What does research say?

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.

Natural Connections Demonstration Project, 2012-2016: Final Report (NECR215)

This report presents the key findings from the Natural Connections Demonstration Project, which identified that the fundamental challenges to learning outside the classroom in the natural environment (LINE) in schools were local and revolved around a lack of teacher confidence in teaching outside and fragmentation of LINE service provision. These underpinned the more traditionally cited challenges of curriculum pressures, concern about risks and cost.

This and other evidence was used by Natural England and a wide range of partner organisations to shape the design of the demonstration project. The project was funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Natural England and Historic England, commissioned by Natural England, and delivered in South West England by Plymouth University.

Natural Connections was intended to:

  • Stimulate the demand from schools and teachers for learning outside the classroom in the local natural environment.
  • Support schools and teachers to build learning outside the classroom in the local natural environment into their planning and practices.
  • Stimulate the supply of high quality learning outside the classroom in the natural environment services for schools and teachers.

Further detail will be available in Natural England Commissioned Report NECR215 Annex 1.

Link to full review:Natural Connections Demonstration Project

Natural Connections Outdoor Learning Blog

This site was launched in March 2015, for anyone interested in outdoor learning, coordinated by the Natural Connections Demonstration Project.

It brings together bloggers who are researchers or practitioners in learning in natural environments, to share with a wide audience their best practice, evidence findings and enthusiasm for outdoor learning in schools. The aim of the blog is not to promote one project, organisation or school, but to build on the collaborative model that has been developed through Natural Connections and raise awareness of good quality examples of both evidence and delivery in the field of outdoor learning.

Link to blog: Natural Connections Outdoor Learning Blog

Learning Away – Impact of Residential experiences on young people

In June 2015 York Consulting published its final independent evaluation of Learning Away residentials, identifying their impacts as well as what it is about the overnight stay that brings about such positive powerful outcomes for young people long after their return to school.

On this page we provide a short summary of the evaluation aims and the evaluation methods used. For more in-depth versions of evaluation methods and findings, you can also download Learning Away’s published summary, and York Consulting’s executive summary and full report.

The evaluation aims

During the first two years of Learning Away we developed, using early findings from the schools involved, several hypotheses about the impacts we thought Learning Away might have on those involved.  In 2012, Paul Hamlyn Foundation commissioned York Consulting to evaluate the effectiveness of Learning Away. The evaluation had two overarching aims:

  • To test and evidence four key Learning Away propositions focused on the belief that high-quality residential learning: has a strong, positive impact on academic achievement and provides a wide range of student-level outcomes; can transform the learning experience of students; can help to transform schools; and does not need to be expensive.
  •  To generate new insights and understanding about how and why residential learning can and does achieve these outcomes.

Evaluation methods

The evaluation carried out by York Consulting took a mixed methods approach, which included:

1. Student, staff and parent surveys:

·       Students completed pre- and post-residential surveys, along with long-term follow-up surveys to capture their views on the impact of Learning Away.

·       Staff involved in delivering Learning Away completed pre- and post-residential surveys along with a final staff survey to capture their views on the impact of the programme. Other staff were also asked to complete surveys for individual students where Learning Away was felt to have had a significant impact.

·       Parents were asked to complete a survey after their child attended a Learning Away residential.

2. Focus groups: undertaken by PHF Learning Away advisors with students and staff post-residential.

3. Quantitative data collection: attainment, behaviour and attendance data was collected in partnerships where delivery of the programme was focused on improving outcomes in these areas.

4. Case studies: in-depth case studies were undertaken to evidence the impact of the programme.


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

The OPENspace Wild Adventure Space Project Review (2006) draws on evaluations of projects of many types and sizes. It illustrates the range of likely benefits to young people, as well as illustrating some of the many forms that Outdoor Learning can take.

“The projects highlighted in the review have been chosen because they appear to be examples of good practice or demonstrate a unique or innovative approach in the engagement of young people.   The project review includes a number of case studies from key providers such as BCTV, Duke of Edinburgh and the Forestry Commission, some of whom have case studies included on their websites (Raleigh, National Trust, YHA) or within their own publications (CABE), which are referenced within the review.  The project review also aimed to source good practice among smaller, lesser well known providers as well as among a wide cross-section of young people, including those with disabilities, minority ethnic groups, and those from low income and disadvantaged communities, some of whom had never experienced ‘wild’ adventure space prior to the activity.”  Source: Wild Adventure Space Project Review

Here is a summary of the benefits identified in the various case studies:

  • Personal development in terms of raised self-confidence, independence, self-esteem, sense of achievement  (cited in most of the projects reviewed but particularly in those for disadvantaged young people)
  • Skill development including development of:
•    practical skills:  construction, woodworking (Forest Schools)
•    conservation techniques (National Trust Youth Discovery Working holidays)
•    social skills: getting along with others, team working (Night Owls)
•    presentation skills, via reporting back, making of videos (John Muir Award and Duke of Edinburgh Award)
•    physical skills via learning element of many activities (Perdiswell young people’s Club)
  • Widening of horizons, developing aspirations, improving employment prospects (YHA VALVE)
  • Breathing space, having ‘fun’ away from everyday pressures of family, peer groups, school (Do it 4 Real)
  • Environmental awareness (RSPB Sandwell Valley Wildspace)
  • Social benefits:
•    diversity awareness between cultures (BEN Riverside)
•    social inclusion for disadvantaged individuals (Barnsley Peak District Award)
•    sense of belonging via setting up of clubs (Delamere Bike Club)
•    opportunities to develop away from peer pressure (Do it 4 Real)
  • Improved physical and mental well-being (Green Ground Zero)
  • Effecting changes in behaviour including:
•    reduction in drink/drug dependence (Akenshaw Youth Project)
•    reduction in truancy (Forest Schools)
•    reduction in probation periods (Venture Trust)
•    through ‘club’ management of activities providing a new focus and interest for many young people (Riverside Centre)

Source: Wild Adventure Space Project Review (June 2006) Section, prepared for the Countryside Agency, English Nature and Rural Development Service by Jenny Roe, OPENspace.

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

  • School trips are vital for children to connect with nature.
  • School trips influence lives.
  • Community spirit is developed from school trips.
  • School trips help bond families.
  • School trips improve children’s learning.

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

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

  • Substantial evidence exists to indicate that fieldwork, properly conceived, adequately planned, well taught and effectively followed up, offers learners opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills in ways that add value to their everyday experiences in the classroom.
  • Specifically, fieldwork can have a positive impact on long-term memory due to the memorable nature of the fieldwork setting. Effective fieldwork, and residential experience in particular, can lead to individual growth and improvements in social skills. More importantly, there can be reinforcement between the affective and the cognitive, with each influencing the other and providing a bridge to higher order learning.
  • See original document for more points and more detail.

The impact of outdoor adventure activities

  • Strong evidence of the benefits of outdoor adventure education is provided by two meta-analyses of previous research. Looking across a wide range of outcome measures, these studies identify not only positive effects in the short term, but also continued gains in the long term. However, within these broad trends, there can be considerable variation between different kinds of programmes, and different types of outcomes.
  • There is substantial research evidence to suggest that outdoor adventure programmes can impact positively on young people’s:
    • attitudes, beliefs and self-perceptions – examples of outcomes include independence, confidence, self-esteem, locus of control, self-efficacy, personal effectiveness and coping strategies
    • interpersonal and social skills – such as social effectiveness, communication skills, group cohesion and teamwork
  • See original document for more points and more detail.

The impact of school grounds/community projects

  • School grounds/community projects have the capacity to link with most curriculum areas. Two specific examples of benefits stemming from this are positive gains in science process skills and improved understanding of design and technology-related issues.
  • In the affective domain, the most important impacts of learning in school grounds/community settings include greater confidence, renewed pride in community, stronger motivation toward learning, and greater sense of belonging and responsibility
  • See original document for more points and more detail.

The full summary also includes:

  • Factors influencing outdoor learning and its provision
  • Key messages for practice
  • Key messages for policy
  • Key messages for research

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

  • Some kinds of outdoor adventure can cause short-term enhancement of aspects of self-concept (including gains in self-esteem and self-efficacy), and can cause short-term improvements in internalisation of locus of control. These gains appear to be more significant on longer adventure programmes.
  • Various developmental benefits are associated with regular physical exercise (such as regular outdoor adventure experiences can provide), e.g.. humour, patience, energy, optimism, self-confidence, self-esteem, self-assurance, emotional stability, improved body-image, etc.
  • Direct experience of the natural environment, such as outdoor adventure may offer, can have significant mental and physical health benefits, can enhance self-esteem and self-confidence, and can provide opportunities for spiritual development.

Social Development

  • Strong anecdotal evidence indicates that outdoor adventure experiences can enhance interpersonal relationships and improve socialisation, and can facilitate group bonding and co-operation.
  • Outdoor adventure can help to reduce formality in relationships and develop more human relationships and awareness between young people, and between young people and staff.

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.

  • Research about effective leadership styles in adventure generally favours a facilitative style in which personal and social development are emphasised. Research indicates that staff require training in interpersonal skills especially if they intend to enhance those of others.
  • Research about the effects of group experiences on personal and social development emphasises the value of small groups in which group support, co-operation and reciprocity may be facilitated.
  • Appropriate selection, group mix and composition are important, particularly with young people experiencing difficulties in their lives.
  • Research emphasises the importance of a supportive learning environment where young people are able to (for example) express their emotions, learn collaboratively and take responsibility for their own development.
  • The beneficial outcomes of outdoor adventure appear to be most lasting when outdoor adventure experiences are regular and long-term and are linked to community-based follow-up. Research has demonstrated the value of outdoor adventure as an adjunct to community-based developmental and educational provision.

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:

  • When planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.
  • Learning outside the classroom was most successful when it was an integral element of long-term curriculum planning and closely linked to classroom activities.

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