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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Assessing the Efficacy of Outdoor Education On Campers’ Perceptions of Environmental Stewardship, Civic Engagement, and College and Career Pathways

  • Author(s): Frame, Amy
  • Advisor(s): Mistry, Rashmita
  • et al.

Given global threats to the continued functioning of ecosystem services that sustain us all, educators would be wise to embrace the task of redefining our individual and collective orientations to the natural world. Since the inception of the modern environmental education movement in the 1970’s, outdoor education at residential camps has distinguished itself as one of the most promising pedagogies for inspiring environmental stewardship behaviors (American Institutes for Research, 2005; Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997; Larson, Castleberry, & Green, 2010). Specific outdoor education program components have been shown to lead to immediate feelings of connectedness with nature, social connectedness, and self-efficacy (Garst, Browne, & Bialeschki, 2011a; McKenzie, 2003; Priest & Gass, 2005). This empirical study explored the relationships among campers’ demographics, attitudes related to their camp experiences, and self-reported behavioral intentions toward environmental stewardship, civic engagement, and academic motivation. This study provides data that can be used by educators to improve programs and expand opportunities for meaningful outdoor education to all school-aged children.The mixed-method design consisted of two phases of data collection (Creswell, 2014). First, I administered pre- and post-camp surveys of 795 campers aged 8-17 who attend week-long sessions at two camps in California. Next, I conducted 44 retrospective interviews of camp alumni. By interviewing alumni who attended camp as children and are now in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, I gained insight into the relationships among campers’ characteristics, camp programming, and eventual adult behaviors and into how memories of camp change over time. Data from both camps showed continuity between camper surveys and alumni interviews in the program components offered and their possible relationships to proximal and distal outcomes. At both sites, pre to post surveys showed statistically significant increases in connectedness with nature and social connectedness, despite the different curricular emphases at each camp. At one site, critical dialogue by trained counselors increased social connectedness. Such conversations revealed systemic issues such as poverty and racism, which often inspired college-aged volunteer counselors to pursue careers working with children or otherwise addressing inequities. Camp’s ability to increase empathy among diverse participants may be useful in helping people see the protection of nature as an integral part of improving peoples’ well-being. Although surveys indicated increases in environmental stewardship intentions, interviews showed that these were often minor personal acts of reduced consumption rather than the systemic participation or leadership in systems-level work required to overcome environmental injustices that keep us all from our true, biophilic natures as human beings.

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