So, How Far Do we Push?

Dear Friends, 

I read an article this spring through Apple News entitled “How Far Should We Push Our Kids In the Outdoors?” This thought comes to my mind daily during our summer when I’m working with various ages in our outdoor activities. Most of the time as I size up a group, I’m thinking about where we might go today with teaching. I also consider how much we can cover in an hour’s activity or say several hours on the river or a mountain bike trail.

Initial observation of their skills is the first step in any outdoor setting. You can see how they approach small aspects of getting in a boat, taking those first pedal strokes on a bike, or a simple hike to a site on camp property. Several factors play into this and the first is the overall makeup of the group and their individual and collective skills. Sometimes in Main Camp, you have a large gap in their skill set, and other times we place the campers in groups or activities based on age, previous experience, and their overall attitude toward the activity. Keep in mind that these campers choose their own activities with guidance. As we get into the coaching and teaching mode, we begin to see confidence in some and barriers in others; this is normal. Those barriers could be fear of the unknown, feeling self-conscious about their skills, or maybe thinking, “this is not what I thought it would be”.

Secondly, we try to work with individuals who might be struggling to bring their skills up to a higher level. They hope to see their own self-improvement which helps to incentivize them to try and break some of their own barriers. This happens more often than not, and what’s great is when you can turn the corner on that hurdle and watch them grow in their skill. Preparing them with hour-long sessions on the lake is a progression toward a day on the river. Preparation and skills progression starts at the beginning of any outdoor experience.

Lastly, making sure their hour-long or several hours experience is the right choice for the group. This is of the environment and as the leader, knowing your own skills in that environment. You also should know the area well enough to understand the risk factors therein. In addition, make sure your fellow instructors are all on the same page and work as a team to lead an experience.

Any outdoor experience needs to contain a fun element and it’s sometimes easier to create fun depending on the experience. On paddling trips, almost everyone loves to swim on a hot day. Adding a lesson on throwing a rescue line to swimmers can teach them how to properly receive and utilize this safety technique for “saving swimmers” who might fall out of their boat. They love to be pulled in and love to hang onto the rope as you pendulum them to shore. This is a way to also teach them how to swim in moving water: feet first, on your back, toes up, and eyes facing downstream. Sooner or later everyone will turn over in whitewater and it’s better to gain that experience in a controlled environment. Incentives to hit that really hard eddy can be praise from staff and peers or even a small reward (Snickers Eddy). We scout it, we can see it up close, and it still confounds the majority of campers on their first try. The good news is that if you turn over or don’t quite catch the eddy there are no repercussions and several will want to try it again.

For me, learning to climb was fun because before I began to lead climb, I was on belay and knew that my mentor or instructor had me no matter what move I was about to try. And that’s the case at camp. Every camper climbs knowing that the belayer will hold them safe from harm or falling. Granted, there are many folks who have a fear of heights but, with patience and time, most campers really can overcome that challenge. An incentive for climbing can be a pristine view at the top of the climb, or a mock lead where you take out the protection that the lead climber placed to set up the climb, or maybe even a nice swim after a long day climbing. We also have a bell at the top of each climb on our climbing wall. I emphasize additional applause and encouragement to those who don’t ring the bell than I do with those who reach that reward. I sometimes wish we could “belay” in all activities and in life as young folks learn and begin to tackle the challenges of adolescence and growing into young adults. But then again, failure and mistakes can be great learning moments and helps to build resilience. 

Mountain biking presents a whole different set of skills for the camper. There’s no water to cushion you, no belay rope. It’s just you and the bike. Appropriate speed, braking, cornering skills, proper gear shifting, body positioning, and tracking are all factors in creating a safe and enjoyable ride. Instructors are always (in all activities) leading and bringing up the rear. Biking at camp is all about summing up your group and knowing their skill set. If you take them on a steep trail downhill there will be some that will go too fast. As a staff member, you’ve got to rein in that lack of experience combined with speed and other factors listed above. It’s part of risk management. At camp those “teachable moments” come often and allow you to focus on that difficult section of trail whether it’s downhill or uphill. Let’s get off our bikes, walk it, talk about it, and then give it a try. Staff spotters can support those who lose momentum or take the wrong line. I firmly believe that trying a challenging section of trail more than once or walking your boat back to the top of a rapid always yields positive results and sometimes total success.

So how far do we push? That depends on many factors mentioned above and most importantly, not allowing the camper’s experience to get ahead of their skills. Just being outdoors creates a more conducive learning experience. It’s both physical and mental and the mental part is so crucial. Creativity, confidence, resilience, and happiness come to those who are participating in activities appropriate to their skills. Feeling a sense of adventure inspires, heals, and helps us grow. We learn to face fear and find out what we’re capable of. Participating in an adventure with others brings about kinship and lifts the experience even higher on the EQ scale with stories and conversations shared. Camp is a great place where we manage the appropriate push and tug as leaders and staff. Every year I am amazed at what campers can do and how they can go beyond their own expectations in a well planned and supervised situation. I do feel strongly that we should do everything we can to get children actively outdoors, and away from our ever-increasing world of screens. No matter how exciting that video or virtual game is, it’s outdoor experiences that fill us. It’s where life is so vibrant and there is a limitless amount of fun and challenge to be had. So…. get out there, take that hike, ride bikes farther to safe places, cross a moving stream, let them build a fire, give them time for unstructured free play outside, take plenty of food and treats, be prepared, know their limits, have fun and you will stimulate the juices for the makings of a growing happy child. Good outdoor camp experiences make for great adults.