Skip to main content

A wilderness guide's approach to youth voice

By Jeremy Freeman

3 youth wearing winter gear outside in the snow
As a wilderness educational guide, you have a balance to understand and employ. If you retain all control over the group experience, you lend your group to a sightseeing experience. If you swing the pendulum too far to the other side, abdicating all ownership, the group risks its own safety, and will suffer without the guide's experience and knowledge. Learning how much control to pass over to a group is a delicate task. 

As a guide, the level of ownership you transfer needs to accurately reflect the needs of the group as well as their skill and understanding of the situation. For one group, personal ownership may mean giving them a voice to set how far and fast they want to travel on a hike with the occasional glance at a map to gauge progress. To another group, it may be appropriate to 'hand over the compass' and let them chart their own course. In this second instance, while the group may have control of their destiny, an experienced guide retains a measure of control knowing both the surrounding terrain, the challenges ahead, and how to navigate through any unintended obstacles the group encounters. Ownership can be transferred because the group is being supported by a trusted source who can skillfully educate and manage the experience. 

This same approach can be applied when we think about guiding youth voice in youth development programming. The level of voice we give to young people needs to be balanced. As a child grows, they need to be shown and guided along with the life choices they make. Too much or too little structure may limit their growth. This is illustrated well in the parenting highway tool designed by University of Minnesota Extension family development colleagues. To cultivate a healthy relationship with a child, elements of nurturing and defined structures need to be reinforced.  

So what can we do to be flexible and skillful in how we monitor and create spaces for youth voice? How can we navigate the challenges, obstacles and barriers youth face to support their full potential? Here are three considerations:
  • Recognizing the maturity of the group plays a key role in supporting voices. As young people develop and they build their own understanding and awareness of how their voice contributes and affects those around them, the control and ownership we give to them can be adjusted. 
  • Monitor and respect the external voices that support a group. Parents, grandparents, caregivers or close mentors can support or interrupt the development of young people depending on how we engage them. Ensuring we connect and align priorities with these external voices is important if we want to create a space where young people are given the freedom and space to share their voice. 
  • Have an experienced leader who understands the practices and nuances of youth development. Ensuring we train, equip and prepare volunteers, teachers and educators to manage the group's experience using quality youth development resources ensures our young people will be guided in a way that aligns with their best interests and growth.
Working with and on behalf of young people is an adventure. I’d love to hear from you on what practices and strategies you use to navigate the trail.

-- Jeremy Freeman, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Jeremy, I love this perspective.

    Keeping the conversation going using the lens of outdoor learning experiences, I like to also ensure that there is room for curiosity by both the youth and the adults in space. Generating curiosity by adults can be challenging. We (adults) often fill our egos by demonstrating how much we know. However, there is great value in modeling to youth that we don't know "everything". Together by allowing youth voice and leaning into curiosity we may be surprised by what we learn!

    I think this idea ties into your point of having an experienced leader who understands the nuance of youth development.

    Thanks for the rich conversation!

    1. Courtenay, you bring up a great insight into the importance of holding up the value of curiosity.

      What specific practices do you see adults or volunteers using to help model curiosity?

      You also bring up a point around the role of ego, and how it can interfere with developing youth voice. I think this is true for youth as well as adults. Going back to some of the content we introduced last year in our Annual Volunteer Training, Learning as Adventure, when we place emphasis on the process over the product I think we encourage young people (and us as adults) to see discovery and curiosity as the goal. Rewarding and recognizing the product can too often create a sense of final accomplishment (ego) and not humility in learning. Any further thoughts?


Post a Comment