Meaning-making and the wilderness experience: an examination using a constructive-developmental lens




Pollock, Curtis J.

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Wilderness Experience Programs (WEPs) take youth into wilderness settings in order to teach wilderness travel and leadership, expand personal capacity, and equip youth with coping skills in order to manage life’s difficulties. Though considerable research has been conducted on WEPs, no one has sought to understand the student experience these programs provide through a constructive-developmental lens (Kegan, 1982, 1994). The purpose of this case study was to explore, describe, assess, and understand–using the framework of Robert Kegan’s (1982, 1994) constructive-developmental theory–the impact a 21-day wilderness backpacking experience had on five participating youth. The researcher believed that understanding how participants in a wilderness backpacking course make sense of their experience through the lens of their constructive-developmental perspective might help inform the theories of change that underpin WEPs, the means by which desired change is facilitated, and the reasons why some youth thrive and others struggle. This exploratory study utilized a case study approach. The researcher embedded as a participant-observer for the duration on a 21-day backpacking course with Outward Bound Canada in the Ghost River Wilderness, Alberta, Canada. Nine youth participated in the expedition, with five male students volunteering as research participants. Pre-trip and post-trip administrations of the Subject-Object Interview and post-expedition semi-structured interviews were conducted with each research participant. Additionally, the researcher made field observations and wrote field notes. The subsequent analysis produced in-depth profiles of each research participant’s experience of the course, pre and post expedition scores from the Subject-Object Interviews, and a description of how each research participant’s experience might be understood through the lens of their constructive-developmental perspective. Although no significant changes to constructive-developmental perspective were realized, implications of these analyses were discussed, conclusions were drawn, and recommendations were made.



Constructive-Developmental Theory, Meaning-Making, Subject-Object Relations, Wilderness Experience Program, WEP, Subject-Object Interview, SOI, Adolescent Development, Human Development, Immunity to Change, ITC, Wilderness Experience