By Elena Gustafson, Photo/Video Intern (2011)
I’ve been involved in environmental education and outdoor leadership for over eight years now, and during that time I’ve gained many new wilderness skills from fire building in the rain to edible-plant identification. I distinctly remember my first time rock climbing outside, my first time portaging, and my first time sleeping in negative-degree weather. But truthfully, because my parents took me camping as a child, I’ve had the fundamentals down for a while. I slept in a tent before my first birthday, I learned about fire safety as a toddler, and I don’t even remember the first time I encountered a tree so big I couldn’t put my arms around it.
The fact that I don’t remember those simple outdoor firsts makes me extremely privileged as a leader, especially when working with groups of underserved youth, youth who haven’t had the opportunies I did growing up, the youth we work with in Parks in Focus. It took me a few years of teaching to realize this privilege—and the resulting responsibility. As a leader, your role is to set up participants to have positive experiences in the new situations they encounter while in your care. This seems obvious when you are introducing a group to, say, river rafting where there are serious safety concerns.
But what if the introduction is to sleeping in a tent? Seeing snow? Cooking on a fire? Hiking for more than 30 minutes? Picking up a caterpillar? Going to the bathroom outside?
Especially for people with a lot of outdoor experience, these “firsts” are so straightforward that they are often overlooked. We don’t remember our earliest encounter with these situations, and so assume that both the activity and the limited risks are understood as common knowledge. But to youth (or other new) participants, these basic acts of camping can be uncomfortable, confusing, or downright terrifying. The perceived risk that “bugs and rodents will crawl into my sleeping bag and attack me if I sleep outside” may not be valid in reality, but it is a legitimate concern for that person. And as busy as you may be as a leader, or as much as you want to crawl into your own sleeping bag, it’s your responsibility to guide that participant through their anxiety and fears into a positive “first.”
Parks in Focus trips provide many “firsts” for our participants. Partly this is because of the groups we cater to. Many of our youth had never had the opportunity to go camping or hiking before our program, and some had never left their home town. More generally, pre-teens of today have much less outdoor experience than my outdoor-leader peers and I. A recent study showed that youth spend an average of 7 ½ hours a day in front of a screen (and that doesn’t include texting). What happens when kids are taken away from the television and, as one Arizona participant said, put “into the tv show?”
A lot of first experiences—without a flat-screen as a protective barrier.
Parks in Focus prides itself in these “firsts.” And rightly so, because PIF leaders work hard to make our trips as fun and positive as possible, despite the perceived (or actual) risks that pop up. One of the reasons outdoor education is challenging is because you never know what new things you’ll have to guide your participants through. But that is also the best part and the real privilege: to be there during those discoveries, as simple as they may be. That growth is a treasure, whether it comes from holding a frog and discovering a passion for amphibians, overcoming a fear of heights to get a sunset view of the Grand Canyon, or just going without a shower and amenities for five days.
The privilege of introducing participants to their “firsts” and seeing situations anew through the eyes of youth is what fuels me as an educator. It’s why I stop to let kids take a picture of every squirrel they see, why I celebrate when a child successfully vanquishes a daddy long-leg spider from their tent, and why I am bound to continue taking environmental education jobs regardless of pay. Hopefully I do my part as a teacher to provide positive memories of these “firsts” that might spark new growth and discovery down the road. Whatever the ultimate outcome, however, being a part of those moments is what keeps me inspired, keeps me humble as a leader, and motivates me to keep improving as an educator.