Playing and learning in the outdoors is essential for young people’s health and well-being. Connecting young people to the outdoors and nature can help them improve their sense of autonomy and self-concept, as well as their life satisfaction, sense of purpose, and enthusiasm.
For these reasons and more, thousands of young people participate in outdoor programs year round. Outdoor programs come in all shapes and sizes. What defines them is that they intentionally promote young people’s connection to the outdoors and nature. Across Hello Insight members, we have seen outdoor programs in the form of:
- Urban gardening
- Wilderness adventures
- Day and Summer camps in the outdoors
- Inquiry-based exploration of local Zoos and botanic gardens
- Workshops at school focused on local flora and fauna
So what is so special about outdoor programs? And, do they promote the development of social and emotional learning more than traditional out-of-school programs? These are the questions asked by our partners at The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Children & Nature Network, and the YMCA when they supported the development of a new tool, Hello Insight: Outdoors, which has been used by more than 80 out-of-school programs nationwide.
Our study leveraged the data from over 55 youth-serving organizations (80+ programs) who collected data using Hello Insight: Outdoors from 2018 to 2022. This collective effort resulted in data from over 10,000 young people who participated in outdoor programs.
To answer our research questions, we needed to compare young people in outdoor programs to those in other out-of-school programs. So, we selected 1) 4,743 young people in outdoor programs and 2) 4,743 young people in non-outdoor programs who also use Hello Insight evaluation and learning tools. These groups were similar across gender, ethnicity, and age, as well as Overall SEL and Social Capital scores at baseline. Because of these similarities, we were able to compare the impacts on young people’s SEL across outdoor and non-outdoor programs.
Across these groups, young people were between the ages of 12 and 18 (49% were boys, 43% were girls). About a third identified as White, while 19% identified as Latinx, 18% as African American, and 16% as two or more races.
Young people in outdoor programs develop SEL capacities
Nearly all young people in outdoor programs show meaningful growth in Social Skills and Academic Self-Efficacy and Self-Management. They also develop a sense of Support for the Environment and Well-Being in the Outdoors. To learn more about these outcomes, go here.
Young people develop SEL capacities at a higher rate in outdoor programs than in non-outdoor programs
We know that young people in outdoor programs grow their SEL capacity. But how does their SEL growth compare to young people in other out-of-school programs? Our findings suggest that young people in outdoor programs show a significantly larger growth in Social Skills, Academic Self-Efficacy, and Self-Management than their peers in non-outdoor programs.
Digging deeper into the data revealed that boys in outdoor programs show significantly larger increases in Social Skills, Academic Self-Efficacy, and Self-Management, as well as their Overall SEL capacity, than boys in other programs. In contrast, girls in outdoor programs only show significantly larger increases in Social Skills and Academic Self-Efficacy than girls in other programs.
In addition, young Latinx people in outdoor programs show significantly larger increases in Social Skills, Self-Management, and Contribution than young Latinx people in other programs.
Young people in outdoor programs experience more Engage Authentically and Promote Peer Bonds practices than in non-outdoor programs
What could explain these differences? The best explanation for SEL growth is the degree to which young people experience Positive Youth Development (PYD) research-based practices in their programs. So, we looked at whether young people in outdoor programs experience more of these practices than young people in other programs.
Overall, young people in outdoor programs experience more authentic relationships with staff (Engage Authentically) and report more opportunities to develop peer bonds (Promote Peer Bonds) than their peers in other programs. These two foundational experiences create a fertile ground for other PYD experiences and, together, promote young people’s SEL growth.
Looking at who experienced these PYD practices, we learned that boys in outdoor programs reported stronger relationships with staff (Engage Authentically), who challenged them to continuously grow and develop (Challenge Growth), expanded their interests (Expand Interests), and provided more occasions to bond with peers (Promote Peer Bonds) than boys in other programs.
While girls in outdoor programs also experience many PYD practices, they only reported experiencing more opportunities to create Peer Bonds than girls in other programs.
When exploring the difference across ethnicity, Latinx young people had very positive experiences, even more so than peers on non-outdoor programs. In fact, they experienced stronger relationships with staff (Engage Authentically), engaged in opportunities that expanded their interests (Expand Interests), and had more occasions to bond with peers (Promote Peer Bonds).
The outdoors is a fantastic setting to promote young people’s SEL. Our findings suggest that a well-designed and well-implemented outdoor program can achieve even larger increases in SEL than other out-of-school programs. This is especially true for Social Skills, a capacity that was consistently boosted by outdoor programs across our findings.
Boys and young Latinx people stood out as the groups that benefited the most from outdoor programs in our study, yet there is much more we could learn about these and other groups of young people. In the future, the field should look at programs that do exceptionally well at promoting SEL growth for marginalized young people, especially those who lack access to high quality outdoor programming.
What do you think about our findings? If you design or deliver programs for young people, do these findings make you think of strategies to connect young people to the outdoors to boost your impacts? Leave us a comment!
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