The image of a child exploring the banks of a river, or hiking a wooded pass, would put a smile on any parent's face. And it's not just lofty romanticism. Studies have shown that wilderness programs strengthen psychological resilience in kids. For parents who want to give their children the opportunity to experience the outdoors, but aren't sure how, there are two organizations to take note of: Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
“We use the wilderness as a classroom to teach life skills and to communicate our pillars – service, self-reliance, craftsmanship, physical fitness, and above all, compassion,” says Jenessa Connor of Outward Bound. Established in the 1940’s in England to help submariners become self-reliant, the program came to the United States in 1961 and now offers wilderness expeditions, classroom programs, a Discovery program serving at-risk youth as well as programs serving adults. “We hope that by putting kids in unfamiliar settings where they face challenging situations they will see that they are capable of much more than they originally thought. The idea is to impact the individual so that they will impact their community and effect positive change.”
NOLS was founded in 1965 by a former Outward Bound instructor dismayed by the shortage of qualified wilderness teachers. While it also emphasizes character and leadership, the primary focus is on teaching participants the skills they need to survive in the wild, and instilling the confidence to lead others there. They specialize in “extended trips” from 2 – 12 weeks long, providing participants with lots of practice in cooking over campfires, building shelters, and using a compass. Leaders hope that time spent in the wild, where actions have real consequences and everyone plays a role in the well-being of the team, will teach lifelong lessons about responsibility and conservation.
Of course, not every teenager longs to march into the wild, forgoing hot showers and cable television in favor of rock climbing and backpacking. While no experience is required, enthusiasm is a must. Although die-hard couch potatoes probably won’t be tempted, both programs offer a variety of experiences, from sea kayaking trips in the Bahamas to backpacking in the Rockies.
All this preparation doesn’t come cheap. NOLS estimates that most of its programs cost about $100 per day – no small change when you’re thinking about sending a 14-year-old on a 21-day backpacking trip. However, both programs are not for profit and offer scholarships. “They cut my tuition by more than half simply because I wrote them a corny essay about why a city girl needed to go backpacking,” says Kate Hill, who spent ten days hiking in Joshua Tree National Park with Outward Bound.
While the programs are pricey and every participant is sure to get a few blisters along the trail, kids with a yen to challenge themselves and spend time in the outdoors find the opportunity priceless.