Research Summary

Connecting children to nature through residential outdoor environmental education

Residential outdoor environmental education programs can effectively foster nature connectedness and encourage outdoor play

Environmental Education Research

Studies have shown that connectedness to nature—feeling at one with nature—has a multitude of cognitive, social, and developmental benefits. Nature connectedness can enhance health and wellbeing, play an important role in child development, and promote pro-environmental behaviors. Studies have also shown that outdoor play can boost physical health, promote positive social and cognitive development, improve attention and focus, and teach children how to effectively assess risks and navigate challenging situations. Given all these benefits, many environmental educators design programs and activities to foster connectedness to nature and promote outdoor play. Residential outdoor environmental education (ROEE) programs offer multi-day, immersive, educational experiences in nature, and are particularly well-positioned to foster nature connectedness and inspire participants to spend more time outdoors. This study investigated the effectiveness of a ROEE program in cultivating children-nature connections, inspiring an affinity for nature, enhancing attitudes toward outdoor play, and increasing outdoor play behaviors.

This study took place at Shaver’s Creek Outdoor School (SCOS), a ROEE facility located in Pennsylvania and run by Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. For this study, the authors investigated the effectiveness of SCOS’s 4-day, 3-night residential program. The program, which aimed to foster human-nature connections and teach upper elementary students about the natural environment, offered: (1) structured activities to learn about ecology, history of the land, culture, and teambuilding; (2) unstructured outdoor time; (3) overnight experiences in cabins; and (4) ongoing lessons about pro-environmental behaviors.

With input from environmental educators, teachers, and school administrators, the authors created a survey to evaluate the effectiveness of ROEE programming on older elementary school students. This survey was derived from existing survey scales—including the Affinity for Nature Scale and the Children’s Environmental Attitude and Knowledge Scale (CHEAKS), among others. The new survey tool listed a series of statements related to nature connectedness, affinity for nature, outdoor play attitudes, and outdoor play behavior, and students were asked to rate their level of agreement (strongly agree to strongly disagree) with each statement. For example, students were asked to rate their level of agreement with the following affinity for nature statement: “I enjoy the freedom of being outside.” The authors administered their evaluation tool to two different groups of students before and after participating in the residential program at SCOS. One group—the treatment group—participated in the SCOS residential program, while the other group—the control group—did not. The treatment group was composed of 156 fifth grade students from Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, who were already scheduled to attend SCOS. The control group included 72 self-selected fifth grade students from counties that neighbored Mifflin County. Students in the treatment group took the survey in their school settings four days before going to SCOS and then took the post survey three weeks after completing the SCOS program. The control group took the same surveys on the same interval. The authors used statistical methods to analyze the data.

This study found that SCOS effectively increased nature connectedness among participants and inspired them to spend more time engaged in outdoor play, both of which can be drivers of pro-environmental behaviors. The authors compared the pre- and post-program results of each group, and found that the group of students who participated in the SCOS program showed significant increases in nature connectedness and self-reported outdoor play behaviors.

When comparing the pre-surveys of the treatment group to the control group, the authors found that students who participated in SCOS scored significantly higher on the affinity for nature and attitudes toward outdoor play sections than did the students in the control group. This indicated that the two groups were significantly different from each other (by these two measures) before any students participated in the SCOS program. The authors surmised that the treatment group’s high pre-program scores in these two categories likely explained why post-survey scores for these categories did not show significant increases (i.e., already high scores cannot get much higher). For the group of students who did not participate in the SCOS program, the authors found a weakly significant increase in attitude toward outdoor play but no increases in any of the other categories.

One limitation of this study was that it only assessed short-term outcomes of SCOS programming and, therefore, cannot offer insights into longer-term impacts of the program. Additionally, the authors evaluated only one ROEE program and selected participants primarily from rural contexts. These factors limit the generalizability of the results to other students and ROEE programs; a different study in another location may produce different results. Finally, the results do not offer any insights into which elements of the ROEE program led to the increases in nature connectedness and outdoor play.

Given the potential benefits of ROEE programs, the authors recommend that ROEE facilities set explicit goals of fostering nature connectedness and encouraging outdoor play. Drawing on insight from recent studies, the authors assert that, by offering activities that help children forge emotional connections with nature, ROEE facilities may be helping to solidify environmental knowledge gain and inspire the adoption of pro-environmental behaviors.

The Bottom Line

This study evaluated the impact of a 4-day, 3-night residential outdoor environmental education (ROEE) program on connection to nature. The authors found that the 156 5th graders who participated in the program showed significant increases in nature connectedness and self-reported outdoor play behaviors compared to a group of 72 5th graders who did not participate. These findings indicate that ROEE programs can effectively foster nature connectedness in young people and inspire them to spend more time engaged in outdoor play, both of which the authors recommend that ROEE programs emphasize.