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Learning as adventure

By Jeremy Freeman

Youth canoeing and kayaking in river
For several years prior to coming to Extension, I worked at an outdoor education and leadership program that centered their organization around using adventures as a tool for development. Set in the rural mountains of Western Montana, adventure was not hard to find. A key element to this organization's approach, however, was their belief that adventure was everywhere. They defined adventure as 'any situation with an unknown outcome.' By using this definition, the organization was able to process lessons learned in the outdoors across everyday experiences.

The element of adventure has remained with me over the years, and I am excited to see some of these themes emerge in this year's 4-H Annual Volunteer Training, Learning as Adventure. With young people, adventure is a part of life. Just think briefly to yourself of some of the many ways a young person may encounter a situation with an unknown outcome. Here is a short list to get you started:
  • Building new relationships through community and social events.
  • Encountering changing environments within in and out-of-school activities.
  • Presenting in front of a group for the first time.
  • Practicing to obtain a driver's license.
  • Searching for a job and completing the initial interview.

Recent research highlights how confronting and tackling challenges, uncertainties and unknowns in adventure programs can help youth stretch and develop skills for perseverance and problem-solving, and that peer support and program culture both play supportive roles. Further research also reveals that when properly facilitated, challenging and even negative experiences can generate the development of life skills.

So how can we embrace adventure (unknown outcomes and challenge) as a pathway to learning? Research from the Youth Thriving model offers some great recommendations. Here are a few others that I have seen to be valuable and instructive:
  • Acknowledge that the process is just as important as the product.
  • Validate what is being learned.
  • Create a culture that embraces challenge.
  • Design programming based on participant development needs. 
  • Strive to build supportive and authentic relationships.
  • Support the power of choice and voice.

What do you think young people need to embrace challenge and thrive through adventure? How have you seen youth development programs creating bridges between the theory of adventure and life skill development? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and invite you to join us for our 2022 Annual Volunteer Training to dive deeper into this topic.

-- Jeremy Freeman, Extension educator

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  1. I've seen youth embrace challenge when they have a supportive adult encouraging them and helping them find the resources to reach their goals. The adult is supporting from the side or behind the youth cheering them on. The adult is not in front clearing the path, but supporting the youth in clearing their own path. I know I have been guilty of clearing the path because it is sometimes easier and quicker, but I know in youth development programs it is about supporting the youth in learning the skills and using their voice.

    1. Karyn, thanks for this example. Supportive role models, whether it be an adult volunteer or a youth mentor is an important part of our program.

      To follow up, what does good support look like? When a youth is facing uncertainty, how can a supportive person enact the confidence and motivation to press forward?
      Have you seen any of the strategies mentioned above in practice? How did that look, feel for the youth?


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