Six Critical Stages of Connectivity to the Outdoors
To a casual observer, outdoor programs may all look-alike. However, a critical look at how young people are connected to outdoor experiences reveals that outdoor programs are not providing the same types of activities. Some are getting lots of participants out into nature programs, what are often called high volume, low touch programs. Others are enrolling fewer participants, but providing deeper, and longer experiences in nature. Both of these examples can be viewed through the model outlined below.
In the Outdoor Connectivity Pipeline model, there are essentially six “stages”, or types, of outdoor experiences that describe how programs move participants through ever-deepening outdoor experiences.
- Introductory Experiences (a.k.a. gateway, portal experiences)
- Repeat Exposure (gaining comfort/familiarity)
- Lengthening and Deepening (developing mastery in outdoor settings)
- Training and Skill Development (teaching/leading outdoor programs)
- Workforce Development (workplace skill development)
- Peak Experiences (high intensity, high impact)
This model describes how an individual fits into a programmatic framework. Outdoor providers might focus on a particular stage and the pace that a participant will move through the pipeline will differ from program to program. The stages are fluid, and some programs will go back to the same stage over and over, while others will push through to a new stage. In other words, most individuals will start with an introductory experience before they go on to a deepening one. However, there are programs that may be so intense and long that participants may move through all the stages during one session. For instance, a student who has not spent any time in a wilderness, but attends a 21-day Outward Bound wilderness program, will go through almost all of these stages in the 3 weeks they are out on course.
1. Introductory Experiences (a.k.a. gateway, portal experiences).
These are first time outdoor experiences. Often they are programs that last a few hours, or perhaps a full day. Introductory experiences are designed to pique a child’s curiosity and expose them to the outdoors in a fun and exciting way. In some circles these are referred to as “drive by” experiences. While the term “drive by or through” is a poke at how sometimes outdoor providers exaggerate the outcomes attributed to these programs. These introductory experiences play a key role in getting young people into outdoor spaces.
2. Repeat Exposure (gaining comfort/familiarity)
One time, or one-off experiences are wonderful for introducing someone to the power of the outdoors, and in themselves, can be powerful learning opportunities. However, introductory experiences are usually not enough to bring significant change in individuals. If the goal is to have our children become comfortable in outside settings and familiar with the concepts and ideas taught by outdoor programs, then they will need to participate in outdoor activities on a regular basis. (These experiences don’t have to be structured by an outdoor provider). Only through repeated exposure can we be sure that participants are actually becoming at ease in an outdoor settings and are ready, and open, for the accompanying learning.
3. Lengthening and Deepening (developing mastery in outdoor settings)
Children and youth must be provided with experiences that deepen their understanding and connection to the outdoors. If we want our kids to “get it” and understand the lessons of the outdoors, we will need to connect them to the outdoors in way in which they can master their connections to nature. Otherwise, we risk that a smile and having a good day will substitute for deep and profound internal and personal change. Participants who achieve mastery, will be better able to transfer of these experiences to other aspects of their life. Lengthening and deepening experiences should continue to take place throughout a person’s life, and should be ongoing and frequent.
4. Training and Skill Development (teaching/leading)
Many (though certainly not all) programs have some element of training or skill development embedded in their activities. Often, programs have under-developed training programs and have not solidified the goals and outcomes of these programs. , The skills learned through the outdoors include the art of leadership and the dynamics of group management, a core skill set needed by today’s managers and executives. Youth in this phase are often applying these lessons and skills as leaders and trainers of younger children.
5. Workforce Development (workplace skill development)
The grand prize in outdoor education is to have youth who attended your outdoor programs to land jobs and careers in the outdoor field as adults, preferably in your own organization. The outdoor provider workforce development pipeline is, at best leaky, and at worse, broken. To plug the leaks, or to build a stronger pipeline will require deliberate and forceful efforts to apply earlier outdoor and program experiences to job readiness skill development training. The trainings may include specific certification trainings, or could simply be trainings in skill sets needed to solidify the qualifications and viability of rising youth. Some have taken to the term “Back Country to Back Office” to describe the development and transfer of outdoor skills that can benefit a nonprofit or company.
Frequently, outdoor youth providers fail to highlight the direct relationship between skills learned in the outdoors and the skills needed in the workplace. Many of the nationally recognized job readiness skills outlined in the SCANS (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) can be taught, learned and internalized through outdoor experiences. In fact, one could argue that outdoor experiences do a better job at getting young people to internalized the transferable skills outlined in SCANS than do traditional educational settings. In addition, non-cognitive skills, such as grit and determination, are often best learned in challenging and unfamiliar outdoor settings.
6. Peak Experiences (high intensity, high impact)
High impact experiences can accelerate learning and leverage experiences, especially in the outdoors. A 10-day wilderness program can provide hundreds of hours of programming exposure and push participants into new realms of understanding and connectivity to nature, themselves, their community and families. These “peak experiences” are often critical in moving young people into the next level or beyond. Peak Experiences can be targeted to any stage along the continuum. Many programs argue that a multi-day overnight should happen a the end of a program, but experiences in the field show that if presented in a youth friendly way, these sorts of experience can occur in the beginning, middle or end of a program. What is important is that as many youth as possible should be exposed to Peak Experiences.
Ultimately, all children and youth should go through a series of outdoor related activities and experiences that will provide increased connectivity to the outdoors. Ideally, these experiences should happen from a very young age and continue throughout their lives. By experiencing increasingly deeper and more intense outdoor connections, young people can internalize and transfer their outdoor experiences into their lives. These outdoor connections will become a key part of who they are as adults. Ultimately, the goal is not to have every youth become a career outdoor staff leader, or to get a job as an outdoor instructor. The goal is to have every child become an adult who has a small core part of who they are that is made up of their outdoor experiences. As the model shows, some will have more, intense and deeper experiences, and perhaps, fewer will be afforded the opportunity to participate in a Peak Experience, but all can have experiences somewhere along the 6 Stage spectrum.
Clearly, the pipeline needs to be built that has enough outdoor connections to make the possibility of ongoing connections to the outdoors a real possibility. A young adult who secures a green or outdoor related job, due to their outdoor experiences, is a great outcome, if he or she enters into an outdoor career, even better. Pursuing an outdoor career is not the only pathway for our children and youth. However, all should enter adulthood with a solid foundation and connection to the outdoors. If they do, no matter what their career path, they will take their outdoor learning and connections with them. And that is no small achievement.
I have developed this concept over many years. I would be curious to hear what you think. Do you believe this model has merit? Do you see ways to strengthen it? How would you make it better? Leave your comment below.