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Flourishing People-in-Place: Understanding the impact of Outdoor Education at UWCSEA

Dr Christopher Wolsko, Associate Professor of Psychology Oregon State University - Cascades
Dr Michael Gassner, Lecturer and Researcher, Oregon State University
20 June 2018

Flourishing People-in-Place: Understanding the impact of Outdoor Education at UWCSEA

To live a life rich in authenticity, compassion and positive emotional experiences, leading psychologists have concluded in study after study that maturing beyond egocentric preoccupation is essential. Most recently, this has been demonstrated in the sustained pivot of positive psychologists (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) toward the cultivation of intrinsic motivation, social concern, and various character strengths and virtues. The UWCSEA qualities and skills, identified as central to students’ development as lifelong learners, were in part inspired by this work in education and psychology.

At the same time as these developments have emerged in the positive psychology movement, research on human health and wellness is increasingly examining the importance of our relationships with the natural environment. Theodore Roszak is a seminal author in the emerging field of ecopsychology. He argues that a complete portrait of human flourishing must move beyond the personal and the social, to understand how we can meaningfully connect with the natural environmental which ultimately sustains us. “If ecopsychology has anything to add to the Socratic-Freudian project of self-knowledge, it is to remind us … there is more to know about the self, or rather more self to know, than our personal history reveals. Making a personality, the task that Jung called ‘individuation’, may be the adventure of a lifetime. But the person is anchored within a greater, universal identity. Salt remnants of ancient oceans flow through our veins, ashes of expired stars rekindle in our genetic chemistry.” (Roszak, 1992, p. 319).

In support of Rozsak’s argument, the last 10 to 15 years have seen the development of a robust research literature on the diverse mental, behavioural, and physical health benefits of exposure to and engagement with natural environments. This includes anything from passively viewing nature photographs or sitting in an office with views of green space, to the decidedly more active undertaking of outdoor activities or even environmental conservation projects.

Among the positive benefits of contact with nature are an increased capacity for directed attention, increased positive emotional experiences, reduced anxiety and depression, and reduced stress and stress-related illness. In the longer term, there is increasing evidence of positive impact on chronic illness, disease and longevity. In addition, exposure to natural environments positively influences health by providing appealing locations for engaging in physical activity and social interaction, and by contributing to a sense of feeling connected with the natural world in a personally and culturally meaningful way (for an overview, see Hartig et al., 2014).

It is no coincidence that this evidence is emerging when, for the first time in history, most human beings live in urban rather rural environments (UN, 2009)—a trend that is only predicted to accelerate. While offering advantages from a number of economic and political perspectives, these rural-to-urban demographic shifts can also have negative consequences. For example, generally higher levels of mental illness, including anxiety and depression, are associated with urban living (Goodwin & Taha, 2014; Lederbogen et al., 2011; Peen et al., 2010; Wang, 2004). Some researchers link lack of exposure to natural environments to this and other concerning health outcomes, and argue that the lack of safe and meaningful access to green space constitutes a major public health issue (Bratman et al., 2015). Thinking locally, Singaporean policy has long been challenged and inspired by the tensions between urban development and the preservation of green space (Tan et al., 2013), and is a leader in creating greener urban environments.

Embedding qualities and skills through outdoor education

And so a review of the literature points to UWCSEA’s emphasis on embedding challenging experiences in the Outdoor Education programme in order to deliberately encourage the development of the UWCSEA learner profile's qualities and skills placing it at the leading edge of thought on education and optimal human development.

However, in an effort to better understand the outcomes of students’ outdoor experiences, UWCSEA partnered with Oregon State University for a longitudinal study of students’ annual outdoor expeditions. Specifically, the research examines the extent to which the expeditions in Grades 6, 7, 8, 9 and 11 contribute to the development of the qualities and skills of the UWCSEA profile. Many components of the profile (e.g., resilience, creativity, self-awareness) correspond directly with the traits and abilities identified by contemporary psychological research as predictive of long-term achievement and life satisfaction (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

It is hoped that the findings will help UWCSEA identify current pedagogical successes while helping to refine the Outdoor Education programme, and to modify or adapt programmes and/or teaching techniques in order to target specific qualities and skills that the programme may not currently reach. The data will also be shared with wider academic and educational audiences in order to illuminate effective techniques for cultivating qualities and skills during the formative years of adolescence. Additionally, the diversity of the student body at UWCSEA means that researchers may be able assess any cultural variability in the impact of outdoor education.

The study is currently in its third year of data collection (with at least three years more to go), utilising focus groups, individual interviews, and surveys to examine a variety of research questions. Generally speaking, findings to date demonstrate that expeditions clearly have a positive impact on students’ development of the UWCSEA profile qualities and skills. In addition, increases in flourishing (a prominent assessment of psychological well-being), grit, and connectedness to nature have also been observed from pre- to post-expedition.

Positive impacts in a complex world

Three of the most common profile traits cultivated on expeditions have been commitment to care, resilience, and collaboration. Commitment to care has manifested as ‘caring for one’s peers in challenging circumstances’ and as ‘concern for the environment, inspired by natural beauty and/or conservation projects.’ Quotes from student interviews illustrate this: “During the week, I made sure that everyone was okay and assisted them if they needed. We all got quite hungry and I shared it all with people since I knew that we were all tired and in need of some energy” and “The people are amazing and the nature is beautiful … It has inspired me to make a better urban area, more integrated into society and nature …”

The expeditions also compel students to persevere in the face of physical and psychological challenges. For one student, such resilience was demonstrated through “… stepping out of my comfort zone. The trip gave me many opportunities to step outside my comfort zone and helped me get into the mindset of embracing a challenge or trying something I normally wouldn’t.”

Finally, cooperation is fundamental to the success of most outdoor expedition activities. Students appear to recognise and embrace this and have had many positive experiences working together on challenging and ultimately enjoyable tasks. As one student reports, “I had to be collaborative with the people in my kayak group, and support them when they were tired, and I cheered them on. I also had to be collaborative with my tent-mates and other groups when cooking ,for example. I also became more trustworthy of my tent-mates and friends …”

If Outdoor Education is to be relevant generally, and worthwhile at UWCSEA specifically, it must impact students in a positive way that is congruent with the reality of a highly complex and dynamic world. Our analyses to date indicate that the Outdoor Education expeditions at UWCSEA are accomplishing this. Specifically, expedition experiences are developing students’ capacities to act more cooperatively and more independently, to have the confidence to make more of their own free choices, to act with care and concern for others in their social and natural environments, to seek understanding in authentic learning environments, and to thrive in uncertain, complex, and rapidly changing contexts.

We look forward to updating the UWCSEA community further as the study progresses.


Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(28), 8567-8572.

Goodwin, R. D., & Taha, F. (2014). Global health benefits of being raised in a rural
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Lederbogen, F., Kirsch, P., Haddad, L., Streit, F., Tost, H., Schuch, et al. (2011). City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature, 474(7352), 498-501.

Peen, J., Schoevers, R. A., Beekman, A.T., & Dekker, J. (2010). The current status of urban-rural differences in psychiatric disorders. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 121(2), 84-93.

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