Research Summary

Inspiring courage in girls: An evaluation of practices and outcomes

Outdoor Program Helps Girls Build Courage

Journal of Experiential Education

Many outdoor programs—and particularly those aimed at girls—have specifically identified building courage as a goal. Passages Northwest, based in Seattle, Washington, aims to inspire three types of courage in girls: physical, expressive, and inquisitive. The researchers in this study evaluated whether girls in Passages Northwest programs became more courageous.

According to the authors’ literature review, “It is difficult to identify a consistent, clear, and concise definition of courage.” For some researchers, operationalizing courage involves overcoming a fear, while others suggest that fear need not be present. Others distinguish between physical and moral courage. Still others focus on personal, or everyday, courage, which involves overcoming personal limitations in everyday situations.

Research suggests that as girls become adolescents, they experience a decline in confidence and courage. To address this lapse in courage, Passages Northwest has created adventure-based programs designed to foster courage in girls. The organization focuses on three forms of courage: physical courage (often expressed through participating in challenging adventure activities such as rock climbing), expressive courage (enabling girls to express themselves clearly and creatively), and inquisitive courage (expressed by girls who explore, are curious, and ask questions).

The researchers conducted pre- and post-program surveys, which included open-ended questions in the post-program survey. The questions measured the girls’ change in confidence as a measure of their courage. The open-ended questions asked the girls to define courage, asked them to give examples of how they showed courage in their program, and asked them how they might use their courage in the future. Respondents included 100 girls between the ages of 10 and 17 who completed one of several Passages Northwest programs.

The researchers found that the programs did inspire physical and expressive courage. (The results for inquisitive courage were inconclusive because the researchers decided there were not enough questions to effectively measure this aspect.) The open-ended questions revealed that the girls tended to think about courage in terms of “overcoming fear, being brave, and having moral courage.” The vast majority (91%) of girls said that they had showed courage during their program, and 87% could describe at least one way that they would use the courage they developed when they returned home. The girls envisioned that their new courage would result in greater acceptance of themselves and greater self-confidence, perseverance, new and better interpersonal relationships, and using their voice to speak up and stand up for themselves and others.

The researchers acknowledge that this study measured only short-term changes in confidence. Follow-up research could establish whether these changes persisted, and could confirm if the girls did in fact use courage in the ways they envisioned when they returned home. Nevertheless, the researchers conclude that this program is effective in inspiring courage among participants, which they suggest is particularly important for girls of this age: “By delivering programs that intentionally target courage, adventure educators actively assist girls’ development through adolescence by encouraging strength, resiliency, and a sense of competence.”

The Bottom Line

Many girls experience a decline in confidence and courage as they enter adolescence. This study suggests that outdoor programs that are specifically designed to help foster courage in girls can be effective at boosting levels of courage, with beneficial impacts at least in the short term. The researchers call for additional studies to explore persistence of these effects and determine which program components contribute the most to developing courage.