Benefits of Campus Outdoor Recreation
Programs: A Review of the Literature
Elizabeth K. Andre
North Carolina State University
Pennsylvania State University
Portland State University
Campus outdoor recreation programs and facilities have faced a number of public attacks ques-
tioning their value for students. Climbing walls in particular have become, to some, emblematic
of waste and nancial excess in higher education. Despite these claims, this literature review un-
covers numerous benets for participants and schools provided by campus outdoor recreation
specically and campus recreation more generally. For colleges and universities, these benets
include positive eects on student recruitment, retention, and satisfaction and the opportunity
for recreation programs to support academic programs directly. For students, benets include
increased academic success, smoother transitions to college, better mental and physical health,
lower levels of stress and anxiety, better and more numerous social connections, better intra- and
interpersonal skills, increased environmental sensitivity, and better connectedness to nature and
KEYWORDS: campus outdoor recreation; campus recreation; outdoor recreation;
outdoor education; higher education; adventure education
Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership 2017, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 15–25
16 ANDRE, WILLIAMS, SCHWARTZ, AND BULLARD
Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership
Politicians, news media, and books have been saturated with criticisms of perceived exces-
sive spending on college and university amenities (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Blumenstyk, 2012;
Brandon, 2010; Friel, 2003; Hacker & Dreifus, 2010; Martin, 2012; Schuman, 2013; Scott, 2012;
U.S. Department of Education, 2006; Woodhouse, 2015). ese critics have oen singled out
specic campus resources, such as college climbing walls or other campus outdoor recreation
programs (Brandon, 2010; Martin, 2012). Perhaps the peak of this trend was when one politician
commented, “What the hell do you need a rock climbing wall for? Tell the kids at [University of
New Hampshire], ‘Go outside and climb those rocks.’” (Casimiro, 2015, para. 3). Despite these
vocal critiques, this paper will demonstrate that campus outdoor recreation oers numerous
benets, not only for student participants, but also for colleges and universities as organizations.
Before investigating outcomes of these programs, we will dene the scope of campus out-
door recreation as any outdoor recreation activities sponsored by a college, university, or associ-
ated auxiliary unit. is includes academic or nonacademic programs and includes recreational
activities that approximate outdoor settings (e.g., climbing walls or kayaking in pools) but do not
take place in the outdoors. ese types of programs may be housed organizationally within cam-
pus recreation departments, but may also be associated with student organizations, residential
communities, or student leadership programs (Speelman & Wagsta, 2015).
Because of the oen intertwined nature of campus outdoor recreation and campus rec-
reation departments, it is important to mention briey the history and context of campus rec-
reation departments. e rst campus recreation departments were formed at the beginning
of the 20th century and oen included aquatics programs, intramural programs, sport clubs,
tness, camps, adaptive programming, and personal training, in addition to outdoor recreation
(McFadden & Stenta, 2015). e availability of campus recreation is an important factor for
students in choosing which school to attend and in deciding whether, once enrolled, they will
remain enrolled (Haines, 2001). Nationally, students rate campus recreation programs as equally
important to their satisfaction and success as housing, food options, and internship opportu-
nities (National Intramural–Recreational Sports Association, 2004). Providing “extraordinary
experiences,” such as those associated with outdoor adventure, can provide organizations, in-
cluding universities, a competitive advantage in the marketplace (Jeeries & Lepp, 2012, p. 37).
Because of the diverse nature of these departments and programs, it is dicult to make
generalizations about them. is paper casts a wide net and includes some studies that are gen-
eral to campus recreation as a whole and notes instances for which more research is needed into
campus outdoor recreation specically. For this broad approach, in this paper we will answer
the research question, what are the potential benets of campus outdoor recreation programs?
ese benets extend beyond student recruitment, retention, and satisfaction. Campus outdoor
recreation programs also provide students with benets in the realms of mental and physical
health and wellness, prosocial connection and interpersonal skills, pro-environmental attitudes,
academic success, employment opportunities, and other transferable skills.
In response to these public attacks questioning the value of campus outdoor recreation
programs and facilities, the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education (AORE) formed a
working group, the Campus Outdoor Recreation Assessment and Accountability (CORAA) task
force. is task force was charged with developing eective assessment and advocacy tools to
support its member programs. e rst step in this process was to query AORE members (who
are largely professional sta and students of college and university outdoor recreation programs)
to ascertain what types of support the AORE could provide for them as they advocate for their
programs. rough an online survey, members requested a literature review summarizing the
benets of campus outdoor recreation, for individual participants and for colleges, universities,
and associated auxiliary departments that house these programs.
17BENEFITS OF CAMPUS OUTDOOR RECREATION PROGRAMS
Based on a search of the literature using search terms such as campus outdoor recreation
outcomes, the CORAA working group identied four categories of outdoor recreation benets
relevant to higher education: academic, health and wellness, transferable skills, and environ-
mental awareness. e working group then searched for articles using associated search terms in
aggregate academic search engines, including Ebsco, Web of Science, and Google Scholar. is
resulted in 161 articles to be reviewed. Aer the working group read these articles, the category
of prosocial connection and interpersonal skills was added, in addition to expanding the aca-
demic category to include employment and transferable skills.
is investigation yielded a number of research studies that were tangentially related to
campus outdoor recreation, but few which addressed campus outdoor recreation specically.
Health and Wellness Outcomes
Transitioning to and navigating through college can be a stressful time for students.
Balancing classes, work, social, and family responsibilities pulls students in many directions.
Recreation, especially when it takes place outdoors, can reduce that stress (Clark & Anderson,
2011; Kanters, Bristol, & Attarian, 2002; Mann & Leahy, 2010). Recreation experiences in wild
and natural areas provide participants with health benets that are distinct from those experi-
enced through recreation in built environments. For example, exercising in natural areas im-
proves psychological well-being by enhancing mood and self-esteem and by reducing feelings
of anger, confusion, anxiety, depression, arousal, stress, and tension to a degree that is signi-
cantly greater than what would accrue from the same amount of exercise in a built environment
(Aspinall, Mavros, Coyne, & Roe, 2013; Barton, Hine, & Pretty, 2009, as cited in Louv, 2011,
p. 59; Bodin & Hartig, 2003).
Participants in outdoor experiential programs have reported personal calming and soli-
tude (Hlansy, 2000) and increased self-esteem (Barton, Bragg, Pretty, Roberts, & Wood, 2016).
Participants in college outdoor orientation programs have demonstrated increased emotional
autonomy and purpose (Vlamis, Bell, & Gass, 2011), and students in an extended outdoor ad-
venture education degree curriculum have shown increased hardiness, a psychological construct
that describes the ability to turn stressful events into growth-inducing, rather than debilitating,
experiences (Sheard & Golby, 2006). Female participants in outdoor adventure programming
have also shown increased resiliency, which appears to persist over time (Beightol, Jevertson,
Carter, Gray, & Gass, 2012; Overholt & Ewert, 2015; Whittington, Aspelmeier, & Budbill, 2016).
In addition to the mental health benets, numerous physical benets come from par-
ticipation in physically active recreational activities. Regular physical activity helps control
weight; reduces the risk of numerous diseases; and strengthens bones, muscles, and joints
(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008). Involvement in recreational sports dur-
ing college is a signicant predictor of the importance students place on tness activities aer
graduation (Forrester, Arterberry, & Barcelona, 2006).
Prosocial Connection and Interpersonal Skills
Outdoor recreation has been shown to have a positive eect on participants’ levels of social
support (Clark & Anderson, 2011; Kanters et al., 2002; Mann & Leahy, 2010). Involved students
have more friends, more people on campus with whom they would feel comfortable sharing an
emotional secret (Austin, Martin, Mittelstaedt, Schanning, & Ogle, 2009), and reduced levels
of social anxiety (Ozen, 2015). Participants in campus-organized outdoor trips experienced an
increased sense of community, and trip alumni reported maintaining lifelong friendships with
participants in their university outdoor trips (Breuning, O’Connell, Todd, Anderson, & Young,
Outdoor orientation programs, wilderness trips that students engage in before they start fall
classes, provide an intense experience that encourages students to bond and create supportive re-
18 ANDRE, WILLIAMS, SCHWARTZ, AND BULLARD
Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership
lationships (Austin et al., 2009; Bell, 2006, 2012; Bell, Gass, Nafziger, & Starbuck, 2014; Frauman
& Waryold, 2009; Howard, O’Connell, & Lathrop, 2016; Wolfe & Kay, 2011). Participants also
feel more committed to their university and experience a smoother transition to university life
(Howard et al., 2016; Lien & Goldenberg, 2012; Wolfe & Kay, 2011). ese experiences result
in not only higher levels of social engagement, but also more reection and a higher sense of
life purpose (Bailey & Kang, 2015). In a longitudinal study, Gass, Garvey, and Sugerman (2003)
reported that 17 years aer an outdoor orientation trip, students continued to feel the positive
eects of this experience.
Recreation experiences oen have benets for specic subgroups within the university. For
example, when college student organizations participate in challenge course experiences, the
members experience gains in group eectiveness, group cohesion, and personal eectiveness
within the group (Hatch & McCarthy, 2005). Outdoor adventure–based orientation trips have
been shown to help university athletic teams replace a culture of hazing ceremonies for induc-
tion of rst year athletes with a more cooperative, egalitarian, and inclusive model that contrib-
utes to long-lasting improvements in team cohesion and functioning (Johnson & Chin, 2016).
All-female trips oen help participants feel more comfortable sharing ideas, feel more empow-
ered to make decisions and take action, and have an increased perception of their capabilities
and power (Mitten, 1992). Experiences developed with and for Indigenous youth may yield an
increased sense of connection with creation and with self (Ritchie et al., 2015).
Campus outdoor recreation programs may also be an avenue for universities to explore
more transformational visions of nondiscrimination and inclusion. Recreation programs have
expertise in adaptive recreation, universal design, and facilitating inclusive groups. ey can
be models for further challenging the “hegemonic discourses that have been used to justify in-
equality and oppression along the axes of race, class, gender, and sexuality” (Promis, Erevelles,
& Matthews, 2001, p. 49). One example is the DIVE (Diversity and Inclusion adVenture
Experience) program at North Carolina State University in which students, within the format
of a 9-day sea kayaking expedition, discuss issues of social justice on campus and in the broader
societal context (NC State University, University Recreation, n.d.).
Schools with campus outdoor recreation programs that include outdoor trips in wild or
natural areas can support schools’ environmentally focused goals. Many colleges and univer-
sities are incorporating environmental aspects into their missions and intended learning out-
comes, but are having diculty achieving these environmental goals. It is dicult to design a
solely classroom-based curriculum that produces students who engage in pro-environmental
behaviors because, although classroom-based education tends to focus on cognitive outcomes,
responsible environmental behavior is highly correlated with students’ aective and emotional
connections to the natural world. Pro-environmental behavior has been shown to correlate with
a person’s feelings of connectedness to nature (Mayer & Frantz, 2004), level of environmental
sensitivity (Hungerford & Volk, 1990), emotional anity toward nature (Hinds & Sparks, 2008;
Kals, Schumacher, & Montada, 1999), and place identity (Vaske & Kobrin, 2001).
ese aective outcomes are most eectively developed through direct contact with and ex-
periences in the natural world rather than in a classroom (Chawla, 1999; Eisenhauer, Krannich,
& Blahna, 2000; Kals et al., 1999; Palmer, 1993; Sivek, 2002). It is no surprise then that participa-
tion in outdoor recreation activities is positively associated with pro-environmental behaviors
(eodori, Lulo, & Willits, 1998), especially when the outdoor recreation activity is nonmotor-
ized and appreciative of the outdoor environment (Teisl & O’Brien, 2003; apa & Graefe, 2003).
Because society is experiencing a “fundamental and pervasive” shi away from nature-based
recreation (Pergams & Zaradic, 2008), it cannot be assumed that university students will develop
these aective environmental connections on their own.
19BENEFITS OF CAMPUS OUTDOOR RECREATION PROGRAMS
Campus outdoor recreation programs, especially those that include both extended outdoor
trips in wild or natural areas and frequent opportunities for exposure to nature, provide op-
portunities for participants to develop the aective outcomes needed to complement the cogni-
tive outcomes of the school’s formal environmental curriculum. Research shows that both fre-
quent and extended outdoor experiences have led to increased feelings of anity toward nature
(Kals et al., 1999) and that outdoor and environmental education experiences of a sucient
length inuence participants’ feelings toward the environment (Rickinson, 2001; Zelezny, 1999)
and connectedness to nature (Barton et al., 2016). University outdoor orientation trips specif-
ically have been shown to increase place identity (Austin et al., 2009), which correlates with
Academic and Employment Outcomes
Participation in campus recreation helps students relieve academic stress (Kanters et al.,
2002; Ragheb & McKinney, 1993) and correlates strongly with academic success and student
retention (Bailey & Kang, 2015; Gibbison, Henry, & Perkins-Brown, 2011; Haines, 2001).
Participation in recreation can positively aects students’ overall experience at a university
(Bobilya & Akey, 2002), and outdoor orientation programs can help students develop appropri-
ate educational plans (Vlamis et al., 2011).
Outdoor adventure education experiences improve students’ ability to work with others
in academic settings. Improvements can be seen in students’ perceived group-work skills, the
functioning of existing student work groups, attitudes and condence toward group work, and
the cooperative and social environment within higher education (Cooley, Burns, & Cumming,
2014). Outdoor adventure education experiences can also help participants shi their per-
ception toward viewing learning as fun and toward understanding that the best learning in-
volves initiative by the learner (Sibthorp et al., 2015). Students who participate in an outdoor
adventure–based rst year seminar course showed signicantly higher learning outcomes than
those who participated in an indoor classroom-based course. e adventure-based rst year
seminar led to higher scores by fostering trust among student participants, thereby leading to
more in-depth personal discussions about curricular topics (Bell & Holmes, 2011).
Campus outdoor programs can also work directly with academic programs to help them
meet their learning objectives. Adventure education components, such as high and low ropes
courses, when paired with university learning communities, increase students’ in-class learning
by developing a support network for academic learning and enhancing connections with other
students, faculty, and the university, as well as by promoting self-learning and helping students
develop transferable skills (Bobilya & Akey, 2002; Schimmel, Daniels, Wassif, & Jacobs, 2016).
A specic example of this type of collaboration is the wilderness adventure programs oered
to engineering students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Singapore
University of Technology and Design (SUTD). ese programs help introduce SUTD students to
the culture of MIT, help students develop leadership skills, and increase their understanding of
engineering science and design thinking (Saulnier, Ahn, Bagiati, & Brisson, 2015). In an example
of a longer duration program, Humboldt State University (n.d.) oers Klamath Connection. is
yearlong experience engages students with education focused on the Klamath River, including
periodic eld trips to the river and a multiday summer immersion trip.
Many campuses provide students the opportunity to take leadership roles within a campus
outdoor recreation program, including serving on steering committees, leading trips, and plan-
ning events. is leadership experience may make students more employable aer graduation.
Students who develop recreation skills may also nd careers aer graduation in the outdoor
recreation profession, which employs 6.1 million Americans (Outdoor Industry Association,
2012). Furthermore, graduates in recreation-related elds have employment levels that compete
favorably with graduates in other elds (Carnevale, Cheah, & Strohl, 2012).
20 ANDRE, WILLIAMS, SCHWARTZ, AND BULLARD
Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership
In addition to the aforementioned benets of campus outdoor recreation programs,
the literature speaks to a category of participation benets referred to as “transferable skills.”
Transferable skills can be thought of as skills learned during an outdoor experience that have
direct applicability in settings beyond the outdoor arena.
Life eectiveness has been dened as the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of
human functioning, which determine a person’s ability or eectiveness in responding to life situ-
ations (Neill, Marsh, & Richards, 2003). Participants in outdoor recreation experiences, includ-
ing short 1-day challenge course experiences, have demonstrated signicant increases in life ef-
fectiveness scores. Moreover, many participants have experienced further gains over time in the
dimensions of time management, intellectual exibility, task leadership, emotional control, and
achievement motivation (Flood, Gardner, & Cooper, 2009; Frauman & Waryold, 2009; McLeod
& Allen-Craig, 2007).
With increased life eectiveness comes a stronger belief in oneself and one’s ability to com-
plete complex tasks. Paxton and McAvoy (1998) examined the eects of an outdoor adventure
program on participants’ self-ecacy and found gains immediately aer the experience and an
increase in all scales 6 months aer. Similarly, Garst, Scheider, and Baker (2001) found increases
in participant self-perception immediately aer and 4 months following an outdoor adven-
ture program. In a summary of meta-analyses of the eects of outdoor education experiences,
Neill and Richards (1998) found signicant and long-lasting eects on positive self-concept,
self-condence, and locus of control. Outdoor recreation participants are learning valuable life
skills and the eects are lasting.
Discussion and Limitations
e existing literature shows numerous benets from campus outdoor recreation pro-
grams, but there are weaknesses and gaps in the research. We started with a focus on campus
outdoor recreation, but soon realized there were not enough studies addressing campus outdoor
recreation specically. We, therefore, widened our search to include studies of campus recreation
programs more broadly dened. ere are numerous benets that are common to general cam-
pus recreation programs and outdoor recreation programs, but without more studies on campus
outdoor recreation programs specically, the benets of campus outdoor recreation programs
cannot be adequately established.
Furthermore, much of the research that exists on campus outdoor recreation programs
documents the existence of benets, but more needs to be done to document the extent of these
benets and to compare the degree of benet gained with those benets gained from other types
of campus programming. Providing quantication of these benets, especially as compared with
benets gained from other campus facilities and programs, will aid campus administrators in
deciding how to allocate resources.
Research areas of strategic importance to campus outdoor recreation programs and to the
outdoor profession more broadly have been identied by the AORE, through a process of poll-
ing its membership to determine what research would be most needed. ese research areas
include benets for student recruitment and retention, return on nancial investment, contri-
butions to student wellness and academic success, the role of outdoor programs in developing
pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, outcomes related to leadership skills and judgment,
and the promotion of diversity and inclusion. Additional research is needed to examine these
questions as they relate to campus outdoor recreation programs broadly and to more specic
aspects of campus outdoor recreation programs, including climbing walls, challenge courses,
outdoor orientation programs, and recreation programming that supports academic courses
21BENEFITS OF CAMPUS OUTDOOR RECREATION PROGRAMS
Althought is paper was focused on benets of campus outdoor recreation, we did not exam-
ine the alleged contribution of climbing walls and campus recreation facilities to rising tuition
costs. Clearly, however, anyone who wishes to counter the rhetoric that assigns the blame for ris-
ing tuition on campus recreation facilities will need to understand the factors driving increases
in tuition. We recommend starting with a report from the American Institutes for Research,
which concludes that “climbing walls are easy targets, maybe even fair game, but they aren’t
what’s behind the rising price of college” (Kirshstein & Kadamus, 2012, p. 4).
As public rhetoric continues to frame campus outdoor recreation programs and facilities
as symbolic of waste and excess in higher education, directors of campus outdoor recreation
programs will need to be able to communicate the value of their programs to school administra-
tion, political decision makers, the media, and their constituents. Research on nancial return
on investment will also help administrators decide how to prioritize resources. Existing research
documents the benets for the schools and for the participants. ese benets extend beyond the
typically cited improvements in recruitment, retention, physical tness, and social connection,
to include increased academic success, leadership and group skills, environmental connection,
employment opportunities, increased life eectiveness, and other transferable skills. Campus
outdoor recreation programs can also directly support academic programs in achieving learning
objectives, especially ones related to the environment and to diversity and inclusion.
Although the existing research establishes numerous benets of campus outdoor recre-
ation programming and facilities, more needs to be done to quantify the extent of the benets,
especially as they compare with the benets gained from other types of campus facilities and
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