What does the research say about Outdoor Learning?

This section provides summaries of key findings from reviews of research and major studies in Outdoor Learning. Each review asks different questions about a different kinds of Outdoor Learning. The overall impact of these collections of research studies is impressive. They demonstrate what can be achieved through Outdoor Learning. The outdoors provides a wide array of opportunities for achieving a whole range of outcomes. Some outcomes require careful design and facilitation, whereas other outcomes simply arise from being outdoors - as is demonstrated in the first review below.

Health, Well-Being and Open Space (UK)
Literature Review  about the benefits of being outdoors., by Nina Morris, OPENspace Research Centre, 2003

Key points from this review of research include:

Link to full review: Health, Well-Being and Open Space 

Wild Adventure Space (UK)
Literature Review by Penny Travlou, OPENspace Research Centre (2006)

"Experience of the outdoors and wilderness has the potential to confer a multitude of benefits on young people’s physical development, emotional and mental health and well being and societal development. Mental health and wellbeing benefits from play in natural settings appear to be long-term, realised in the form of emotional stability in young adulthood."

Link to full review:  Wild Adventure Space

Changing Minds: The Lasting Impact of School Trips (UK)
A study of the long-term impact of sustained relationships between schools and the National Trust via the Guardianship scheme.
by Alan Peacock, Honorary Research Fellow, The Innovation Centre, University of Exeter, February 2006.

‘We looked at whether school children’s learning about their local environment would influence the way they treat it. We found that not only was this the case, but high quality, out-of-classroom learning also influenced how children behave and the lifestyle choices they make. It shows the potential for schools trips not just to change individual lives, but the lives of whole communities.’

Key findings
Link to full report: Changing Minds: The Lasting Impact of School Trips

A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning
by Mark Rickinson et al. Field Studies Council, 2004.

This review brought together the findings from 150 studies in the period 1993-2003 and included most kinds of Outdoor Learning.

Key findings 

The impact of fieldwork and visits

The impact of outdoor adventure activities The impact of school grounds/community projects
The full summary also includes:
Link to full report: A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning
Link to: James Neill's critical overview of this review

Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience
a study by Philliber Research Associates and the American Camping Association, 2005.

Between 2001 and 2004 the American Camp Association conducted research with over 5000 families from 80 ACA-Accredited camps to determine the outcomes of the camp experience as expressed by parents and children.

Main Findings

Parents, camp staff, and children reported significant growth in:
Self-esteem, Peer relationships, Independence, Adventure and exploration, Leadership, Environmental awareness, Friendship skills, Values and decisions, Social comfort, Spirituality.

Link to full study: Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience

Why Adventure? The Role and Value of Outdoor Adventure in young people's personal and social development (UK)
A Review of Research focusing on the more adventurous kinds of outdoor learning,.by Jon Barrett and Roger Greenaway commissioned by the Foundation for Outdoor Adventure, 1995.
Main Findings

Most empirical studies of outdoor adventure have concentrated on examining behavioural and psychological outcomes. Some of the most thorough outcome research is found in the youth social work field.

Personal Development
Social Development
Whilst outdoor adventure can cause the above positive developmental outcomes, it is important to note that these do notautomatically arise from outdoor adventure. Studies investigating causal links between processes and outcomes have rarely been conducted. Nevertheless, some process factors have emerged as being of central importance. Outdoor adventure programmes working with young people with behavioural and psychological difficulties generally appear to require higher levels of staff facilitation, close attention to appropriate selection and targeting, and reinforcement by long-term community based interventions appropriate to young people's interests and needs.

Link to further information about: Why Adventure? The Role and Value of Outdoor Adventure in young people's personal and social development

Summary of the Effects of Outdoor Education Programs or "Does Outdoor Education Work?" (Australia)
James Neill, International Education Vol.3, No. 4, 1999 and revised for Wilderdom, 2006.
A meta-analysis of 97 outcome studies from around the world.     

Does outdoor education work?  The research evidence indicates that the effectiveness of outdoor education programming on average is positive and roughly equivalent to other innovative psychosocial interventions. The overall message from the research is that outdoor education has clear potential, if well designed, to foster enhancements of personal and social aspects of learning and development. In addition, at least 11 factors appear to influence what happens to participants during a program and the overall effects of the program.

 Outdoor education programs have been found to be moderately effective in influencing typically measured outcomes, such as self-esteem and teamwork. The most commonly researched outcomes have been self constructs such as self-esteem, self-confidence, self-concept and self-efficacy; social constructs such as teamwork and leadership; and other more applied outcomes such as academic achievement and recidivism.

Link to full summary: Summary of the Effects of Outdoor Education Programs or "Does Outdoor Education Work?" which will lead you to a meta-analysis of 97 research studies by  John A. Hattie, Herbert W. Marsh, James T. Neill, Garry E. Richards. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43-87, 1997.

Learning outside the classroom: How far should you go?
A key report by OFSTED, published in 2008

This is a report that evaluates the impact of learning outside the classroom in 27 schools and colleges across England.  Key points from the evaluation are:

Link to the full report: Learning outside the classroom: How far should you go? 


Outdoor education in Scotland: A summary of recent research
Robbie Nicol et al, 2007, Scottish National Heritage

This report summarises seven pieces of research and gives an overview of the state of outdoor education in Scotland.  It highlights the support for outdoor provision from the Scottish Governments’ Curriculum for Excellence.  It is clear from the review that outdoor education is no longer seen as being just about adventure or field studies, or as the remit solely of geography or biology teachers. The possible locations of outdoor learning for schools include schools’ grounds, urban spaces, rural or city farms, parks, gardens, woodlands, coasts, outdoor centres, wilderness areas and more. In this context, outdoor education is as much about a teaching approach for all teachers as about discrete specialist provision.

Link to the full report:Outdoor education in Scotland: A summary of recent research

Children in the outdoors: a literature review 
Sarah-Anne Muñoz, 2009, Sustainable Development Research Centre

This literature review takes an in-depth look at the link between children’s use of outdoor spaces and health outcomes and lists a wealth of findings that show there are many positive influences on health and well being.

Link to the full report: Children in the outdoors: A literature review

Wellbeing and the natural environment: a brief overview of the evidence 
DEFRA, 2007.

There is an increasing emphasis on wellbeing as a key indicator of societal progress – this paper summarises the evidence for the contribution of the natural environment to well being.

Link to the full report: Well being and the natural environment: a brief overview of the evidence

Links to other research about the value of Outdoor Learning

Next: Where to find more research about Outdoor Learning

Index to this Brief Guide to Outdoor Learning
What is OL? Why does OL Matter? What are the Benefits of OL?
How safe is OL? Who supports OL and why
Examples of benefits gained from OL
Where to find OL research
How much OL is going on?
Campaigns for OL