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Susan Houge MacKenzie - Tourism, University of OtagoHow can outdoor adventure and nature-based experiences be used to engage young people in science subjects as well as promote health and wellbeing?

Leisure is integral to health and wellbeing, but it also contributes to productivity, learning and creativity.

However, despite the mental and physical benefits of visiting natural areas, access to the outdoors is increasingly more difficult for urban populations, particularly minority groups.

It's therefore important researchers understand the barriers and drivers that help to connect people with active outdoor leisure experiences – that work for all.

University of Otago Business School Tourism lecturer Dr Susan Houge Mackenzie has been looking outside the box into how engaging in outdoor adventure can enhance well-being.

One of her studies has examined how social media can be used to deliver nature-related messages to engage under-served urban youth.

In a large scale study conducted with the US Forest Service in Los Angeles, USA, Susan and colleagues identified six key themes that resonated with urban youth accessing nature: unique experiences, escape, social connections, challenge, adventure, and accessibility.

Applying these themes to create motivating social media messages has been found to be applicable across many different groups, including the armed forces.

Another of her projects has been looking at addressing two problems at the same time – engaging young people in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and in physical activity.

The novel study looked at integrating outdoor adventure education (OAE) with STEM topics. High school students in the US-based study participated in a snow science programme that integrated STEM topics with winter outdoor activities including snowshoeing, downhill skiing, and snowboarding.

It found that outdoor learning with a STEM-focused curriculum may help maintain or expand high school students' interest in both outdoor physical activity and science topics. This suggests integrated transdisciplinary programmes are a promising option to engage students.

Creating a learning climate was vital to enhancing student engagement and self-determination. Aspects that contributed to the effectiveness of the OAE STEM programme included:

  • a balance of physical and mental stimulation
  • instructors supporting basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness,
  • programme structure that was autonomy-supportive and incorporated applied learning in natural environments,
  • being able to identify the value and relevance of applied STEM topics

Dr Houge Mackenzie says the key to all of these studies is finding ways to engage people in outdoor adventures, recognising that nature-based activity comes in many forms – from walking in the park to BASE-jumping and everything in between.
Finding an enjoyable outdoor activity helps people to feel:

  • competent,
  • autonomous
  • connected to other and to nature
  • fully engaged (this includes: optimal experiences such as flow/'in the zone'/peak experiences/present focused - essentially the opposite of fragmented attention. A lot of the lit discussed how nature can restore attention also)
  • intrinsically motivated
  • in control of their own wellbeing

And research is now also showing that those with enhanced wellbeing from domains like outdoor leisure experiences may also develop more eco-centric perspectives as a result. This means people focus more on the seeing themselves as a part of nature, rather than separate from nature, which leads to more pro-environmental behaviours - such as sustainable practices.

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