Photo by Ella Bruijn.
As our students hiked off, each in their own small group and following the routes they’d planned themselves, a knot twisted and untwisted in my stomach.
My instructor team and I had spent the previous three weeks backpacking with our students, all 16- and 17-year olds, handing off more decision-making responsibilities to them each day.
I’d seen them make responsible choices, and also learn from making their own mistakes (like taking the “shortcut” through the boulder field rather than the slightly longer but much easier walk around the lake). They were ready for the responsibility, but it was nerve-wracking to watch them go, even knowing we’d meet up again in just a few days.
The idea of sending a group of teenagers into the wilderness by themselves might sound (to an adult) like a ridiculous proposition at face-value. How can we trust them to cope by themselves?
But when you’ve lived with a group of teenagers for several weeks and given them opportunities to make a decision and manage the outcomes, letting them go their own way for a few days makes perfect sense.
The student who led us through the boulder field knew from our trudgingly slow progress the difference between what looks easy and what only looks that way—he learned to look at terrain thoughtfully and connect his observations to his decisions.
For NOLS research manager Shannon Rochelle, teenagers “are at a point in their brain development where they understand logic and are capable of making good decisions, but no one has asked them to make their own decisions before. It's so much fun to ask them to make real decisions and watch them realize they are capable!”
Creating opportunities to lead for teenagers is rare and can be challenging to do in the frontcountry. There’s usually an adult nearby in some capacity, or only a phone call away. In the outdoors, they have the opportunity to make decisions by themselves.
And, most of the time, young people will rise to meet the needs of their group. This of course involves a lot of trial and error, but the outcomes are what Shannon observed—they learn they're capable, and can take that knowledge with them to whatever they decide to try.
Here are just a few more reasons why we think it's important for teens to take on leadership roles.
They’ll Start Learning by Doing Early On
Photo by Kirk Rasmussen.
Teenagers have the ability to make decisions, as Shannon noted, but opportunities to take on independence and responsibility can be hard to find. Even in work settings for adults, decisions often have to be checked with supervisors rather than made independently.
Starting to build leadership skills as a teenager can be the foundation for skills learned later. An advantage of doing that on wilderness trip is that a teenager doesn’t need to wait until moving out of their parents’ house to have these experiences.
For NOLS instructor Brigitte Denton, “Something as simple as lighting a WhisperLite stove or figuring out how to work together to get out of camp in the morning can be empowering.”
The lessons from those tangible experiences become the building blocks of making bigger decisions or navigating more complex interpersonal challenges.
As researcher and educator Susan Kuczmarski observes: “Leadership is learned behavior.”
They’ll Learn They Can Handle the Challenges
Photo by Mara Gans.
The first NOLS course I ever taught was with a group of 12- and 13-year-old girls. We were in the dry canyons of Utah and had to walk a half mile from our camp to fill up water bottles.
One evening, I took a few of the girls to fill water for the group, fully prepared to coax, cajole, and bribe the girls to get through the journey without complaining.
Instead, the individual who’d had the hardest time hiking that day entertained us the entire walk, even with heavy water bottles, telling stories as it got dark and chilly. Instead of a long slog in the dark, her attitude helped turn our walk into an adventure—without any guidance from me.
It’s a challenge I wouldn’t have expected someone that age to handle well, and certainly not one you’d deliberately design for a 12-year-old. But it gave her the opportunity to be a leader in the group by showing expedition behavior and being cheerful in a less-than-ideal situation.
The Lessons Young People Learn Will Stick
Photo by Kirk Rasmussen.
Some of our memories from our teenage years are fuzzy—like how you did on that Thursday algebra quiz. Some of them, the important ones, are seared into our memory.
For Marc Randolph, Netflix co-founder and NOLS board chair, the course he took when he was 14 years old still colors his memories and the way he leads and mentors. Like the time he had to sit in the rain for an entire afternoon after forgetting his rain jacket for a day hike. To this day, he won’t leave for a hike without one.
And it wasn’t just about learning to take care of himself physically. It was also a unique experience for a teenager who, says Randolph, “genuinely has to make a decision, communicate it clearly, and then find out a few hours later whether it was a good decision or bad decision.”
The experiences may have been uncomfortable, but they became part of the learning that helped with Randolph’s leadership development.
Teenage Brains Are Adapted to Learn
Photo by Kirk Rasmussen.
The fact that human brains are developing until around age 25 is often used as reason to restrict teenagers from certain activities. The fact that teen brains are still developing is also exactly why they need to have formative experiences.
A study by Dr. Jay Giedd from 2000 found that, while the brain does most of its structural growth by ages 5 or 6, there’s another burst of growth right before puberty, around ages 11 or 12. After this burst, the brain does some “pruning”—it cuts away the unneeded synapses that were produced during that wave of growth and strengthens the connections between the synapses that it does need. Most of this strengthening happens between the ages of 13 and 18—meaning these ages are when the brain is consolidating its growth.
For Giedd, this time of consolidating growth is the most important because what we learn then will stick with us the longest: “If a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired. If they're lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive.”
So, whatever behaviors and qualities we hope folks will enter the adult world with should start being learned as teenagers. If we want to“hardwire” communication or tolerance for adversity, then the teenage years are the time to give young people the chance to learn those skills.
Teens Can Make a Difference Now
Photo by Elena Rodriguez
Our leadership model revolves around four roles. They include being a leader with your peers, yourself, being in a designated leadership role, and supporting that designated leader.
In a small hiking group, for example, you’re always doing something—taking care of yourself by staying hydrated, or looking at the maps so you understand where the route should take you and whether you’re on the right track.
That principle translates beyond the outdoors. At any given moment, all of us are active followers, peer leaders, designated leaders, or self leaders. Instead of being reserved for adults, leadership is something that teenagers are capable of participating in and, in many ways, already do.
When young people give their sibling advice on dealing with a fight with friends, lead teams at school, or organize and lobby local politicians, they are being leaders. Since leadership is something they participate in every day, it only makes sense to give them the tools to be effective, to learn even more, and continue enabling them to make positive impacts in their communities.