Friendships, Social Development and Outdoor Adventure Education

I have found that in this environment, people are more willing to listen with the intent of understandingfemale participant

Existing research has demonstrated that participating in OAE has a noteworthy effect on the learners’ reported social skills such as group cooperation, prosocial behaviour and communication competencies (e.g., Furman & Sibthorp, 2013; Richmond, Sibthorp, Gookin, Annarella, & Ferri, 2018).  This was echoed in the qualitative findings from a study exploring the psychosocial outcomes of an OAE programme (Journey) in South Africa and provide strong support for the importance of friendships, relationships and group dynamics as contributors to the experience of the programme.

In order to glean an overall understanding of the learners’ experiences of Journey and what they valued most having been on Journey, a word cloud was generated from the post- Journey survey and the letters that all learners wrote to their Principals. In word cloud, the most frequently used words are depicted bigger and bolder.  Please see figures below which provide a visual comparator for the reader.

The magnitude of relationships and social connectedness was evident from the word clouds, where new friends and friendships were the main words used by the learners of their experience of Journey. Learners appreciated the opportunities to interact with those outside of their usual social mix. Many learners referred to shared narratives with a small number of others. Living and travelling together in these small groups provided an opportunity to form closer bonds with members in their groups.


It has been shown that relationships with school contemporaries and staff are intrinsically linked to learner wellbeing and mental health (Seligman, 2011). Positive social relationships have to ability to strengthen and support an adolescent’s development and understanding of self (Jostad, Sibthorp, Pohja, & Gookin, 2015). Interpersonal relationships with their peers are particularly important for young people as they navigate the uncertainties of adolescence.  As illustrated from the word clouds, social connectedness was the most reported outcome, with many learners mentioning new friends and the friendships formed. This was reiterated in focus group discussions where learners emphasised the bonds that were formed and friendships with friends both old and new, that were intensified. As is evident by the comments made by the learners, the bonds of friendship and the relationships that developed over the course of Journey were something that they also deeply valued. The following examples illustrate the importance of friendships:

It was about the bond we created, the love we shared and the true friendship between new and old. (Female participant)

I have made many new friendships which I hope will last a lifetime. (Male, participant)

Before Journey, I never knew some of the friends that I do now, and through the tough times you become closer by going through the experiences together. (Male participant)

I have gotten to know more people and created many new friendships and memories that will last forever. (Female participant)

This concept of making friends with people that they would not usually encounter at school, due to being in different classes or playing different sports, was mentioned by many of the learners and an aspect of Journey that they really valued, as illustrated by the following:

Interacting with people that I would not interact with in normal circumstance; this led to unbelievable friendships that I would not have formed otherwise. (Female participant)

And it seems that like you end up building friendships with people that you never thought you would actually talk to. Or people that you thought would never talk to you. (Male participant)

I feel like I have made so many new close friends and bonded with people who I didn’t really know before which is so special. (Male, participant)

Interestingly, friendships were important even to those who did not enjoy other aspects of Journey, as exemplified in the comment below:

I hate hiking from 6.00am to 15:00pm, I hate waking up as early as 5am or 4.30am, I hate cycling 60m and I hate camping but I loved building new friendships, I love singing with my friends, I love supporting others. (Male, letter to Principal)

Developing social competence is a common and often key objective of OAE programmes. A number of studies have demonstrated that participating in OAE has an important effect on the learners’ social skills such as group cooperation and communication competencies (e.g., Richmond et al., 2018). Living closely and intensely together for few weeks at a time in smaller groups provides a great opportunity for developing social competence. The comments from these learners tended to support this finding as demonstrated below:

 …teaches you people skills, how to talk to people you don’t know.

The interpersonal skills I developed and all the friendships I made. (Male, post- Journey survey)

I feel like I’ve learnt to be less selfish and to be team player and have grown to become a more mature and determined person. It is hard being isolated from all people and everything you know, but doing so, it helps to really come out of shell and show people who you really are. (Male, letter to Principal)

I think accepting like people for who they are, and then like not try not see the negative in them but always look for the positive. I mean that was like one of the bigger things for me. (Male, focus group)

The males referred to how Journey helped them develop interpersonal skills and described this in terms of their actions, for example, looking for the positives in others and being less self-centered. Females alluded to the fact that they were able to cultivate the interpersonal relationships during Journey as this environment allowed them to more authentic and it seemed to bring out their ‘true selves’. This was apparent in the post-Journey surveys and letters to the Principal, shown by the comments below:

It allows people who are not as social or interactive at school to open themselves up in a different environment. (Female, post- Journey survey)

When the social pressures of school are eradicated for the equation, people are more comfortable being themselves and others are more willing to accept this. (Female, letter to Principal)

Interviews with members of the focus group added to this notion of developing social competence and being oneself. They also mentioned that being on Journey gave them the confidence to approach people outside of their friendship group. This is exemplified in the following comment:

… on the first few days I was kind of like a little bit shy, coz I’m a generally shy person. But then it was really nice because I just started opening up a lot, and I can just talk to people, so much easier and be myself more. Umm, I don’t know, it feels like me being, people like me being myself, more than… (Female, focus group)

For some learners, social skills were developed but demonstrating restraint and to weigh up the situation before taking action. This was succinctly portrayed by the following comment:

I think it’s also really helping with like people skills. Like I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about certain things, and just watch people do their own thing. Just to see how it turns out. (Female, focus group)

Being on Journey, aside from being in a different, less pressured environment, also gave the learners the time and opportunity to get to know their group members properly, as is expressed by the following comment:

I’ve learnt that everybody has a different story that you didn’t know and you can always get to know people better if you take the time. (Female, letter to Principal)

A fundamental aspect of all social interactions and social competence is communication which will be addressed in the next section.


As alluded to in some of the comments above, a number of studies on OAE programmes have demonstrated improvement in communication skills, which is key to social competence (Paisley, Furman, Sibthorp, & Gookin, 2008).

Umm, and also in terms of approaching people. Like beforehand, I wouldn’t talk to someone coz I thought that maybe they wouldn’t like me, or maybe they’d think that I was weird or something like that. Now I just talk to them like a normal person, and they communicate back and it’s not like weird or awkward. And it’s not as bad as I expected it to be. (Female, focus group)

A number of learners mentioned how the lack of technology and social media was beneficial in recognizing the value of and developing these social skills:

But the thing is you talk to other people, and talking face to face is so much more enjoyable than in a text message, coz there’s so much more emotion and expression that you can see in people, and kind of see the kind of people that they’ve become. (Male, focus group)

As 16/17 year olds, we are so occupied in social media and technology that we forget that there is more to life, that there are fun times and that there are hardships we’ll have to face and Journey provides for that. (Female, post- Journey survey)

It has been such a nice break from technology and Journey has taught me a lot of things like social skills which technology couldn’t really do. (Female, letter to Principal)

One particularly poignant comment, with regard to communication, was made by a learner in her letter to the Principal where she mentions how she got to know people on a deeper level and that:

… I have found that in this environment, people are more willing to listen with the intent of understanding which isn’t so common at school. (Female, letter to Principal)

The social environment created on Journey was not easy for all learners however, as illustrated by the following comment:

The physical aspect of Journey is challenging but I struggled mostly with the social aspect. (Female, post- Journey survey)

In fact, one learner was particularly vociferous in the post-Journey survey with her description of the challenges she faced and how the social aspect was not something she would chose to do:

 It was challenging all physically, mentally and socially. It was hell in all aspects…, the stupidity of people in my group, being made to socialise. (Female, post- Journey survey)

Another key aspect of social competence is the understanding of boundaries, with the use of a metaphor, this was effectively illustrated during a focus group interview on the final day Journey:

Like we’re standing in front of a fence. This like represents the boundaries we have, like on Journey and like, like you can’t like cross the lines of some people. And like you learn, like you learn people’s like… How it is to like interact with certain people and like what not to do, and what to do. (Female, focus group)

Shared narrative

As illustrated in previous research on social connectedness (Richmond et al., 2018), there was a lot of mention made of shared challenges and memories made together, as well as being part of something bigger:

… you create the relationship coz you were there struggling together…(Male, focus group)

The friendships made and memories made with the friends in the group. Also having a memory that only a small number of people with share with me. (Female, post- Journey survey)

 You just feel special, like you’re part of something. Like there are so many generations of Journey that have been through there, and you just feel special. (Male, focus group)

Learners lived, travelled and connected with a smaller subset of their peers; these shared experiences and shared challenges worked as an important way for bringing learners closer to form part of a common identity. Additionally, strengthened relationships and a sense of belonging enhance self-efficacy, which some reported had been transferred to the school environment.


Furman, N., & Sibthorp, J. (2013). The development of prosocial behavior in adolescents: A mixed methods study from NOLS. Journal of Experiential Education, 37(2), 160-175.

Jostad, J., Sibthorp, J., Pohja, M., & Gookin, J. (2015). The adolescent social group in outdoor adventure education: making social connections that matter. Research in Outdoor Education, 13, 16-37.

Paisley, K., Furman, N., Sibthorp, J. & Gookin, J. (2008). Student learning in out-door education: a case study from the National Outdoor Leadership School. Journal of Experiential Education, 30(3), 201–222.

Richmond, D., Sibthorp, J., Gookin, J., Annarella, S., & Ferri, S. (2018). Complementing classroom learning through outdoor adventure education: out-of-school-time experiences that make a difference. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning 18(1), 36-52.