Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Comfort Zone: Model or Metaphor?

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Comfort Zone: Model or Metaphor?

Article excerpt

The comfort zone model is widespread within adventure education literature. It is based on the belief that when placed in a stressful situation people will respond by overcoming their fear and therefore grow as individuals. This model is often presented to participants prior to activities with a highly perceived sense of risk and challenge which arouses strong emotional and physical responses to novel tasks (e.g., ropes courses or rock climbing activities). Students are encouraged to think about 'stretching themselves' by moving outside their comfort zone, to expand their preconceived limits and by inference learn (and become better people). This paper explores theories from cognitive and social psychology, based on the work of Piaget and Festinger respectively, that underpin the comfort zone model. The perpetuation of this model which uses risk to promote situations of disequilibrium/dissonance does not find strong support in educational literature. It is therefore suggested that the comfort zone model be reframed as a metaphor, for possible discussion post activity, rather than being used as a model to underpin programming and pedagogy in adventure education settings.


The comfort zone model or variants of it, is widespread within adventure education literature (e.g., Exeter, 2001; Luckner & Nadler, 1997; Prouty, Panicucci, & Collinson, 2007). It is based on the belief that when placed in a stressful or challenging situation people will respond, rise to the occasion and overcome their hesitancy or fear and grow as individuals. I have purposefully used the term adventure education in this paper to refer to the particular branch of outdoor education that has developed with a primary focus on developing interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships (Priest & Gass, 1997). The role of perceived risk is an integral component of the adventure education model (Leberman & Martin, 2003; Zink & Leberman, 2001). The pedagogical approach employed in adventure education is well summed up in the following quote,

  To maximize safety, adventure professionals structure risk in a
  manner that causes participants to perceive it as being enormously
  high, while in actuality it is much lower than perceived and more
  acceptable as a medium for producing functional change and growth.
  By responding to seemingly insurmountable tasks, participants often
  learn to overcome self-imposed perceptions of their capabilities to
  succeed. (Priest & Gass, 1997, p. 17)

Within this model personal growth or transformation is dependent on the participant being placed in a stressful situation (Estrellas, 1996). This approach assumes that the 'adventure professional' is competent and capable of assessing each individual's level of perceived risk to ensure that optimal learning will occur.

The comfort zone is often presented graphically as shown in Figure 1. The basic premise of the comfort zone model is well stated by Luckner and Nadler (1997) who claim that,

  Through involvement in experiences that are beyond one's comfort
  zone, individuals are forced to move into an area that feels
  uncomfortable and unfamiliar-the groan zone. By overcoming these
  anxious feelings and thoughts of self-doubt while simultaneously
  sampling success, individuals move from the groan zone to the growth
  zone. (p. 20)


When being presented with the comfort zone model students are often asked, "What does it feel like when you are inside your comfort zone?", "What does it feel like when you are outside your comfort zone?" and "What might prevent you from moving outside your comfort zone?" Student answers often include physiological responses (increased heart rate, sweating etc) as well as psychological reactions (feeling of panic, fear, excitement etc). Frontloading, emphasising the key learning points prior to the experience (Priest & Gass, 1997), might include discussions about the desirability of learning as a life-long process, the factors that may have prevented the student from expanding his/her comfort zone in the past, and identifying reasons that were used for not trying new things. …

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