Our new EEF report on the educational impact of adventure learning supports the well-documented positive effects of the great outdoors on children. But more than that, our research shows that experiencing adventure learning has the potential for longer-lasting benefits, inspiring hard-to-reach students to re-engage with school, while giving them skills they can draw on throughout their lives.
We conducted one of the largest ever randomised control trials about adventure learning involving two providers, Commando Joes and Outward Bound Trust. Both took ‘disengaged’ students from 97 schools and gave them opportunities for adventure learning, either on an outdoor residential trip or in school. Students were given tasks involving practical problem-solving, teamwork and physical challenges. A third control group received funding for enrichment activities.
The students chosen for the trial had been identified as being disengaged from school in some way. This covered everything from disruptive behaviour to being very shy and lacking in confidence. We found that students from right across this spectrum engaged with the activities on the adventure learning programmes, which included gorge walking, climbing or solving top secret missions.
For many, adventure learning was a chance to reset. It provided a level playing field where students and teachers had new experiences together, reframing and strengthening their relationships. When you’re waist-deep in freezing water or hanging off a cliff face, you develop a bond — and we found these bonds continued back at school.
Students were given rare opportunities to achieve success and to be seen by their teachers doing so. They were offered the chance to come out of their shell by taking on roles like leading and coordinating their team to solve missions like orienteering tasks, and the experience often changed the way they felt about themselves. The evidence is that building key life skills like teamwork, resilience and self-regulation opened up potential for improved behaviour back in the classroom.
One of the most striking aspects of our research was how adventure learning gave young people a chance to do things they may not otherwise have experienced. Half of the students selected by their schools to take part in our trial received pupil premium – a group of children known to often have restricted access to experiences and activities that boost their cultural capital.
Based on our findings, adventure learning has potential to help students that may be struggling with their engagement in mainstream school for any number of reasons. In addition, offering such opportunities through school evidently helps parents struggling to offer these kinds of experiences to their children because of the cost-of-living crisis.
An outdoor education bill is being considered by the Scottish and Welsh governments that would entitle all secondary students to a week-long outdoor learning residential experience. The closest English equivalent is the National Youth Guarantee, but there is scope for legislation in England to match that suggested in Scotland and Wales.
Doing so would not only help to re-engage students with school amid fears about post-Covid behaviour and attendance, but it would offer benefits across wider society, spanning across espoused government commitments to levelling up and student wellbeing.
To get the most from these opportunities and truly embed the gains students make, our findings lead us to recommend that they should be followed up in school, in partnership with providers.
For schools, we recommend they prioritise signposting students to other opportunities such as Cadets, Duke of Edinburgh, volunteering, sports and other school clubs. They could also build on positive staff-student relationships through informal check-ins or more formal mentoring with SMART goals.
We have been moved by the testimonies of young people and their teachers throughout this research. We can’t make causal claims because of the disruption Covid had on our project. However, there is sufficient evidence from interviews with pupils, teachers, school leaders and providers that adventure learning can help students build character traits like confidence, self-efficacy and resilience, that can ultimately help them achieve their goals in life.
That’s enough for us to recommend that it should be available to all of our young people.