What Getting Outside — and Away From Screens — Does for Young Minds

Jesse Steinbach - May 2, 2023
Illustration by María Jesús Contreras

When Katie Dalbey graduated college, she thought she’d become a teacher. “I come from a family of teachers, so that seemed like the route.” Then she took a course offered by an experiential education nonprofit called Outward Bound. That’s when Dalbey’s life’s trajectory changed. “I immediately fell in love with not only being out in nature but being out in nature with a community. It was a perfect combination for me to grow as a person and as a leader.” 

Today Dalbey is the director of learning and evaluation at Outward Bound USA, which champions group expeditions — in the wilderness as well as in urban neighborhoods — for young people. Over the course of her two decades with the organization, Dalbey has seen firsthand the benefits of collective outdoor excursions, which can not only improve physical and mental health but fuel positive social interactions. It’s an outcome that’s more critical now than ever, Dalbey told Rev. “We provide an opportunity for students and adults to get away from screens and to interact in real life, with real people, solving real problems.”

Rev spoke to Dalbey as part of our “Getting Out” series — interviews with experts about the importance of in-person interactions — about how connecting outside with others can help young people build relationships and resilience. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rev: Can you describe an Outward Bound expedition? What does it teach young people? 

Katie Dalbey: On our expedition programs, you’re with a group of 10 to 12 people 24/7 for the length of your journey. You see each other brushing your teeth in the morning. You’re responsible for keeping each other fed and making sure everyone’s drinking water. The types of relationships that are built through these experiences are different. 

In the natural environment, everyone is out in this new place together. So no matter where you’re going, no one in the group has been there before — no one’s an expert. It puts everyone on an even playing field. Maybe the kid who is picked on at school is the one who has figured out how to navigate. Being outside helps individuals see one another in different ways. We often use the tagline, “Crew, not passengers.”

Once Outward Bound resumed outdoor programming post-pandemic, did you see an uptick in interest and need?

Since the first summer we started operating, there has been a very high demand from parents to get their kids back outside. We hear over and over again from our program partners about the challenges that their students are facing. There’s kind of this trifecta happening — the pandemic, the impacts of climate change, racial and social justice — and our students are aware of all of these. They’re facing a lot of real-life challenges that are impacting their mental health. Parents and partners want their kids to get out of the classroom, to have the opportunity to build relationships — because relationships are supportive for mental health. 

How does Outward Bound measure its impact?

We collaborate with Partnerships in Education and Resilience, which is led by Dr. Gil Noam, who also works at Harvard Medical School. He’s an expert in social and emotional development. Together, we’ve created an outcomes tool to measure our students’ outcomes. Seven out of ten of our students on multiday courses report an increase in learning interest, and 85% say they’ve gained courage to face challenges. We’re currently seeking funding to do a more rigorous research study that could have a control group and prove the impact that we’re seeing. 

Access to the outdoors often requires transportation. How does Outward Bound address accessibility?

We’ve learned that we need to go to where the students are and we need to provide opportunities that can get a lot more of them access to experiential, hands-on learning outside. The biggest place we’re addressing this is in our city programs. In Philadelphia, for example, we’re operating at the Discovery Center and have built a ropes course. Many students come from the Philadelphia School District for one-day programs at the center or at a public park. Then, some of those students will show interest and will continue on to complete a five-day expedition somewhere within two hours of the city or join a two-week youth leadership course. We offer a lot of scholarships so that students who want to participate but don’t have the resources can still attend.

We want to see changes, and we want folks to know that we are here to serve with equity. Everyone can benefit from being outside, so everyone should be able to.

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