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Practice Profile

Wilderness Challenge Programs

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:

Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Mental Health & Behavioral Health - Social functioning
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Mental Health & Behavioral Health - Self-esteem
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Education - School adjustment
No Effects - One Meta-Analysis Mental Health & Behavioral Health - Locus of control

Practice Description

Practice Goals/Target Population
Wilderness challenge programs (also known as wilderness camps, wilderness therapy, adventure therapy, outdoor adventure programming, or outdoor education programs) are designed to help delinquent youth and non-delinquent youth improve problem behaviors and reduce recidivism through physical activity and social interaction (Wilson and Howell 1993). Some programs target youth at risk of becoming involved in the justice system, whereas other programs specifically treat adjudicated delinquent youth, including juveniles on probation or those placed in outcome-of-home placements.

Practice Activities
Wilderness challenge programs vary in level of intensity of physical activities, length of the program, and therapeutic goals. Wilderness challenge programs involve physical activities and collaboration between youth participants. Program components can be viewed as high intensity, medium or mid-range intensity, or low intensity. High-intensity activities include white water river rafting, solo or group backpacking trips, and rock climbing; mid-range intensity activities include high-ropes courses, day hikes, and cabin camping; and low-intensity activities generally include nothing more challenging than low-ropes courses or “trust falls”. All activities are intended to develop participants' interpersonal skills through communication and cooperation.

The length of the wilderness challenge programs may vary, from short periods (such as 5 days) to longer periods (such as 3 months or longer).

Some programs also include an additional therapeutic component, such as behavior management, counseling, cognitive-behavior therapy, reality therapy, or family or group therapy. The therapeutic components are designed to reduce antisocial behavior and help participants apply what they were learning during the program to outside contexts and settings (Wilson and Lipsey 2000).

Practice Theory
Wilderness challenge programs are based on the idea that key factors for delinquency include low self-esteem, poor interpersonal skills, and the belief that events are out of an individual’s control (i.e., an external locus of control). Antisocial behavior is modified by participation in challenges that directly test participants’ skills and confront their negative self-concepts. Although challenges vary in terms of settings, level of intensity of physical activities, and therapeutic goals, the treatment is grounded in the theory of experiential education (Gass 1993).

Experiential education suggests that direct experience can facilitate personal growth. Wilderness challenge programs are based on two dimensions of experiential education. The first dimension posits that individuals “learn by doing.” Participants master a series of increasingly challenging physical activities, building confidence, self-esteem, and a greater belief that they can control the events that affect them (i.e., a more internalized locus of control). Upon completion of the program, participants are presumably less likely to continue with a pattern of problem behaviors (Gass 1993; Wilson and Lipsey 2000).

The second dimension of experiential learning relates to the importance of teamwork in wilderness programs (Wichmann 1993; Wilson and Lipsey 2000). Solving challenges requires positive group interaction and cooperation, during which participants learn prosocial interpersonal skills that can be transferred to situations outside the program (Wilson and Lipsey 2000).

Meta-Analysis Outcomes

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Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
Wilson and Lipsey (2000) found a positive, statistically significant weighted mean effect size of 0.18 for delinquency, indicating that, on average, youth who participated in wilderness challenge programs exhibited less delinquent behavior, compared with youth in comparison groups who did not participate. On average, only 29 percent of wilderness challenge youth recidivated, compared with 37 percent of the comparison youth.
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Mental Health & Behavioral Health - Social functioning
Wilson and Lipsey (2000) found a positive, statistically significant weighted mean effect size of 0.28 for interpersonal adjustment, indicating that youth who participated in wilderness challenges programs exhibited improved interpersonal adjustment (social skills), compared with control group youth.
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Mental Health & Behavioral Health - Self-esteem
Wilson and Lipsey (2000) found a positive, statistically significant weighted mean effect size of 0.31 for self-esteem, indicating that youth who participated in wilderness challenge programs exhibited improvements in self-esteem, compared with comparison group youth.
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Education - School adjustment
Wilson and Lipsey (2000) found a statistically significant overall weighted mean effect size of 0.30 for school adjustment, indicating that youth who participated in wilderness challenge programs demonstrated improved behavior or performance in school, compared with comparison group youth.
No Effects - One Meta-Analysis Mental Health & Behavioral Health - Locus of control
Wilson and Lipsey (2000) did not find a statistically significant effect on locus of control (i.e., the belief in one’s ability to control the events affecting him or her).
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Meta-Analysis Methodology

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Meta-Analysis Snapshot
 Literature Coverage DatesNumber of StudiesNumber of Study Participants
Meta-Analysis 11970 - 1998283000

Meta-Analysis 1
Wilson and Lipsey (2000) conducted a meta-analysis to assess the effectiveness of wilderness challenges for justice-involved youth. To be eligible for inclusion, studies had to have 1) evaluated a wildness challenge program designed to reduce or prevent antisocial behavior or delinquency using treatment that included both a physical challenge element and an interpersonal element; 2) a program that was provided to antisocial or delinquent youth between the ages of 10 and 21 or directed toward changing antisocial or delinquent behavior as outcome variables; 3) only studies using a control or comparison group design as long as the nonrandomized studies used a matched comparison group or provided some evidence regarding pretest equivalence between the treatment and comparison groups; 4) results on outcome measures presented in quantitative form and that permitted computation or reasonable estimation of an effect size in the form of standardized difference between means; and 5) studies that were reported after 1950 and in English.

The final sample for the meta-analysis included 28 studies published between 1967 and 1992. Of these, 12 studies used random assignment, and 16 used quasi-experimental designs with non-equivalent comparison groups selected by some level of matching. Ten of the studies were published (journal article, book chapter), and 18 were unpublished (e.g., dissertations, technical reports). Approximately 3,000 youth participated in the programs that were evaluated in the studies. Across the 28 studies, 16 had samples that were more than 90 percent white, 4 studies included minority youth and white youth, and 8 studies did not report demographics. Programs served youth between the ages of 10 and 12 (3 studies), 13 to 15 (17 studies), and 16 to 18 (8 studies). Four studies looked at programs for non-delinquent but at-risk youth, 16 looked at programs for youth who were on probation or had been adjudicated, 7 studies examined programs for youth who were institutionalized, and 1 looked at a program for youth who had “mixed” risk levels. Eighteen of the studies did not use a specific form of therapy, in addition to the wilderness challenge; whereas 10 included an additional therapeutic activity or treatment. The length of the wilderness challenge varied from under 1 week (9 studies) to 3 to 6 weeks (13 studies) to more than 10 weeks (5 studies). One study evaluated a program that did not report treatment duration.

The 28 studies yielded 60 effect sizes on outcome variables. The effect size calculated was the standardized difference between means, or the difference between the mean score of the treatment group and mean score of the comparison group divided by the pooled standard deviation of those scores. For the studies that contributed more than one effect size on a given outcome, the mean of those effect sizes was used. This technique ensured that each study sample contributed only one effect size to the total distribution of effects on each outcome construct. The effect sizes were weighted by the inverse variance when calculating these means to account for the different sample sizes on which each effect size was based. To analyze the variability of the effect sizes, a weighted multiple regression approach was used in which the weights were the inverse variance of each effect size. The data was examined used random effect model.
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Cost

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There is no cost information available for this practice.
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Other Information

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Wilson and Lipsey (2000) included additional tests—called moderator analyses—to see if any factors strengthened the likelihood that wilderness challenges improved outcomes. Looking at the length of the programs, the researchers found a statistically significant negative relationship between program length and the outcomes. This indicated that longer duration programs (more than 10 weeks) were associated with smaller effects on antisocial behavior and delinquency compares compared with shorter-term programs (less than 6 weeks). The researchers also found a statistically significant effect with regards to program intensity. Programs with high-intensity activities (such as river rafting or rock climbing) produced greater delinquency reductions, compared with programs with low-intensity activities. Additionally, they found a statistically significant decrease in the likelihood of delinquency and antisocial behavior for participants in programs that included a therapeutic component, compared with participants in programs without such a component.
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Evidence-Base (Meta-Analyses Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Meta-Analysis 1
Wilson, Sandra Jo, and Mark W. Lipsey. 2000. “Wilderness Challenge Programs for Delinquent Youth: A Meta-Analysis of Outcome Evaluations.” Evaluation and Program Planning 23:1–12.
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Bedard, Rachel. 2004. “Wilderness Therapy Programs for Juvenile Delinquents: A Meta-Analysis.” PhD diss., ProQuest. (This meta-analysis was reviewed but did not meet CrimeSolutions.gov criteria for inclusion in the overall outcome rating.)

Gass, Michael A. 1993. “Foundations of Adventure Therapy.” In Adventure Therapy: Therapeutic Applications of Adventure Programming. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing Co., pp. 3–10.

Wichmann, T. 1993. “Of Wilderness and Circles: Evaluating a Therapeutic Model for Wilderness Adventure Programs.” In Adventure Therapy: Therapeutic Applications of Adventure Programming. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing Co., pp. 347–56.

Wilson, J.J., and J.C. Howell. 1993. A Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent and Chronic Juvenile Offenders. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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Related Programs

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Following are CrimeSolutions.gov-rated programs that are related to this practice:

Project Venture Promising - One study
An outdoor experiential prevention program for at-risk American Indian youth that concentrates on American Indian cultural values to promote prosocial development and avoidance of alcohol and other drugs. The program is rated Promising. At follow-up, treatment youths demonstrated less growth in substance use on all outcome measures taken together than control participants. Both groups used alcohol, but it was less for the treatment group and it eventually plateaued.
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Practice Snapshot

Age: 10 - 18

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Other, White

Targeted Population: Young Offenders

Settings: Other Community Setting, Residential (group home, shelter care, nonsecure)

Practice Type: Wilderness Camp

Unit of Analysis: Persons

Researcher:
Sandra Jo Wilson
Principal Associate, Social & Economic Policy
Abt Associates, Inc.
Phone: 617.520.2573
Email