Head of the Pack: Tips on Leading a Youth Group Outdoors

When Rachel Freierman was 15 years old, she went on a 10-day backpacking trip with AMC’s Teen Wilderness Adventures (TWA) program. She already felt fairly comfortable in the outdoors. Her family went car camping. They backcountry skied. Still, Freierman had never backpacked before. “I was excited to push myself,” she recalls.

Every outdoor adventure has challenges, and every kid arrives at those challenges with different levels of experience. Mix in unpredictable group dynamics and fickle Northeastern weather, and leading a group of kids into the backcountry becomes pretty daunting. We asked some of AMC’s youth programs staff for advice.

Kids bring an array of strengths and anxieties into the woods. One child might embrace rock climbing, while another is uncomfortable sleeping outdoors. Knowing each kid’s level of experience and interest will help you decide which skills to introduce.

“Find out what they’re interested in and cultivate their curiosity,” says Sara DeLucia, who oversees many of AMC’s outdoor programs. Children interact with nature in different ways as well. One might energetically explore trails, eager to see what lies around the bend. Another could turn over a rotted log and be held in amazement at the bugs that squirm about underneath.

“We bring children into an outdoor classroom and allow them to explore on their own terms,” says Lucy Koup, program coordinator for AMC’s A Mountain Classroom. “We give them the tools and the space, but not necessarily the answers.”

“The biggest challenge with the younger kids are their short legs and short attention spans, but they more than make up for it with their curiosity and enthusiasm,” says Nancy Ritger, program manager for AMC’s Wee Wanderers Program. “They love to explore things that might seem mundane to adults.”

Having a well-prepared schedule of activities and lessons is essential. But it’s just as important for trip leaders to be flexible. Respond to questions, concerns, and interests that arise as a trip unfolds.

When leading older kids, talking with them about their goals for a trip builds a sense of rapport and strengthens a group’s communal experience, says Chelsea Kendrick, AMC’s adventure programs manager. This allows each child to put his or her own imprint on an excursion.

Whether backpacking for 10 days or spending a couple of hours hiking to a waterfall, the potential for transformative learning in a group setting is great. A big part of that experience is learning to handle the unexpected. “Learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable is key,” Kendrick says. Kids often learn best in challenging, but safe, circumstances.

This can be especially true on a group outing. “An experience shared is an experience doubled,” says Josh Ascani, a logistics coordinator for TWA. He adds that parents often note kids’ increased self-reliance and communication skills.

Other results might reveal themselves more slowly. Freierman took two more TWA trips, eventually completing a 20-day leadership course. A decade and a half later, she has turned those experiences into a career, as a manager for AMC’s A Mountain Classroom. Regardless of a trip’s length or the activities involved, both adults and kids rarely know where an outdoor adventure will lead them. That is often the greatest discovery of all.

(Originally appeared in AMC Outdoors.)

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