This article summarizes an effort in England to treat youthful offenders through the use of outdoor and wilderness experiences. The youths participated in two outdoor ventures, one on land and one involving sailing. According to the program developer’s, the change in the behavior and attitudes of the adolescence was obvious, with improved social and behavioral functioning across the board. In addition, the authors report the changes were documented through the use of self-report measures administered before and after the outdoor experiences. From the article:
The five day sailing trip was included as sailing is a physical activity that relies on a crew working as a team. Participating in this contributed to an improved self-esteem, enhanced mood and a greater connectedness to nature. However, the biggest contrast to the first Isle of Mull experience was behaviour. After a challenging time on the residential and walking trail programme, only two incidents of refusing to cooperate were observed whilst sailing and there were no incidents of verbal attacks, physical violence or running away. There were minimal arguments and the group functioned cohesively as a team. They also articulated this change themselves on many occasions.
The researchers monitored the young people’s psychological health before and after the two wilderness trips, as well as during the months in between. At the outset behaviour was described as disruptive, disrespectful and undisciplined. However, as the programme progressed, the frequency of negative events reduced, criminal activity and substance abuse declined and the young people displayed less anti-social behaviour.
The article does note some of the reported benefits regressed once the adolescents returned to their regular environments. However, they also point out that the levels did not return all the way to their baseline, suggesting some degree of lasting improvement.
It’s difficult to make out what impact, if any (long-term), these efforts actually have on at-risk adolescents. I certainly do not think there are any negative aspects to this sort of intervention, aside from economic considerations. On the other hand, self-report measures are not very useful in assessing individuals who have a history of conduct- related problems. In addition, even assuming the conduct of the participants significantly improved during the outdoor experiences, returning an adolescent to the environment in which they developed their conduct-related problems will obviously negate most of the experiential benefits of having participated in such a program. This would be true primarily for those adolescents with conduct problems that are not to result of budding psychopathy; for most budding psychopaths, I wouldn’t expect this to the program to have any impact at all, aside from their having the opportunity to learn how to manipulate even better.
On the flip side, providing adolescents from impoverished backgrounds certain experiences such as those in this type of program may lead to some skill development. In addition, it may prove motivational for those capable of channeling their energies in a different direction; a glimpse of what life could be like with some effort and a little luck. If this program is to work at all, it does need to be focused on adolescents, if not children even younger; I doubt this experience would have anything more than a short term impact on most adults. Time for the fall back onto the “More research would be helpful” routine.