Wilderness camps (or challenge programs) are residential placements that provide participants with a series of physically challenging outdoor activities designed to prevent or reduce delinquent behavior and recidivism. Wilderness camps serve as alternatives to traditional detention (Tarolla et al., 2002). These programs vary widely in terms of settings, eligibility criteria, types of activities, duration, involvement of family members, and therapeutic goals. But their treatment components are grounded in experiential learning that advocates “learning by doing” and facilitates opportunities for personal growth. Key program components common in wilderness camps include therapeutic camping, rock climbing, wagon train trips, overnight solo experiences, alternative schools, and family counseling (Roberts, 2004).
The target population of wilderness camps can vary by location. In a survey of therapeutic wilderness programs, Fuentes and Burns (2002) found that program participants ranged in age from 11 to 17, though the vast majority of participants were older teenagers. Program participants were predominately male and white, with a mix of nonviolent and violent offenses. Most of the programs often excluded females and juveniles convicted of sexual offenses (Fuentes and Burns, 2002).
Generally, wilderness camps seek to rehabilitate youth by concentrating on three risk factors of delinquency: external locus of control, low self-esteem, and poor interpersonal skills (Wilson and Lipsey, 2000). The risk factors are supported by longitudinal studies (Hawkins and Catalano, 1992; Huizinga, Loeber, and Thornberry, 1992) that have found correlations (though not a causal relationship) between psychological and interpersonal adjustment and delinquent behavior. Recent reviews of previous studies (Hawkins et al., 1998; Lipsey and Derzon, 1998) have also supported the association between psychological and interpersonal factors and delinquency.
Antisocial and delinquent behavior of youth are ameliorated through two dimensions of experiential learning: mastery of 1) physical activities and 2) interpersonal interactions.
The physical activities of wilderness camps are usually unfamiliar and demanding, presenting challenging problems with clear consequences of failure. By mastering the difficult activities, program participants experience success and achievement that translate into positive attitudinal and behavior changes through increases in confidence and self-esteem and a more internalized locus of self-control (Wilson and Lipsey, 2000). The newly empowered youth is presumably less likely to commit future delinquent acts.
The second dimension, interpersonal interactions, takes place through the group orientation of wilderness camps. Although some physical activities can be completed by youths on their own, other activities require cooperation and communication in a group setting. Youths learn prosocial and interpersonal skills that can be applied to life outside the program through positive and cooperative interaction with team leaders and supportive peers during the activities (Tarolla et al., 2002; Wilson and Lipsey, 2000).
While military-style boot camps have consistently failed to demonstrate any positive impact on juvenile offenders’ recidivism rates, the data on wilderness camps is more encouraging. Wilson and Lipsey’s meta-analysis (2000) of 28 different studies of wilderness programs, involving more than 3,000 juvenile offenders, indicates that program participants experience recidivism rates that are about 8 percentage points lower than comparison subjects (29 percent versus 37 percent). However, these moderately positive results do not reflect the marked inconsistencies in individual program results. The results from the meta-analysis also show that programs involving a combination of relatively intense physical activity and therapeutic enhancement such as individual counseling, family therapy, and therapeutic group sessions were especially effective, while those that involved less physically challenging activities and little or no therapeutic content made a less significant impact.
Some studies of wilderness camps have found that they are as effective as or more effective than traditional institutionalization at reducing recidivism rates (Roberts, 2004). Despite such promising results, numerous questions about the efficacy of wilderness programs remain unanswered. Wilson and Lipsey (2000) found that the length of wilderness programs seemed to have an inverse effect on treatment results (i.e., the longer the program, the less chance of its achieving statistically significant results on treatment outcomes). Additional studies have also noted that, thus far, the majority of participants in wilderness programs have been white male juvenile offenders. Little is known about the program’s effectiveness with African Americans, Hispanics, and females. Additional research is still required to conclusively demonstrate the efficacy of such programs across different treatment types and diverse target populations (Fuentes and Burns, 2002).
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