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Opinion & Essays - Jun, 1990 Issue 

Why Wilderness?
Lon Woodbury

The wilderness experience was discovered by America in a massive way in the 1970s. It was quickly found that the wilderness experience was an effective tool for working with young people with behavior problems. How is it that those children who are unable to learn the lessons of responsibility at home or at school, can learn those lessons by leaving civilization behind for a while?

I think part of the reason was well expressed by the 19th century American lawyer and orator Robert Ingersoll: "In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments - there are consequences."

Our society, to a large extent, is based on a many layered system of rewards and punishments. This works reasonably well with children who have the self-confidence to foresee consequences and understand the reasons and desirability of taking on responsibility. But, to the behavior problem child who has a low self-image and finds it difficult to trust anyone, this system of rewards and punishments is usually seen as arbitrary decisions by authority figures. Many of these children see manipulation of others as the way to get rewards, and punishment as something to talk your way out of. In their view, there are no consequences, only negotiations, and often the favored tactic is to confuse the issue.

For example, if storm clouds appear at home over low grades, the issue might well become the unfairness of the teacher. If storm clouds appear in the wilderness, an accusation of the unfairness of nature just does not fly. In the wilderness, the consequences are clear and easily seen. The choice is simple. The child must take responsible action to stay warm and dry, or not take responsible action and be cold, wet, and hungry.

This common occurrence in the wilderness, when nature is the initiator, teaches the child consequences (they cannot talk their way out of it), setting goals (their comfort is within their power), to make decisions (what they decide to do obviously determines how the experience turns out), the need for action (it won't happen unless they make it happen), and teaches him or her to take responsibility for themselves (nobody else is going to do it for them). It breaks down the mind-set that everything can be manipulated, and teaches that some things just are. The way it often is presented is: "A storm is coming in. What are you going to do about it?" When the child successfully handles this problem, his or her self-image gets a boost. The same and similar lessons are taught in a multitude of other wilderness events. Hiking farther than they thought possible to a distant campsite can expand their self-imposed limitations; crossing a river can teach trust and teamwork; and preparing a meal can teach discipline and patience. Basic and vital lessons are practiced every day in the wilderness.

One important advantage the wilderness has is the choices are limited, and consequences are clear, immediate, and objective. Back in a more complex society such as home or school, the choices are sometimes unlimited, and consequences are frequently unclear, often far in the future, and can be rationalized as arbitrary or unfair. When a child is lagging in his or her emotional growth, sometimes a well structured wilderness experience can change attitudes where everything else has failed.

Copyright 1990, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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