A Meta-Analysis of Outdoor Adventure Programming with Adolescents

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NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 48 describes the following:

Title | A Meta-Analysis of Outdoor Adventure Programming with Adolescents

Author | Cason, D., & Gillis, H.L.

Source Journal of Experiential Education, 17(1), 40-47.

Year Published | 1994

Meta-analysis of 143 effect sizes in 43 studies of adventure programming for adolescents found an overall effect size of 0.31. Summary effect sizes of outcome categories differed significantly among categories, however. Effect size was related to program length and participant age but not to delinquent status. The lack of pertinent information in study descriptions is discussed. (SV)

Adventure programs have been designed and used to accomplish several goals with special populations such as substance abusers, developmentally delayed students, at-risk teens, and many more. One area that has been extensively studied is the effects that adventure programs have on self-esteem. The results suggest, despite some inconsistencies, that adventure programming leads to improved self-perception. Other studies have explored the effects of adventure programming on personality characteristics that predict acting-out behavior, locus of control, and depression. Although the research results on adventure programming have been positive, there are many contradictions. For this reason, a meta-analysis was conducted to make sense of the large quantity of research studies that have incongruent results. The findings in this area should encourage practitioners to examine the effectiveness of their programs and guide new research in adventure programming.

Research Questions

  1. How effective is outdoor adventure programming for adolescents?
  2. Do certain adolescents benefit from adventure programming more than others?

Research Design
Meta-Analysis *

  • Number of Studies Included | 43
  • Number of Subjects| 11,238
  • Years Spanned | 1971-1996

Research Subjects
Adjudicated youth; emotionally or physically challenged at-risk adolescents (defined by school officials); and “normal” adolescents participating in outdoor adventure programs.

Age/Grade of Subjects
Elementary school to college freshman

Specified Disability
Adjudicated youth; adolescents who were defined by school officials as impatient, emotionally or physically challenged, or at risk.

Outdoor adventure programming such as Outward Bound programs.

Duration of Intervention
Interventions lasted between 36 hours and 5400 hours (10 months). The median length for adventure programs was 54 hours over 3 weeks.


  1. Adolescents who participate in adventure programming showed an average of 12.2% improvement in self-concept upon completion of the program.
  2. Adventure programs were more effective when their duration was longer.
  3. Younger participants benefited more from adventure programming than older ones.

Combined Effects Size

  1. The average effect size was 0.31, with a standard deviation of 0.62.
  2. Effect size for self-concept was 0.339.
  3. Effect size for behavioral assessment by others was 0.399.
  4. Effect size for attitude surveys was 0.457.
  5. Effect size for locus of control was 0.302.
  6. Effect size for clinical scales was 1.047.
  7. Effect size for grades was 0.609.
  8. Effect size for school attendance was 0.469.

Outdoor adventure programming comes in many varieties.  There are therapeutic, educational, and recreational adventure programs, as well as programs with combined purposes.  Adventure programming may be used to improve adolescents’ self esteem, self concept, self efficacy, self perception, problem-solving ability, behavioral and cognitive development, or attitude.  Sometimes adventure programming is used to treat youth with conduct disorders, emotional disturbance, alcohol or drug addiction, or juvenile offenders.   Adventure programs have been designed around different goals and special populations.   A variety of different programs from adventure therapy to recreational programs were included in the studies which made up this meta-analysis.  The overall effect size for all adventure programs in the study was 0.31, indicating a 12.2% improvement for the average adolescent participating in adventure programs.

When the effect sizes were broken down relative to different measurement instruments one could see which outcome measures were most impacted by adventure programming.  Clinical scales, such as those which measure levels of depression or anxiety, had the highest effect size (ES = 1.047) showing that levels psychopathology were significantly reduced by participation in adventure programming.  This may have been due to the fact that studies which used clinical scales as an outcome measure generally focused on residential treatment center populations or adjudicated youth participating in intensive adventure therapy programs led by mental health professionals as opposed to non-therapeutic educational or recreational adventure programs used in other studies.   The outcome measures of attitude surveys, grades, and school attendance all had moderate effect sizes, while measures of self-concept, locus of control, and behavioral assessment by others had low yet still significant effect sizes.

Some of the limitations of this study:

  1. Many of the potentially important variables were not routinely documented in the research.
  2. Leadership training and leadership styles were infrequently taken into consideration.
  3. Few details were given about characteristics of the participants in the studies. Thus, it is difficult to know whether poor results are related to leaders who are less trained or have a leadership style that does not match the group.
  4. The inclusion of a broad variety of adventure programs may have masked important questions regarding the most effective adventure with the most affected populations.
  5. Future research in this area should describe in more detail what occurs during the adventure programming sessions in order to make research more valid.


* Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

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