Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Cultural Adaptation in Outdoor Programming

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Cultural Adaptation in Outdoor Programming

Article excerpt


Outdoor programs often intentionally provide a different culture and the challenge of working out how to adapt. Failure to adapt, however, can cause symptoms of culture shock, including homesickness, negative personal behavior, and interpersonal conflict. This article links cross-cultural and outdoor programming literature and provides case examples in order to illustrate the importance of facilitating outdoor participants' cultural adaptation. Based on cross-cultural literature, successful adaptation is more likely to occur when there is adequate preparation for the new environment, understanding of the new cultural norms, and an appreciation of typical stages of cultural adaptation (i.e., honeymoon, crisis, adjustment, and resolution). These individual stages of cultural adaptation are interwoven with the typical stages of group development. By proactively using models of cross-cultural adaptation and group development, outdoor programs can better facilitate participants' cultural adjustment skills.

In many ways, entering an outdoor program is like entering another country. Participants in outdoor programs embark on adventures by leaving the comforts of home and entering new, challenging physical and social environments. Whether it is an expedition, summer camp, or sail training voyage, outdoor program participants leave normalcy behind and enter a situation with new sociocultural norms. Outdoor participants often face similar adjustment processes to foreign students, immigrants, and overseas workers. The environmental and cultural differences require considerable adaptation on the part of a participant; Normal behaviors and expectations do not necessarily apply; Participants need to learn new skills, establish new relationships, and redefine self-identity in the new context.

A shift in environmental context can enhance an individual's learning potential (e.g., Harter, Waters, & Whitesell, 1998). For this reason, many outdoor learning programs intentionally try to create a "place apart" (Richards, 1977). For example, outdoor programs often intentionally embrace heterogeneous groupings (Bacon, 1988; Smith, 1983), stretch participants' comfort level (Luckner & Nadler, 1997), and offer novel and challenging adventure-based activities (Walsh & Golins, 1976). Ultimately, participants' success in outdoor program environments relies on each individuals' capacity to adapt and function in the new and changing circumstances (Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997). However, it is a major responsibility of outdoor program designers and facilitators to provide healthy opportunity for successful adaptation.

Adaptation to outdoor environments may be relatively easy for participants who are familiar with outdoor settings or have had similar experiences, but for those who have had little exposure to the outdoors the process can create a myriad of personal and interpersonal difficulties (Richards, Peel, Smith, & Owen, 2001; Virden & Walker, 1999). Failure to adapt causes difficulties for both participants and program leaders. Not adapting to a program's environment can cause stress or "culture shock," potentially inducing a wide range of physiological and psychological reactions (Guyton, 1986). These reactions can in themselves cause further stress and anxiety (Winkelman, 1994). A major purpose of program design and facilitation is to provide an adequate level of comfort and support so that participants move through culture shock, adapt expectations, and succeed in learning new skills or achieving other program objectives.

Participant coping difficulties can manifest in different ways and with varying intensity (Neill & Heubeck, 1997). Participants experiencing culture shock may have significant difficulty with their surroundings, interacting with others, and accomplishing tasks. Stress symptoms in outdoor programs include homesickness (Neill & Heubeck, 1997; Thurber, 19951), negative attitudes towards the program, instructors or group, refusal to participate in program activities, and other anti-social behavior (e. …

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