How Treks Enhance Children’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

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How Treks Enhance Children’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Category Experiential Learning, Schools, Social And Emotional Learning, Outdoor Leadership Program, Summer Camps

By Janusa Sangma

2023-12-01

A mother reached out to us a few months ago, enquiring about the Indiahikes Summer Camps for children. She wanted to know if it would help her 12-year-old, Aarav (name changed) come out of his shell. Aarav was painfully shy and unable to connect with other children. 

Aarav excelled in his studies, but showed no interest in games or playing with friends. He spent all his free time indoors with his gadgets. He avoided visitors and usually locked himself in his room until they left, even with close family. A family friend who was a therapist recommended taking him into nature and away from the city.

We suggested taking Aarav on a family trek, where there would be other children, other parents, and activities designed for bonding. 

Aarav's mother called us after the trek. The experience was more than she could have imagined, despite initial resistance from him. It was like she was experiencing her son for the first time!

He began to speak more freely, he expressed his thoughts and feelings during reflections, and he volunteered to serve meals at campsites with the other four children who were there.

We knew the impact would not end after the trek. We also knew Aarav and his family had discovered a powerful social-emotional development tool – trekking. 

What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Success in school, work, and life is often determined more by emotional intelligence than academic excellence.  

This isn’t news, but the rate at which the world has changed means that children must have stronger 21st-century competencies: resilience, responsible decision-making, self-awareness, self-management, relationship management, creativity, and collaboration skills.  

Teaching approaches such as Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) are dedicated to building children’s self-awareness and interpersonal skills. 

Photo credits: Vishnu Sivanandan

Why treks are ideal for building social and emotional skills in children

Treks accelerate children’s social and emotional learning for several reasons: 

  • Treks are a refreshingly neutral and safe space for children. Children can break free from the traditional roles they often play in classroom settings. Athletic, academic, artistic, popular, or quiet - a trek forgoes all labels. 
  • Adolescents face immense pressure to fit in while also figuring out their own identity. Trekking provides an environment where social pressures like their appearance or having to constantly achieve or compete become irrelevant.  On an Indiahikes trek, reaching a summit might be the end goal, but it doesn’t define the journey. 
  • Treks allow room for natural consequences. There are no simulations or role plays.
  • Learning happens organically as children navigate the ups and downs of a trek. The beauty of the mountains plays its part in boosting the brain. Plus, the design of our treks enhances lessons on empathy, teamwork, and perseverance through activities and reflections.

Beyond the physicality of it, trekking is a raw, unfiltered experience. Emotions will surface as one walks and must be addressed - whether you want to keep going or turn back. There is no hiding from or suppressing what you feel.  

Let’s take you through the different ways SEL presents itself on an Indiahikes trek.

1. Helping Emotional Regulation

Frequent tantrums, outbursts, difficulty calming down after being upset, or becoming overly agitated in response to minor stressors are common in children. They might also face difficulties transitioning between activities or coping with unexpected changes. 

We make space for and address all these emotions on our treks. 

Children learn how to take a breath and respond, instead of react

There are always children who walk faster than others in the group. Some tend to get frustrated with anyone they think is slowing them down. 

While honesty is a virtue, children with very strong personalities sometimes have trouble expressing frustrations appropriately. How do we help such students?

Indiahikes trek leader, Panchami Gaitonde says, “Everyone walks together on the trek no matter what. Plus, we assign important roles and responsibilities to each one. When children feel a sense of ownership about the trek and others, they approach challenges differently. Consequently, the words they use to express their emotions dramatically change – “You’re so slow!” becomes “You can do it,” “Don’t you know how to walk properly?” becomes “Do you need to rest?”

Photo credits: Indiahikes archive

Children learn to adapt to change and overcome difficulty 

Sometimes we need to have difficult conversations with children. Say, a child is struggling throughout and we’ve assessed they might not be able to make it to the top. Some children understand while others struggle with it. What helps is a continual conversation on the expectations and goals of the trek. We reinforce the importance of the journey throughout. I’ve also found that modelling the desired behaviour is crucial. The best way to help children adapt is to show them how, which they have ample opportunities to observe first-hand from us or their peers on a trek,” says Sharwari Brahme, trek leader and Head of Green Trails at Indiahikes. 

Children learn how to express their emotions 

We love how unfiltered children can be. They have plenty to say but don’t always know how to express their emotions or which words to use. On an Indiahikes trek, we channel children’s honesty into focused articulation.

“We have regular reflection and debriefing sessions where trek leaders encourage children not only to share feelings but articulate them using different mediums – through words, art, colours, elements of nature, or phrases in their mother tongue,” shares Sharwari.

Photo credits: Indiahikes archive

2. Building Empathy

What is the meaning of empathy? More than just social nicety, research on the science of empathy shows it is crucial for success and happiness in personal and professional spheres. In children, it plays a vital role in academics and preventing bullying in schools.

Showing care and kindness to others is a core objective of our treks. We work towards this consciously through several activities and experiences.

Children meet people from different cultures, ages, and religions

“Children spend a lot of time interacting with the Indiahikes guides on a multi-day Himalayan trek, most of whom have been born and raised in the mountains. They are amazed at how fit our guides are and how they’ve led hundreds of treks. They are curious about their lives and the work they do. Some of the older students go back from a trek with new perspectives on what rewarding careers and lives can look like,” shares Sharwari. 

Children learn that empathy must extend beyond who and what they know

Rutvid Dholakia, a teacher from Shishukunj School, Gujarat concurs, “I remember how some of our students began complaining about their heavy bags on the trek until they saw the locals carrying firewood on their backs. The students saw first-hand the hardships other people face, and how their lives in the city were so much easier in comparison. They also realised the meaning of compassion since some parts of the trek would not have been possible without the help of mules.” 

Children show care and concern for others

By day 2 or 3 of a trek, minor concerns like aches or pains are replaced by caring for one another. 

“Children show immense care, even at the cost of being ‘unpopular.’ They proactively ask us to come check on a friend who’s not feeling well but trying to hide it. Some of them take us aside privately, telling us how they’re concerned about a classmate who’s secretly carried cigarettes on a trek,” shares Sharwari.

The mountains, being out of familiar surroundings, the programme design and facilitation of the activities – all of it works to bring out the best already inherent in children.

Children taking care of each other after a long day of trekking | Photo credits: Vishnu Sivanandan

3. Encouraging Responsibility

Every parent hopes their child will demonstrate responsible behaviour, not just because they're told to but because they recognise the need. Parents are often stunned to discover a new side to their children while trekking.

Everyone pitches in on an Indiahikes experiential learning program. Camping and tent etiquette are a core part of learning for children | Photo credits: Vishnu Sivanandan

“This experience has left us, as a family, wanting to do many more treks! I think I have understood more about my children’s capabilities. My children now understand more about nature and are also more conscious about other things like water wastage and garbage disposal,” shared Srivatsan Iyer who had come on an Indiaikes trek with his family.

Sharwari adds, “On Day 1, we usually see parents trying to get their children more involved on the trek. By Day 2 or 3, children become proactive about things like waking up on time, drinking water, or packing their tiffin. Many of them start taking care of their parents.”

Photo credits: Vishnu Sivanandan

Photo credits: Vishnu Sivanandan

Photo credits: Vishnu Sivanandan

Children experience a rush of happy hormones while trekking. This surge of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin is further amplified by activities we design to foster a deep connection with the natural world.

They become more attuned to their surroundings, actions, and the people around them. This heightened awareness sparks new thoughts and behaviours, encouraging them to explore, learn, and grow in ways they never imagined.

In conclusion

Beautiful things happen when we give children more agency and independence over their learning. 

It is the essence of Indiahikes' approach to outdoor experiential learning. Learning actively through experience differentiates outdoor experiential learning from traditional classrooms. 

The key to helping children manage their emotions is to create a safe environment for them to express themselves.  Treks with Indiahikes remove the need to constantly compete or perform. They are a mix of adventure and learning where we set the stage for children to build emotional strength and resilience, in addition to lifelong friendships.

Janusa Sangma

Content Writer

About the author

Janusa is most at home exploring a faraway mountain trail. She follows the music wherever it may lead, guided by her ever-constant anchors – a love for writing, the mountains, wildlife, and grassroots work in the social sector.

She enjoys writing for organisations and individuals creating meaningful impact.

Before taking up writing as a full-time profession, she worked with corporates, non-profits, social enterprises, education companies, and PR organisations.

When she's not bent over a computer or buried in a Word Document, you will find her befriending a dog (any dog), swimming, or running for the hills.

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