Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

The Impact of Outdoor Pursuits on College Students' Perceived Sense of Community

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

The Impact of Outdoor Pursuits on College Students' Perceived Sense of Community

Article excerpt


Leisure experiences are thought to influence the attitudes and behaviors of participants (Coalter, 1998; Johnson & McLean, 1994; Kleiber, 1999). Specifically, leisure that is social in nature encourages interaction among people and contributes to sense of community (Yuen, Pedlar, & Mannell, 2005). Backcountry or wilderness settings may be particularly conducive to the development of sense of community given the social nature of outdoor pursuits trips alongside the "stripping away" of distractions that occurs in primitive and wilderness settings (McAvoy, Lais, Anderson, & Schleien, 1995). The "back to basics" nature of wilderness trips may help to facilitate sense of community, group cohesion, and personal development.

A primary purpose of many outdoor pursuits programs is the development of positive interpersonal relationships and group experiences that lead to enhanced sense of community (Mitten, 1999). Sense of community has been characterized as the "feeling an individual has about belonging to a group and involves the strength of the attachment people feel for their communities or group" (Halamova, 2001, p. 137). However, Hill (1996) noted a distinct lack of research related to psychological sense of community and involvement with nature. Additionally, a review of the literature has provided little conclusive and recorded evidence to explicitly support an outcome of increased sense of community as a result of engagement in outdoor recreation activities. Outdoor recreation research in North America has been predominantly focused on psychological factors related to individual participation with little emphasis placed on the relationship between leisure and the group experience, including sense of community (Yuen, et al., 2005).

The purpose of this study was to understand the relationship between college students' participation in outdoor pursuits trips and changes in their perceptions of sense of community over time. The study employed a mixed-methods approach to data collection, involving ninety-eight students in total. Questionnaire data were collected during the summers of 2006 and 2007. Students from the summer of 2006 also participated in later focus group sessions in an effort to identify what factors contributed to students' perception about sense of community. These multiple sources of data (surveys and focus group sessions), alongside an examination of the relevant literature, has resulted in a precursory theory of some of the factors that contribute to and/or detract from psychological sense of community on wilderness trips.

Literature Review

Anecdotally and in popular travel literature, wilderness travelers often report enhanced feelings of connection and esprit de corps from trekking with groups of people whom they may have only just met. They say these feelings of connectedness result from the mini-community created when traveling together in a natural setting. Some suggest being in an environment that places physical and emotional demands on the individual increases the need not only for self-reliance, but also for reliance on others in the group (Haras, 2003). This next section will explore the following key concepts in more detail: wilderness leisure experiences and sense of community.

Wilderness Leisure Experiences

Wilderness and backcountry areas are settings that can help individuals and groups to grow (Ewert & McAvoy, 2000; O'Connell, 2002). Herein the term wilderness is not restricted to designated wilderness areas, but to largely undeveloped natural areas that resource managers might classify as "primitive" or "semiprimitive" on a recreation opportunity spectrum (USDA Forest Service, 1982). Such areas are chosen by wilderness trip leaders for their potential to be experienced as "wilderness" and to facilitate the aims of their programs. Wilderness experience programs are typically designed to promote personal growth, leadership, and education through outdoor activities and outdoor living (Russell & Farnum, 2004). …

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