Learning through outdoor adventure today helps young people adapt to the challenges of tomorrow

Within a world which currently resembles a moving target, an enormous amount of unmitigated information is at young people’s fingertips. Consequently, the measure of their knowledge is not the amount of this information which can be retained (cognitive skills). Rather, it is their ability to curate (filter and process) material coupled with an understanding of how, when, and why it should or should not be used. Within an emerging creative economy, a core of highly prized skills, collectively known as 21st Century Skills, is recognised by international agencies, academics, non-governmental and private sector organisations as essential for generating solutions to some of society’s most critical problems in a global marketplace. These skills include young people’s ability to be self-aware, empathise with others, question how the world works and how it could be, become strong willed and overcome, and learn from failure.

We know that youngsters who score high on psychosocial skills at an early age, as opposed to pure academic skills training, report better adult outcomes in education, employment, and mental health (Kautz et al., 2014). Therefore, nurturing an optimum blend of physical, social, cognitive, and emotional literacy is most important in childhood. This is where brain growth is most prolific, and a toolkit of skill sets can be fostered to help youngsters adapt to the challenges of today and oriented to help them face the demands of tomorrow. Learning by a range of means and experiences enables them to see the world at a granular, personalised level (how I make sense of information and what it means to me) and with a global perspective (how I impact others through my actions). This experiential approach helps children not only to distil information but also how to integrate this material with other experiences and use it effectively. Although acquiring knowledge is unquestionably important, cultivating a child’s sense of purpose and passion is equal to the importance we place upon the retention and assessment of information.

Outdoor Adventure Learning

The unpredictable and dynamic nature of outdoor adventure (OA) reflects our world of constant change. This makes it an ideal pedagogical tool for the development of skills needed for young people to adapt to present difficulties and build capacity for their future. In essence, adventure represents our willingness to take risks and learn through uncertainty. Adventure education is about placing healthy demands on young learners to ignite their sense of worth and purpose in life. This involves educators being responsible without being over-protective so that youngsters are never allowed to wobble, trip, stumble or fall, and as a result, miss out on the experience to know what it is like to get back up again. OA, therefore, provides the bedrock for real-life learning which is both memorable and meaningful.

Whether youngsters immerse themselves in nature within their localities or a broader outdoor residential experience, natural settings provide a sense of freedom, an awareness crystallised by the pandemic lockdowns. Nature exposure is shown to improve children’s concern for the environment, motor skill abilities, and wider learning, particularly on tasks requiring attention, working memory and collaborations with others (Nejad, et al., 2022). Importantly, this is not just the case for more capable and motivated youngsters; children who underachieve at school also perform better in a natural environment, especially when exposed to high-quality, stimulating activities.

School children engaged in nature-based learning have reported better attendance and academic achievement (in comparison to their peers or projected attainment) in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies, and are more intrinsically motivated (Natural England, 2023). Over 2500 new university students reporting higher levels of resilience three months following an OA induction programme were more likely to achieve better academic outcomes at the end of their first year (Allan & McKenna, 2022).

Building opportunities for lasting growth

Despite these benefits, OA learning does not offer a magic solution to overcome real structural inequalities in wider society. Substantial numbers of disadvantaged children have limited access to outdoor spaces (Dillon & Lovell, 2022) and gained less from nature connections during the pandemic lockdowns than their more affluent peers (Friedman et al., 2022). Furthermore, to understand the power of OA and reduce barriers to participation, more robust research is required into the processes and outcomes within OA which generate beneficial outcomes for a plurality of learners. In this way, efficacious OA interventions can be designed which target a range of needs. We have recently shed light on the most active ingredients of change within a purposefully designed OA residential which increased the Twenty-First Skill development, psychological resilience, and well-being of hundreds of UK adolescents from a wide range of socio-demographic, ethnic and learning backgrounds www.kingswood.co.uk/post/skills4life-impact-analysis.

At a point in time where young people have faced unprecedented upheaval and threats to their well-being, it has never been more important to create daily opportunities for them to build their adaptive capabilities to deal with uncertainties in a fast-moving world, both presently and down the line. Underpinned by an experiential learning framework, OA, and nature-based learning, provides a platform for impactful, authentic experiences which embolden personal growth and should be considered a fundamental part of the fabric of everyday life and included as part of education, health, policy, and planning.

Dr John Allan is a visiting fellow at Sheffield Hallam University. John’s area of expertise centres on positive psychology, strength-based learning, and resilience building


Allan, J.F. & McKenna, J. (2022). Trajectories of Resilience in University Inductees following Outdoor Adventure (OA) Residential Programmes, Psychiatry International, Vol 3, pp. 67–90. https://doi.org/10.3390/ psychiatryint3010007.

Dillon, J. & Lovell, R. (2022). Links between Natural Environments, Learning and Health: Evidence briefing. Natural England Evidence Information Note. EIN063.

Friedman, S., Imrie, S., Fink, E., Gedikoglu, M., & Hughes, C. (2022). Understanding Changes to Children’s Connection to Nature During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Implications for Child Well-being. People and Nature, Vo 4, pp. 155–165. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10270.

Kautz, T, James J. Heckman, Diris, R. Ter Weel, B., & Borghans, D. (2014). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-cognitive skills to Promote Lifetime Success. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Education Working Papers 110, OECD Publishing.

Natural England (2023) Links between Natural Environments and Learning: Evidence Briefing (EIN017).

Nejade, R.M., Grace, D, & Bowman, L.R. (2022). What is the Impact of Nature on Human Health? A Scoping Review of the Literature, Journal of Global Health, 12. 04099. Published online 2022 Dec 16. doi: 10.7189/jogh.12.04099.




One response to “Learning through outdoor adventure today helps young people adapt to the challenges of tomorrow”

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    Thanks for this insightful blog. It’s so important to get young people interested in outdoor activities to make them more developed and independent as individuals, and not be trapped indoors by technology advancements.

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