Research Summary

The temporary community: Student experiences of school-based outdoor education programmes

Photos Shed Light on Outdoor Experiences

Journal of Experiential Education

In New Zealand, outdoor education is compulsory: every year through tenth grade, all students receive some form of outdoor education. Many schools organize “school camps,” in which students spend several days at a residential camp with their class participating in activities such as ropes courses, kayaking, camping, orienteering, and others. The programs are designed to be challenging and fun, giving the students new opportunities for social interaction and skill and character development. The researchers set out to better understand the ways that New Zealand teens experience these school camps.

The authors applied a tried-and-true research approach to investigate the camps. They asked students to take pictures that depicted their experience and then used the photos to guide open-ended interviews about the students’ time at school camp. According to the researchers’ literature review, only one previous study had used this technique in an outdoor education setting.

The researchers distributed disposable, 27-exposure cameras to 32 students (11 males and 21 females) between the ages of 14 and 15 who attended the three-day camp as a part of their school curriculum. The researchers wanted to limit the directions given to the students about what to photograph, but, recognizing that the students might find this lack of direction confusing, the researchers offered the following guidance: “Pretend you are going to post the series of photographs you take on your personal web page (e.g., Bebo, MySpace, or Facebook) so you can show your friends what your time at Year 10 camp was like for you.” The researchers indicated that the photos could be of anything at all, as long as they showed what camp is like.

The researchers collected the cameras at the conclusion of the camp, and then for two weeks following the camp they used the photos to guide interviews with the students. The students and researchers both saw the photos for the first time during the interviews. The researchers recorded the interviews and then analyzed the content for patterns. Analysis revealed that the students’ experience at camp was overwhelmingly social; the students rarely talked about the outdoor environment in discussing their experience. The students viewed the camp as fun, and, the researchers note, “The fun nature of what students did appears to have been primarily generated by the presence of peers.” Not only did the students explain that the social interactions are what made the camp fun, their photos also reflected this finding. According to the researchers, “A large majority of the students’ photographs depicted people and social situations.” The students also noted that the novel setting changed the social context. The students seemed to see each other in a new light in the outdoor setting, and the setting seemed to foster more inclusivity in the group.

The researchers indicate that the students’ focus on social interactions is not surprising, given the students’ developmental stage and its associated focus on peers and social interaction. But, they also note that it’s possible that the research methods could have had an effect on the results, too. Previous research has shown that amateur photographs tend to be social in nature and portray happy scenes of friends and family. These cultural expectations of what to include in photos could have influenced the students’ decisions about what to photograph. What’s more, the researchers question whether the example given in the instructions—namely, to imagine they’ll post the photos on their Facebook page—might have also influenced the kinds of pictures the students took. Because social networking sites are just that—social—it’s possible that this instruction caused students to emphasize the social aspects of the camp in their photos.

Nevertheless, the researchers think this approach may help researchers and practitioners understand the student experience in an outdoor setting. This research serves as a reminder of just how socially focused teens are, and outdoor recreation seems to create positive social situations that can be leveraged to improve results for programs and for students.

The Bottom Line

Few outdoor education researchers have used photo-elicitation interviews, in which participants take photographs that are used to guide interviews, to evaluate programs. This study employed a photo-based research method, and the results suggest that this technique may be a useful evaluation tool for outdoor educators. The findings from this study indicate that teens participating in the school-based outdoor education program focused more on the social aspects of the experience and less on the outdoor environment in which it took place.