How to help Scouts get comfortable in the woods

Longtime Scouters say you can’t take the outing out of Scouting, but some Scouts would be happy to try. While most kids take to camping like dogs take to car rides, others consider sleeping in a tent (at night! in the dark!) to be nothing short of cruel and unusual punishment.

Getting such kids out of the house—and out of their comfort zones—can present a challenge to even the savviest Scout leader. To learn some techniques that work, we talked with Dr. Chris Thurber, a board-certified clinical psychologist, author, and camp consultant who spends each summer working at Camp Belknap, a YMCA camp in New Hampshire. The father of two young boys and camp counselor to hundreds more, Thurber has become an expert on homesickness and related subjects.

Although every case is different, Thurber says reluctance to go camping usually stems from one of three causes. The first is temperament.

“Some people seek out novelty. Their temperament is a good match for adventure; they look forward to things they’ve never seen or done before,” Thurber says. “Other kids’ temperaments are more physiologically reactive. Their heart rate accelerates, their blood pressure goes up, they feel more nervous when faced with novel circumstances.”

Kids who are temperamentally inhibited often seem shy, but shyness is actually different. Thurber says the best way to figure out if a Scout is temperamentally inhibited is to ask his parents a simple question: “Is this the way Johnny typically acts when faced with a new experience, even a fun one?”

A previous bad experience can be the second cause for the fear. It might have been a trip to church camp when it rained all week, but it also could have been a first sleepover at a friend’s house. Thurber recommends asking the Scout about times he’s been camping or away from his family overnight. “Here’s an area where most kids are fairly accurate in reporting whether or not a previous experience was good,” he says.

The third cause is ambivalence. The Scout might want to go camping but could be concerned about one particular aspect of the trip—anything from fear of the dark to anxiety about looking less competent than the more experienced Scouts. While some boys might acknowledge their fears if you ask them, Thurber says that question asked by other Scouts might get better results.

Thurber recommends counseling by a slightly older Scout as the first strategy to help a boy get over his fear of camping. “Kids can ask each other the kind of kid questions and get the kind of kid answers that are much more believable,” he says.

Next, Thurber says, try a slow-immersion strategy, planning a series of outings that build up to an overnighter. The first could be a day hike, the second a session on outdoor cooking, and the third a late-night stargazing event. These activities could even take place at the site of a future campout. “If you’ve gradually built up, maybe the only thing that’s really new is that you’re going to sleep there,” he says.

Thurber’s third strategy is to involve fearful boys in planning their own trips. “The more that adults can be there to facilitate but not decide, the more comfortable those kids feel, the more ownership they have over the experience, and the more excited they’ll be to participate,” he says.

Youth-led planning is a natural part of Boy Scouting and Venturing, of course, but there’s no reason Cub Scout-age boys can’t be involved in planning as well. Sure, you may eat macaroni and cheese three meals a day, but you’ll survive. And your boys will thrive.

So how can you tell if a boy’s concern about camping is more phobia than fear? If a boy seems unusually stressed or unable to function normally, it might be time to seek professional help. The criteria are subjective, but don’t worry. “Most Scoutmasters and most parents have enough contact with a comparison sample of other kids that they can pretty easily distinguish normative anxiety from something that indicates more of a concern,” Thurber says.

In the end, helping kids get over their fear of camping does far more than expose them to the fun of the outdoors—it increases confidence. Thurber adds: “Forget about sleepovers and nighttime and being outdoors. They’re just more ready to do anything because they’ve had this confidence-boosting experience.”

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