Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Outdoor education and emotional development

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Outdoor education and emotional development:
What is the effect of outdoor education on emotional development?

Overview[edit | edit source]

With the era of technology rapidly taking over, we are seeing a decline in face to to face interaction, physical activity and solid connections being made with the environment. By encouraging individuals and groups to shut down the display and get out in the wilderness, an improved level of awareness can be achieved particularly in relation to emotions, both personal and relating. Improving intrapersonal and interpersonal interactions can be facilitated through developing emotional understanding and utilisation.

Focus questions
  1. What is outdoor education and emotional development?
  2. How does outdoor education affect emotional development?
  3. What forms of encouragement can result in more involvement?

Outdoor education[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Hiking outdoors can be a therapeutic release.

Getting outside in nature can be a great way to build an individual's emotional repertoire. The intention of outdoor education is to apply kinaesthetic learning and be able to practically use the information outside the traditional classroom setting. This has demonstrated many benefits for those who struggle to learn in the traditional setting (Price, 2018). Engaging in an activity and having personal experience is a better way of learning than just being told something. Outdoor educated is a great opportunity to gain these experience in an environment where the right tools are available to the participants (mental, physical and group problem solving) (Howden, 2012). Placing people in these circumstances, particularly during the periods of major development, can have significant positive effects as they have to step forward and take responsibility, independently of their parents (James & Williams, 2017).

Outdoor education has many uses and approaches. It can be used as a therapeutic release to intentionally or incidentally promote growth (Berman & Davis-Berman, 2000). There are many different delivery methods of outdoor education, ranging from a five-day hike or camp, an overnight kayaking trip, to a day trip of natural rock-climbing. Each approach can influence individuals differently lending itself as an opportunity to grow.

Case Study

Mario, a 14 year old boy is in grade 8 at school. When he comes home from school he is device dependent, playing computer games and scrolling on his phone. When his parents try to reduce or take away his screen time he becomes slight aggressive. He doesn't socialise much at school and doesn't participate in much physical activity.

Emotional development[edit | edit source]

Emotional development is a broad term relating to expanding ones abilities to recognise, express, understand and regulate their own feelings. The rate of development is affected by multiple factors, however, more emotional engagement tends to have more growth as there is are chance for reflection and conscious awareness of the perceived emotions (Thorburn & Marshall, 2014). There are a few specific areas that can be addressed to enhance understanding of this complex system.

Emotional intelligence[edit | edit source]

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to accurately interpret emotions and enhance thinking processes (Mayer, Roberts & Barsade, 2008). There are many facets to EI. It involves a level of self-awareness and management, social awareness and the ability to manage relationships, all of which can affect wellbeing, physical, social and mental alike. Someone with high EI require less brain activation, much like some with a high IQ, to negotiate emotional issues as they are more efficient (Mayer et al, 2008). A high EI is also associated with taking a positive perspective, often score high on agreeable and opens on the big five and generally have lower levels of interference from emotions as their ability to self-regulate is enhanced. EI is developed from a young age and can be assessed through assertion, cooperation and self-control from as early as kindergarten (Mayers et al, 2008).

Expression[edit | edit source]

How a person communicates their internal emotions to others is termed emotional expression, which can be in a verbal or non-verbal manner. This process is regarded as predominantly controlled consciously (Thomas & Marshall, 2014), however, there can be situations that arouse an emotional response which is expressed unconsciously. While most expressions are universal, some expressions vary slightly in different cultures (For example, Jack, & Schyns (2011), found western cultures focus on the eyebrows and mouth whereas asian countries tend to focus on the eyes). Some expressions are innate while others are developed through the experience of watching others. Sometimes development involves learning to hold back an expression or reading others expressions, similar to empathy.

Empathy[edit | edit source]

The definition of empathy is being able to understand, relate to and share the feelings of others broken down into two components; cognitive and emotional. This is seen as a pro-social behaviour as it establishes rapport between the affected and the responding. Those who can empathise effectively have the ability to pick up non-verbal cues more accurately, creating a more supportive environment for those around them (Thorburn & Marshall, 2014, Uhls et al, 2014). Ampuero and colleagues (2013) associated empathy with more sustainable behaviours, particularly using critical thinking to solve environmental problems. Empathy is needed to be able to work in a team. Multiple studies (Howden, 2012, Neill, 2008, & Price, 2018), alluded to the ability to enhance empathy through group work. Being able to pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues, particularly for those with a disability (Price, 2018), is greatly improved when building the skill of empathy.

Figure 2. The limbic system is the emotional control centre in the brain.

The limbic system[edit | edit source]

The limbic system is in place to deal with emotions. As referred to in Figure 1, its colloquially know as the emotional control centre. It sits in the subcortical brain. Some of the structures include;

  • Amygdala: its role is to initiate an emotional response and some detection and evaluation. It is main response mechanism is fear.
  • Hypothalamus: among its many functions of hormone control and managing the autonomic nervous system (both of which are used in emotions and expression), it controls the fight or flight response, as well as hunger, thirst and sex, all of which are vital for survival.
  • Insula: it wraps around the limbic system to transfers and process information, evidently around risk. It plays a vital role in intuitive feelings that are generally outside of conscious control.

Many studies have shown damage to this sub-cortical area of the brain less to a reduced ability to exhibit, respond and evaluate emotions effectively (Yip, Leung, Li & Lee, 2004). Sowell and colleagues (2002) reviewed MRI scans of developing brains to find the differences in grey and white matter and cerebrospinal fluid. they pointed to the fact that while the brain still develops the environment can stimulate or dampen further development.

Overall, Thompson (1991) summarised that emotions and the components are all developed over time. they are intrinsically and extrinsically regulated, monitored and processed. At a young age, regulation is heavily reliant on extrinsic course such as parents, through modelling and reinforcement, but evolve with neurophysiological changes, enhanced cognitive and linguistic skills and overall emotional understanding until it is primarily self-regulated.

Emotional Development
  1. There are multiple facets to emotional development, all of equal importance
  2. The limbic system is the main area of the brain in charge of emotions

How does outdoor education affect emotional development?[edit | edit source]

Outdoor education effects emotional development through improving skills such as empathy, expression (both verbal and non-verbal), social awareness and overall emotional control.

Positive psychological factors[edit | edit source]

Outdoor education is a dominant approach when aiming to improve emotional development. Through outdoor education engagement, particularly applying the experiential learning, participants start to develop a sense of independence and responsibility (James and Williams, 2017). Berman and Davis-Berman (2005) found multiple positive psychological factors associated with outdoor education particularly in learning to control and release tense emotions, enjoyment in the experience and developing skills of friendships and support. Evidence also supports emerging leadership, social competence and overall control skills, even negative emotions, all occur when implementing outdoor education, notably enhanced when placed in a challenging but achieve situation (Neill, 2008, Sheard & Golby, 2006).

Figure 3. Obtaining survival skills in wilderness therapy

It's often hard to tell whether the positive emotional effects of outdoor education arise particularly from being outside in nature or from the group environments (Neill, 2008). This forced group environment however, has displayed advancement in team work and therefore emotional skills (Howden, 2012). Research into the role of nature in emotional development has been effective in finding it as a significant element. Returning from wilderness programs, Taylor and Kuo (2006) stated an improved self-confidence and identity. This in turn develops into a better understanding of others as they can relate on a more advanced level. This social and emotional learning in natural environments is highly effective for everyone but especially for those with a disability (Price, 2018).

Negative correlation of screen time on emotional development[edit | edit source]

One particular study by Uhls and Colleagues (2014) reviewed the skills of preteens after 5 days on camp without screens. They found negative correlations of screen time on emotional development but, reducing screen time through the 5 day nature camp, a significant improvement in many aspects of emotional development due to the increased amount of social interaction. Areas such as empathy and the ability to read others non-verbal cues were among the skills that benefited most from this group based 'forced' interaction in nature.

What forms of encouragement can result in more involvement?[edit | edit source]

More involvement should be encouraged. This could be as simple as a workplace going on a day hike nearby.


Case Study

Mario was enrolled into a 5 day outdoor immersion program where no devices were allowed. The first couple of days were rough, but as he started to interact with the others in the group, his social-awareness and emotional intelligence were tested at the beginning of the week and at the end, displaying positive signs of improvement. Mario is now better at displaying empathy and is more aware of his expressions, thanks to the use of practical learning in natural environments.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Amidst all of the research, there is a significant consensus that outdoor education has a significant positive impact on all aspects of emotional development. Through creating the perfect opportunity of adversity but educating and supplying the tools to achieve, outdoor education builds self-confidence, social awareness, empathy for their group, better control over positive and negative emotions, and an opportunity to practice the newly learnt skills first hand. Components of outdoor education should be highly encouraged, if not written somewhat into school curriculum's. Not only will this reduce the amount of screen time that is beginning to become the norm, but improve the interactions students have with their peers and teachers alike. Outside of the school environment, outdoor education should still be encouraged and used as a form of therapy and a way to disconnect from the increasingly online world to so individuals can reconnect with themselves and those in close proximity to them.

Test yourself[edit | edit source]

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 Outdoor education improves emotional development through all EXCEPT...?

Social awareness
Learning how to disrespect others
Develop a positive relationship with nature and others

2 Emotional development doesn't include:

regulating someone else's feelings
self awareness
non verbal expression
reasoning negative emotions

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ampuero, D., Miranda, C., Delgado, L., Goyen, S., & Weaver, S. (2013). Empathy and critical thinking: primary students solving local environmental problems through outdoor learning. Journal Of Adventure Education And Outdoor Learning, 15, 64-78. doi: 10.1080/14729679.2013.848817

Berman, D., & Davis-Berman, J. (2000). Therapeutic Uses of Outdoor Education. ERIC Digest. Retrieved 20 October 2019, from

Berman, D., & Davis-Berman, J. (2005). Positive Psychology and Outdoor Education. Journal Of Experiential Education, 28, 17-24. doi: 10.1177/105382590502800104

Howden, E. (2012). Outdoor experiential education: Learning through the body. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2012(134), 43–51. doi: 10.1002/ace.20015

Jack, R., Caldara, R., & Schyns, P. (2012). Internal representations reveal cultural diversity in expectations of facial expressions of emotion. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 19-25. doi: 10.1037/a0023463

James, J., & Williams, T. (2017). School-Based Experiential Outdoor Education. Journal Of Experiential Education, 40, 58-71. doi: 10.1177/1053825916676190

Mayer, J., Roberts, R., & Barsade, S. (2008). Human Abilities: Emotional Intelligence. Annual Review Of Psychology, 59, 507-536. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093646

Price, A. (2018). Using outdoor learning to augment social and emotional learning (SEL) skills in young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD). Journal Of Adventure Education And Outdoor Learning, 19, 315-328. doi: 10.1080/14729679.2018.1548362

Sheard, M., & Golby, J. (2006). The Efficacy of an Outdoor Adventure Education Curriculum on Selected Aspects of Positive Psychological Development. Journal Of Experiential Education, 29, 187-209. doi: 10.1177/105382590602900208

Sowell, E., Trauner, D., Gamst, A., & Jernigan, T. (2002). Development of cortical and subcortical brain structures in childhood and adolescence: a structural MRI study. Developmental Medicine And Child Neurology, 44, 4-16. doi: 10.1017/s0012162201001591

Is contact with nature important for healthy child development? State of the evidence. Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., Spencer, C., & Blades, M. (2011). Children and their Environments. Cambridge, GBR: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, R. (1991). Emotional regulation and emotional development. Educational Psychology Review, 3, 269-307. doi: 10.1007/bf01319934

Thorburn, M., & Marshall, A. (2014). Cultivating lived-body consciousness: Enhancing cognition and emotion through outdoor learning. Journal Of Pedagogy, 5. doi: 10.2478/jped-2014-0006

Neill, J. (2008). Enhancing Life Effectiveness: the Impacts of Outdoor Education Programs. (Doctor of Philosophy). University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia

Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387–392. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.036

Yip, J., Leung, K., Li, L., & Lee, T. (2004). The role of sub-cortical brain structures in emotion recognition. Brain Injury, 18, 1209-1217. doi: 10.1080/02699050410001719916

External links[edit | edit source]