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Building social emotional skills through outdoor learning

By Nicole Pokorney

Girl participating in a climbing garden high ropes course outside
Paddles dug into the water as the waves crashed over the front of the canoes. It was the last leg of our 7-day trip, and the large lake and wind against us was proving too much for our already tired bodies. The dock on the other side of the lake slowly got closer and closer, yet painstakingly slow. Tears ran down many faces and the high school students grew quiet. After what seemed like forever, a young person broke out into song as we knew that we were going to finish this. Everyone started singing and we were renewed with energy as the canoes, one by one, docked and our journey was complete. 

Outdoor adventures like this can help participants gain social emotional skills. The inherent challenge and emotional intensity, coupled with intentional reflection, can increase resiliency, emotion management skills and self-awareness.


Challenging experiences take participants out of their comfort zones, but within their chosen limits. A blog from Outward Bound describes Type 2 Fun as experiences that push us outside of our comfort zones and towards self-discovery. While not comfortable or fun in the moment, Type 2 Fun is rewarding to the participant after they complete the task. Recent research with the Outward Bound program describes how youth transform challenging experiences into learning. They found that youth learn by struggling with challenges, and that their learning was facilitated by on-the-spot support from staff and peers. This is illustrated in the vignette above when singing was used to buoy the group to persevere through challenge.


Activities are intentionally designed to create an emotional high by engaging emotional triggers. Zeivots describes this as 'edgework' - "The notion of 'edgework' is a similar metaphor to describe the limit of the personal known; it is the experiential barrier from which we either turn back or break through. The more people get closer to the edge, the more there is an increased sense of the unknown." Program staff must be cognizant of the intensity and duration of the experience according to the development of the participants, and provide experiences that allow youth to push through their comfort zones.

Outdoor facilitators can monitor which zone youth are in before and during the event through consistent check-ins and reflections, which can build emotional awareness and management skills. Simply asking the group, "What are you worried about for the upcoming event?" helps youth ruminate on their thoughts and provides social support during the experience. 

Activities that foster social emotional learning

Intentional design of the outdoor experience offers young people the space to grow in social emotional skills, setting and achieving goals and acceptance of oneself and their environment. Resilience, grit, and determination are just a few of the characteristics that can be built through impactful outdoor learning experiences. Facilitation skills and being attuned to youth ecological factors are imperative to moving youth through the experiential learning cycle as they experience the transforming effects of outdoor adventures. Using activities and reflections that identify and process SEL skills (see SEL Toolkit) should be intentional, while leaving space to address moments as they happen. In her book, Adventure Revolution, Belinda Kirk describes that, "Adventure allows us to shift perspectives and change who we are and how we respond to whatever crosses our paths during life’s journeys, to rewrite our own stories and ultimately to create our happy endings" (p.15). Isn’t this what we all want?

In what areas of your outdoor programs can you intentionally create challenging and intense experiences? What reflection activities have you used that elicit self discovery in young people?

-- Nicole Pokorney, 4-H outdoor education program director

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