FORCE OF NATURE
Collaborative research between the Outdoor Youth Programs Research Alliance (OYPRA), research institutes, universities, peak outdoor education bodies and the Victorian State Government is set to transform outdoor education policy for schools.
THE world-first research is aimed at improving outdoor education practice and policy for schools, as well as leading to more strategic investment in outdoor programs for learning, health promotion, and positive youth development.
The aim of the study, published in the International Journal of Educational Research, was to examine how outdoor programs impact adolescent development and wellbeing, with students participating in a range of activities, challenge tasks, group discussions, remote living, and outdoor activities like bushwalking, mountain bike riding, canoeing, ropes courses and overnight camping.
The study involved cooperation between researchers and OYPRA members including; the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, University of Melbourne, Deakin University, University of Oregon, the Australian Camps Association, the State Government of Victoria, the Outdoor Education Group, the Outdoor Council of Australia, YMCA Victoria, Outdoors Victoria, Operation Newstart, United Church Camping and Outward Bound Australia.
OYPRA’S comprehensive insight into Australia’s diverse outdoor youth programs puts it in an ideal position to determine the most beneficial camp experiences for adolescent students.
Dr Ian Williams, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, said OYPRA’S research was integral for improving outdoor learning programs across Australia and internationally.
“Most people agree that outdoor learning programs support personal development and learning new skills. Now, through world-first research undertaken by OYPRA, we hope to understand how nature-based education programs are beneficial to young people,” Dr Williams said.
“The extensive research undertaken by OYPRA will help inform policy and practice, and lead to more strategic investment in Australia’s outdoor programs for learning, health promotion and positive youth development.”
Dr Williams said the anecdotal evidence that outdoor education programs benefitted students was very strong, but the researchers wanted to collect thorough quantitative data.
“Traditionally in the outdoor space a lot of the research is done by outdoor practitioners who don’t necessarily have a lot of training in conducting high quality research. There are recognised limitations of some of the research that’s been published and so we’ve set out to try to address those limitations,” Dr Williams said.
“One of the things that is somewhat unique to our group is the combination of outdoor providers and academia and researchers means that we bring a lot of the practices that are common in medical research where the threshold for acceptability and rigour is very high – we bring those principals to the outdoor space.”
The study aims to determine what the benefits are, whether or not they last when students go back to school or back home, and how long those benefits might last after the outdoor activity has concluded.
Teachers and group leaders were surveyed about their observations and impressions of students’ strengths and difficulties, general achievement and content of the programs delivered.
“In our study we’ve focused on questionaries that have been well tested in other domains, and the content, or focus of the questions, is asking around the kind of things that people commonly report students benefitting from,” he said.
Student surveys covered health behaviours, psychological strengths, emotional difficulties, interpersonal connectedness, nature relatedness and the camp experience.
As well as assisting with supervision, teachers participated in activities alongside students, with researchers stating the involvement of school staff was critical in helping transfer students learning from the program back to school and everyday life.
“From our view the inclusion of teachers is a key part of that argument of the transfer of benefits back to regular life,” Dr Williams said.
“We also surveyed teacher and group leaders to try to get some insights from them about the experiences of students on camps by doing what we call triangulation; looking at the extent to which the outcomes that students who participate report matches the opinions of teachers and the opinions of group leaders who’re on the same program and whether those three sources of information align or whether they’re different.”
Dr Williams said part of the aim of OYPRA is to demonstrate the psychosocial benefits of outdoor education can be utilised through existing facilities and infrastructure in order to enhance and build on the breadth of student learning which currently takes place in schools.
“Our research is not only about investigating student benefits but also about trying to peer inside the black box of outdoor programs. What is it that goes into outdoor programs that actually makes a difference? Is it being away from home? Is it having a wilderness experience? Is it having a break from technology? Is it having challenging experiences? We’re trying to take a research lens to those questions about effective components about program design,” he said.
The results will be finalised mid-2018, but previous research has shown that personal development in students has been linked to improvements in academic performance.
“If we find evidence that particular components of outdoor education lead to effective outcomes then our hope would be that some of those program design elements would translate into recommendations for subsequent school based programs and policy,” Dr Williams said.