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Beyond limits

By Nicole Pokorney

Two youth hiking through the woods with camping gear

There's nothing more electric than watching a young person experience the ocean for the first time. In a recent mother-son trip to Oregon, I watched from a distance as my 18 year old son walked towards the massive Pacific. He has seen the ocean before but was so young, he doesn't remember it. Like a little kid, he took off his socks and rolled up his sweatpants and walked in. He dipped his hand in and brought the salty liquid to his mouth. I could see him raise his head and take in a deep breath. He turned to me and his face was lit up with a big smile. As outdoor educators, we can replicate this sense of awe and connection to nature when we create outdoor, adventure-based programs for the youth we serve.

By creating intentional and engaging outdoor learning experiences, facilitators can provide participants with a unique opportunity for transformation and growth. Through a literature review, I have compiled eight key components of developing transformative learning experiences. These components, along with experiential learning and meaningful reflection, are essential for the planning and implementation of programs.

Eight key components of developing transformative learning experiences

  • Challenge - Youth are empowered through activities that give them a sense of being pushed, both mentally and physically. The challenge of an experience takes participants out of their comfort zone.
  • Intensity - Activities are intentionally designed to create an emotional high by engaging emotional triggers. Sandris Zeivots described this as ‘edgework’ in his Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning article. Youth workers must be cognizant of the intensity and duration of the experience according to the development of the participants.
  • A sense of safety and support - Leaders ensure that proper risk management policies are in place and upheld to ensure physical safety. In addition, quality learning environments are developed to provide emotional and social safety and support.
  • A guided experience in nature - Participants learn to live in nature through provided goals and reflection. The adventure-based program is steeped in D’Amato and Krasny’s transformative learning theory.
  • Providing the ability to break away from normal life - Outdoor experiences provide participants with the chance to get away from their normal routines and remove themselves from external influences such as family, work, social media and school, creating a sense of autonomy.
  • Designing activities to foster self-awareness - Intentional design of the outdoor experience offers young people the space to grow in social emotional skills, set and achieve goals and accept themselves and their environment.
  • Freely give the invitation to explore - The outdoor learning environment is rich in opportunities for youth to experience new learning, discover new skills, play and connect with nature.
  • Foster an environment of positive, social support - Young people receive feedback and acceptance from others and learn and live in a community, creating a sense of social responsibility.

As a facilitator, do you think these eight components encompass an impactful adventure-based experience? What are the strengths of your outdoor programming that already address these components? Where are the opportunities that you can grow in your programming?

Want to engage in a deeper conversation on building impactful outdoor programs? Save the dates for our new outdoor adventures learning series! This spring we are partnering with the YMCA of the North to host a series of free webinars focused on outdoor adventures for youth development. Sessions will be held from 1 - 2:30 p.m. (Central time) and cover three key areas:  
  • April 7: Why nature matters more now than ever.
  • April 28: The outdoor adventure gap.
  • May 19: Outdoor adventures and social emotional learning.

-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator

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  1. Thank you for writing about this, Nicole! I especially love the D'Amato and Krasny transformative learning theory. Marianne Krasny has become one of my environmental education/outdoor learning heroines!

    I am curious about your thoughts on "Providing the ability to break away from normal life" and how to continue the transformation upon returning to normal life.

    When I was teaching at Wolf Ridge, I remember talking to a young person who had just returned from a backpacking trip on Isle Royale. This was her first wilderness experience ever, and it had clearly been a transformational one. However, when I asked her about how she would take that experience back with her to St. Paul, she replied that she was sad that she wouldnt be able to find the same kind of peace and connection to nature in the city.

    That particular reaction drove home for me that wilderness outdoor adventures can be particularly powerful, transformative experiences. However, there has to be a plan for afterwards that helps participants find ways to engage in these 8 components in their own communities.


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