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 Australian Education Reporter - - CONTENTS - EMMA DAVIES

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.

All im­ages: The Out­door Ed­u­ca­tion Group.

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