education,
    • secondary education and
    • tertiary education
  • Does not include research on outdoor learning in informal, training and therapeutic sectors
  • Categorizes outdoor learning research studies with being one of three types:

    • field work,
    • outdoor adventure,
    • school grounds/community programs.
  • Categorizes outcomes as:
    • cognitive
    • affective
    • interpersonal/social
    • physical/behavioral
  • Updates and extends (but does not replace) Barret and Greenaway's (1996) "Why Adventure?" (published by The Foundation for Outdoor Adventure) in terms of reviewing and efficiently organizing and commenting on the international outdoor education research literature from a British perspective.  However, significantly, an oversight of the Rickinson review was its omission of referencing and discussing Barret and Greenaway's important review, particularly with regard to integrating and building on the UK-specific recommendations.

  • Generally concludes that there is considerable empirical research evidence supporting that there are positive impacts of outdoor learning for school students and the school system

  • Identifies five factors associated with stronger outcomes:

    • Longer, more sustained outdoor experience programs
    • Well designed preparatory and follow-up work
    • Use of a wide range of carefully-structured learning activities and assessments linked to the school
    • Recognize and emphasize the role of facilitation in the learning process
    • Develop close links between programs aims and program practices
  • Discussion focuses on outcomes for the UK school system
  • Identifies gaps in outdoor education research and makes useful recommendations for theory/research, policy and practice.

  • Excellent appendices containing information about the review's search strategy, framework for reviewing publications, and reference list



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