Research Summary

The Wilderness Expedition An Effective Life Course Intervention to Improve Young People’s Well-Being and Connectedness to Nature

Self-Esteem and Connectedness to Nature on Youth Wilderness Expeditions

Journal of Experiential Education

Poor mental health and self-esteem often continue throughout a lifetime, and those with low self-esteem may be less able to cope with stress and more prone to depression and anxiety. While previous studies show a relationship between exposure to nature and improved well-being and overall health, most of those studies are qualitative or descriptive. This study provides quantitative evidence about the relationship between wilderness expeditions and self-esteem, as well as connectedness to nature among adolescents. The study also investigates differences that may relate to participants’ gender, living environment, and the length and location of the expedition.

The study included 130 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 18, who participated in 16 wilderness expeditions organized by the Wilderness Foundation UK between 2006 and 2012. The participants included 57 males and 75 females; 36% of the participants lived in a city, 26% in a large town, 18% in a village, 11% in a small town, and 9% in a rural area. The wilderness expeditions took place in South Africa or Scotland, and they ranged in duration from 5 to 11 days. The purpose of the expeditions was to grow the connection between people and nature, as well as to improve leadership and life training skills in a challenging setting. The expedition settings were completely immersive: the settings had no electricity, and participants obtained water from nearby rivers or other natural sources.

At the beginning and end of each wilderness expedition, participants completed questionnaires on self-esteem and connectedness to nature. Researchers measured self-esteem using Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale, which asks respondents to rate their level of agreement with 10 statements about feelings of self-worth or self-acceptance using a 4-point Likert-type scale. They then aggregated responses into a single self-esteem score. Similarly, the researchers measured Connectedness to Nature using the State Connectedness to Nature Scale, in which they asked respondents to rate their level of agreement with 13 items using a 5-point Likert-type scale.

The results showed a statistically significant increase in participants’ self-esteem scores from pre- to post-expedition. Boys reported significantly higher self-esteem scores than girls before the expeditions, but there was no difference in self-esteem between genders after the expeditions. These results suggest that it may be particularly beneficial for girls to spend time in nature and on these types of wilderness-expedition experiences, given that girls had significantly lower self-esteem than the boys did at the beginning of this study, but the gap closed by the end of the expedition. Although the study did not examine the reasons for this improvement in self-esteem, the authors suggested that the opportunity for girls to demonstrate perseverance, feel a sense of accomplishment, and challenge conventional views of what it means to be female may contribute to these shifts.

Participants’ connectedness to nature scores also significantly increased from pre- to post-expedition. The study showed no significant differences between boys’ and girls’ connectedness to nature scores either before or after the expedition.

The Bottom Line

Immersive experiences in nature may help improve adolescents’ mental well-being and health. Participation in wilderness expeditions may increase adolescent self-esteem, particularly in girls, and increase their sense of connectedness to nature. Incorporating such experiences into school curricula and other youth programs may be an effective way to influence positively adolescents’ well-being.