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Do Today's Youth Need more 'Bootcamp'?April 27, 2018|Ricardo Sierra

Updated: Sep 1, 2018


Do Today's Youth Need more 'Bootcamp'?

April 27, 2018

Ricardo Sierra

It's the age old question:    What is the best way to help kids learn and grow?   Do we nurture them with trust games, active listening and careful skill instruction?    

Or do we 'Throw them in the deep end', with intense challenges, firm boundaries and pressure to excel?


I've heard parents tell me that they love the idea of their kids participating in being thankful for the food they eat, the way we circle up for meals at our Hawk Circle Camp.    There are moms who really appreciate that students get to be 'challenged by choice', and that they get to decide for themselves if they are ready for any activity, skill or game, and can opt out if they are unsure.   They like that kids can do yoga or meditation and go inward to find their 'inner peace'.

On the other hand, I have parents who love the fact that we have fire skills challenges, survival challenges, awareness games challenges, morning runs, and experiences that push the edge of their perceived limits here at camp.    It's almost a sense of pride for them, knowing that their kid is kind of a 'bad-ass' when it comes to skills, and that when the chips are down, they are going to be able to survive.   

In one of my first camps, way back in the day, I pretended to be a 'movie drill sergeant', counting down the minutes left in a fire challenge, in that loud, authoritarian voice.   I tried it out, just for fun, and  the kids loved it.   They responded to the challenge under pressure, big time.    They didn't have any real fear, but at the same time, they pushed themselves to achieve their goals and increase their skills.

I've seen this over and over, this phenomenon where kids/people are used to staying in their comfort zone, in the 'easy place' in their lives, and give themselves excuses to not get things done, or move to the next level.    They hit a pothole, or a wall, or get stuck in some area where things are 'hard' and then they just stay in that place, or they give up.    

Sometimes, this is due to lack of sufficient inspiration, but I believe that inspiration can only get you so far.   In most cases, if you're really going to achieve something meaningful, you're going to need a coach who can call you out on when you're holding back, and see when you are afraid or letting mental demons lead you astray.    I've never heard of an Olympic athlete who just got self inspired and then won a medal without a coach.

When we are pushed and we pass through our perceived limits, and get to that new place in our lives, it's significant.   It's real.    We are fundamentally different people than when we started out on our journey.   Doing this proves we can problem solve, and be creative and focused and pull together all of our gifts and make something happen.   It could be a basket, or a survival challenge, or myriad of other successes, both big and small.   It all counts, when we're trying to build something in our lives, and get what we need.   It's an essential 'mental skill' that helps us to do what we're here in this life to do.

On the other hand, our kids are also facing problems that most older adults haven't dealt with, in terms of social anxiety, depression, lack of bonding with friends and sometimes family.    A large majority of today's kids have a general lack of common sense that comes through time in nature and chores and dynamic play because they are simply not getting that time outdoors, learning and growing.     According to the Children and Nature Network, the percentage of kids ages 9-13 who go outside to play on their own in nature is only 6%.    SIX.   PERCENT.    

I don't know what that is like for most kids, to not have that 'inner foundation' and protection that nature has given me that is literally a huge part of my mental stability.   I can't imagine it.  

What's tricky is that most of today's kids look pretty much like normal kids on the outside, and it's easy to assume that they are doing 'just fine', when the reality is, they aren't.    The statistics on the number of adolescents who are struggling with a variety of mental health issues like social and test anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts is 32%.   That's one out of every three kids.

Our youth are incredibly anxious, and that this anxiety increases as they get older, and enter into young adulthood.

So, what does this mean for wilderness program curriculum and programming?  Do we stop all of the bootcamp stuff, and challenges, and instead just take things easy?   Or do we do the opposite, and create more 'trial by fire' stuff?

For me, and at Hawk Circle, I think the answer is that we need both.   I think we need to go slow in the beginning, when students are young, and really get to know them, and establish trust and a good connection, in a less stressful environment.   Then, as they acclimate to the woods and the camp and the wilderness skills, we increase the challenges and see how they respond.

I think we have to be careful of putting our programs on autopilot and do the same things we always have, and just plow forward.   I think we have an opportunity to meet the needs of today's youth, to help them build that 'inner foundation', if you will, in our skills, chores, self care and community bonding, and really give them tools that they can use as they get older and life gets more challenging.

It's a brave new world, and the work of naturalists, earth skills educators and trackers has never been needed more.   The volume of people who have lost almost complete connection with the natural world and real, honest work, chores and creative problem solving is shocking, and we have an opportunity to make a different in a way that can have long lasting effects generations from now, but we have to make sure that we are taking action that is actually responsive to the needs of our kids and their families and community, and not make assumptions that we 'know what's best' in every situation.   If we want to make an impact that is real and lasting, we simply have to put in the time and the effort and not skimp on the details.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed over 40 moms to ask them what they liked about nature programs, and what they feel their kids needed, and what they were worried about most for them, as well as their personal challenges as parents.   I also interviewed teachers from all grade levels too, to find out what they were currently seeing in their classrooms and in their students.   I took copious notes, and even recorded each call, so I could listen to them again, after a few days, and glean new insights into their responses.  

Doing this work gave me a much deeper sense of what parents and teachers are needing, and how their kids are struggling, and this wasn't an article in a magazine, either.  It has helped guide Hawk Circle to create a program that is directly tailored to fit these needs.

We're part Namaste, and part Bootcamp.   We're mostly a human development program hidden in a wilderness camp.    We aim for experiences that are transformative for kids, that plant seeds and offer tools that will be there when they need them, sometime down the line.

It's not the easiest, most glamorous or lucrative job, but it's absolutely essential that we do it.   Future generations are counting on us getting this right.

Thanks for all you do for the Earth, for the children and for our communities.