Outdoor Adventure Education and Psychosocial Skills

There is an increasing appreciation that, in order to prepare learners for success in life, they require a holistic education that not only guarantees learning basic academic skills, but also social emotional competencies that prepare them to become responsible adults. Recent research highlights the importance of non-cognitive skills and behaviours e.g. resilience, grit, social skills and positive mindsets, that strengthen learners’ achievement both within and beyond the classroom.  Outdoor Adventure Education (OAE) programmes are well placed to generate these desired outcomes.

Educating happy, healthy learners for life and ensuring that each one reaches his/her full potential is the ultimate goal not only of schools, but also of society. However, despite the wise counsel of philosophers and educators, most schools still adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to education. Outdoor adventure education (OAE) is no different.

Although the OAE literature supports the premise that participation in their programmes has been shown to enhance positive personal and social development for some learners, there is room for improvement.

Many OAE programmes rely upon this development-by-challenge theory (Neill, 2008) or ‘comfort zone’ model, which is based on the premise that when individuals are placed in a stressful or challenging situation and taken out of their comfort zones, they will respond by overcoming their fears and grow as individuals. In this model learners are encouraged to ‘stretch themselves’ by moving beyond their comfort zone, expanding their preconceived limitations and, by implication, learn and become better people. Luckner and Nadler (1997) posit that creating a learning environment that has dynamic tension involving a sense of disequilibrium is key to change. The idea being that, in their attempt to re-establish equilibrium, learners will develop adaptive systems that will help them when dealing uncertainties and challenges in the future.

However, other researchers have argued that traditional models of change that rely on risk and disequilibrium may not be the most effective ways of facilitating transfer of important life skills (Berman & Davis-Berman, 2005; Davis-Berman & Berman, 2002; Passarelli et al., 2010; Sproule, Martindale, Wang, Allison, Nash, & Gray, 2013). Some studies have demonstrated that activities in which the learners were pushed outside of their ‘comfort zone’ were not necessarily the ones that resulted in the best learning experiences (Leberman & Martin, 2003) and may not be appropriate in all cultures (Purdie & Neill, 1999).

Psychology has moved from a deficit-based model towards positive psychology; perhaps OAE should also consider a shift from the more traditional development-by-challenge model to a strength-based approach. By actively identifying and using their talents and strengths, learners could become more engaged and intrinsically motivated to deal with their world, their futures (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

A suggestion for addressing these issues is to adopt a strength-based approach to OAE. This would provide the learners with a sense of self-determination (i.e., autonomy, competence and relevance) towards the experience, which in turn increases the learners’ engagement and thus enhances the outcomes of the OAE programme. This is congruent with the underlying principles of positive psychology whereby the use of signature strengths has been shown to be associated with improved subjective and psychological wellbeing and fewer psychological disorders. Rather than operate from the notion of ‘development-by-challenge’ common to most OAE programmes, a strength-based approach advocates that growth occurs when positive factors are present. In order to encourage learners to flourish, it is recommended that the following positive factors are present during the course of OAE:  positive relationships, learner engagement, positive emotion, meaning, competence and autonomy. Adopting the metaphor for OAE as the campfire that ‘heats up the pot’ of learners to encourage personal growth, the positive factors are analogous to the logs in this metaphor – the fuel that is added to the fire, enabling the learners to flourish. In essence, by identifying and developing their character strengths and defining their intended outcomes, learners may feel more autonomous, competent and intrinsically motivated to participate in OAE. This will then enhance positive outcomes, ensure that the experience is more meaningful to the learners and increase the chances that these benefits are transferred to other areas of their lives.


Berman, D., & Davis-Berman, J. (2005). Positive Psychology and Outdoor Education. Journal of Experiential Education, 28(1), 17-24.

Luckner, J. L., & Nadler, R. S. (1997). Processing the experience: strategies to enhance and generalize learning. (Second Edition). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Neill, J. (2008). Enhancing life effectiveness: The impacts of outdoor education programs (Unpublished PhD thesis). Department of Philosophy, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia.