‘M’ had just joined Class 8 in a Boarding School when her whole class was taken on a Himalayan trek. Being a “new girl,” she had barely had time to make friends before packing her bags. During the first part of Day 1, they trekked in groups designated by the Trek Leaders. When it came to choosing tents and tent mates at camp, no one seemed to want to include M. She did get a place finally but that night she felt lonely and sad as she fell asleep.
By Day 3 of the trek, M could be seen hanging out comfortably with her classmates. She was included in conversations and activities. This is not only the magic of the mountains. It is the success of a trek plan that factored in all possibilities and built in mechanisms for reflection, rapport building and repair.
Our Experiential Learning (EL) treks for school children are designed with an understanding of what M and her friends are thinking and feeling. They allow for connection and facilitate clear learning processes. They include abundant spaces for reflection.
World over, there is an increased recognition of nature as a great space for education. Educators are greening school grounds. While some schools teach science while living in the forest together, others conduct regular, compulsory educational activities in culturally significant locations or in the closest wood.
Closer home in India, some schools like The Valley School, have had trekking as part of their academic curriculum for over two decades. Many Indian schools regularly offer treks during the summer breaks, so children can learn skills that they might never learn indoors.
When children trek together, they get ample opportunities to make sense of the relationships they form, whether with their classmates, themselves or other children in the group. We have also observed that when children trek together, they seem to multiply their learning and enjoyment.
Curious to understand this better, we asked trek leaders, outdoor learning facilitators, psychologists, trekkers, parents and teachers – what exactly happens when children trek with other children?
The vast outdoors replace a classroom with walls
When groups of children set out into the mountains – expansive meadows, dense forests, stony pathways and unpredictable weather conditions suddenly replace the classroom. The children are forced to learn in a new way in the new setting.
“…the outdoors work on all the senses. Most children (and adults) have forgotten that they have them. Reconnecting with their senses, children feel more relaxed. Once their awareness is reset, children will work with a new mindset than the one they used in a traditional learning setting,” says Gerrit Onstein, founder of Outrac. Gerrit is an Indiahikes Resource Person and a Consultant for our EL programmes.
Based in the Netherlands, Gerrit facilitates outdoor learning programmes for personal and group development of children and adults, in various countries. Gerrit’s work is rooted in the principles of Experiential Learning (EL). He visits Indiahikes often to help grow the Experiential Learning Programmes.
“Classrooms mandate learning whereas the outdoors issue an invitation to learn,” Gerrit adds. “When children respond to this invitation, there is joy in learning.”
Mr. Jayaram, former Principal of The Valley School, Bangalore, writes in the Journal of the Krishnamurti Schools that a whole fortnight has been set aside for a Himalayan Trek on the academic calendar of 11th Graders at The Valley School because, “the only way to get a feel for the mountains and understand what a trek can do to you is to actually go on one.”
“Children of that age go through a lot of pressure to prove themselves. They are struggling to find their identity. Trekking takes them into a setting where everything, like how you look or what you are wearing or even a sense of accomplishment, is irrelevant,” he says.
As they trek together, “spending time with other children, day in and day out, an awareness and sensitivity” develops in them, he says. Whereas on Day 1 their anxiety is palpable, by Day 3 they stop using any devices they may have brought and simply “surrender to the silence around them.” “They come back from the trek with a tremendous amount of self-confidence,” says Mr. Jayaram, stressing that this is one of the prime objectives of the trek.
Izzat Yaganagi, Head of Experiential Learning, Indiahikes, concurs. “The vast expanses of nature and the unstructured environment seem to unlock and soften barriers that children have. It's almost like walls and rigid structures create emotional and mental barriers as well. Remove these and you see children become calm, joyful, caring and energized.”
The activities for the children are designed to “bring about specific learning, skills, attitudes and values and fully utilize the effect of the environment,” Izzat says.
Without the walls of a classroom, barriers and preconceived notions seem to melt away among children. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Sharing and caring shows up
Nature-based activities can teach children pro-social behaviours towards their peers and nature, researchers have found. Researchers analysed “74 running record observations of young children’s behaviors and social interactions over a two-year period as they participated in a nature-preschool program.”
They found that nature based play and activities can teach specific pro-social behaviours like respecting nature; respecting people; sharing, helping and taking turns; building friendships and expressing unity; cooperating and working together as a team; demonstrating empathy and expressing gratitude.
Empathy – or the ability to feel with another person, is considered a key life skill for children because it builds connection, regulates emotions and triggers helping behaviours.
Izzat shares that “care, empathy, and responsibility are constantly demonstrated by children during an Experiential Learning trek.” She recalls the first 'Family Trek' that Indiahikes offered in 2019. “There were 13 children – six with their parents and seven 15/16 yr old boys who had come without their parents. All 13 were divided into three groups of mixed ages.”
Her concern was that the younger children would be left out and the older ones would stick together. That was exactly what did not happen. She saw, “... the older boys demonstrating empathy and responsibility throughout. They were caring, thoughtful and at the same time making sure the younger ones were equally involved in all activities,” she says.
She believes that “The environment, being out of familiar surroundings, the programme design and facilitation of the activities – all work to bring out the best that is already inherently hidden like gems within the mine of children's beings.”
Aditya Bodke, a Trainer and Mentor for Trek Leaders at Indiahikes, narrated the story of how M (mentioned in the beginning of the article) found solace from loneliness. “During reflection sessions, we actively worked on understanding how we would feel if we were in M’s place,” he says. It was not long before the students included her in their social groups during the trek.
According to Gerrit, “the facilitator has to let go of the traditional role of a teacher who is in control of the whole process. If we dare to set the frame, prepare the children well, and give them control of the process, beautiful things will happen. Give them the space to grow and they will show up.”
Mr. Jayaram writes that while trekking, “Petty comparisons are replaced by caring for one another.” He affirms that he has constantly seen students reaching out to support others who are in pain, struggling or homesick even though they may also be facing similar levels of adversity or pain on the trek.
Nithya Poornima, a Clinical Psychologist based in Bangalore, connects the rise in helping behaviours with the calming effect that nature has on children while they are trekking. Formerly a faculty member at NIMHANS, she has worked with children for over two decades. On treks with her son and his cousins, she has observed that the older children look out for the younger ones quite naturally.
Sharing, caring and empathy come almost instinctively to children when they trek together in the outdoors. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
The children become a group of problem-solvers
While trekking, children are constantly negotiating problems like where to put your foot; how to wash a plate; how to cross a stream or how to ask for help. Trekking is all about finding your way around obstacles, they learn.
Nithya describes trekking as “a process of active problem solving,” Though every child has a unique response to being in nature, they are exposed to similar problems, she says.
She points to how teamwork and problem solving go together when groups of children are trekking. When a child crosses an obstacle, they do not stop at feeling accomplished. They instinctively call out to guide or warn others behind them.
It has been recorded that nature immersion boosts creative thinking, complex thinking and social skills in children. Creative thinking and critical thinking are integral to problem solving. Add team work to that, and the problems of whole groups could be resolved.
Aditya recalls solutions that children came up with to “the plate problem.” The plates they had been given from their Boarding School were large and unwieldy. The water was ice cold. “So they started eating from one plate and then took turns to wash the plate,” he says.
Swarada Ghangurde, Senior Trek Leader and Trainer, Indiahikes, recalls a clear demonstration of problem solving and team work as demonstrated by a group of children trekking in a family group. While shadowing the Trek Leader Vijeeth, she observed on Day 1 that there was a “weird and difficult dynamic” among the children in the group, ranging in ages 7 to 16.
She says the situation “completely flipped” on Day 2, when the children were given a problem to solve together. They were handed a map and told to lead the adults as a team to the next campsite. “The older children took complete responsibility. They gave the youngest two children the walkies to make them feel they were also trek leaders. Others navigated, some walked at the end to nudge the slower trekkers forward.”
Leading everyone to the wrong campsite, two older boys were blamed by the others. Until the Trek Leader initiated reflections. The children said they had learnt that “the best way to learn is to make mistakes.” United now, they found their way to the correct campsite. The rest of the trek saw a very different dynamic between the children, recalls Swarada.
It's not just the softer side of caring that comes out, but also a deep desire to solve problems that are put out to them. They become more inquisitive and find dynamic ways to solve problems. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
They explore “independence and interdependence”
While studying the importance of children playing freely in nature, researchers Stuart Lester and Martin Maudsley have stated that "Playing in natural spaces supports a child’s sense of self, allowing children to recognize their independence alongside an interdependence and connectedness with their ecological worlds.”
Similarly, when children trek with other children in the absence of their parents, they taste both independence and interdependence. They witness how it feels to be “independent” (without parents), while depending on peers and nature for their emotional needs.
Gerrit describes how adolescent girls and boys, who participated in a recent outdoor learning programme that he facilitated, learnt valuable lessons about independence and mutual dependence:
“The boys would jump across the canals (of which there are plenty in Holland) and reach out their hands to the girls. The girls would not want to take their hand. The boys wanted to show that they were strong. The girls wanted to show that they were independent. Also, some of them had issues with touching the boys because of bad experiences earlier. Over the programme, the girls learnt to take help because it was offered from a genuine, safe space. The boys learnt that they could be accepted in a helping process. This was a big step for both the boys and the girls.”
From an ecological perspective, children trekking with other children gain skills towards becoming independent living beings, while watching firsthand how all living things in nature are mutually dependent. Teaching children about the interconnectedness of things in nature has been shown to be very valuable in creating a healthy sense of ownership with respect to the earth in children.
Trekking in groups can thus become a wholly spiritual experience of deep connection at many levels, even if children do not realize it at that point.
Independence is an expected outcome of trekking. But we have discovered that children also learn to trust and depend on others while trekking. Picture by Vishnu Sadasivan
Competition makes way for cooperation
It could be the tough terrain that highlights the value and fragility of life. It could be the stark exposure to a collective vulnerability. Or a willingness to support others in the presence of “danger or threat.” What emerges when children trek together is a clear move from competition towards cooperation.
Though children (and adults) are instinctively competitive, sooner or later, a trek teaches them that a mountain trail is not a race-track. Initially however, the conditioning towards competition plays out in many ways. There could be a scramble for “the tent with the best view.” Or a less obvious tension between some children about who gets to walk closest to the Trek Guide.
Mr. Jayaram notes that by Day 2 of the trek, there is a distinct shift in this trend. The demands of the trek invariably silence both competition and peer pressure. “The children realize that everybody has their own rhythm. It is futile to compare themselves with anyone else. What you are wearing or whether your skin has blemishes cease to matter in that challenging environment,” he says.
Izzat shares that “competition comes down because the trek is designed to ensure cooperation and teamwork. We have cooperative games and team activities – where individual competition is replaced with universal participation. The cooperative environment is further encouraged through regular reflections,” she says.
Nithya observes, however, that “When the risk is perceived to be less, the children could still give in to that competitive streak on a trek. When the risk is perceived to be more, they stick together, watch out and guide each other.”
Ravi Ranjan, Senior Slope Manager and Experience Team Member, Indiahikes, shares his observation that children are innately competitive. They constantly watch and influence each other on a trek, he says.
“If certain thought processes are driven towards a deeper connection with nature, most of the children resonate those thoughts in a similar way” he says. He recalls that on a trek that he led, there was a very well-informed child whose knowledge of trees, flowers, plants and the mountains inspired other children to learn and interact more. A sense of competitiveness could thus translate to peer learning, as we have seen on our EL treks.
Some children experience hiking and trekking as competition free zones, however. Aman and Ankan Shah live in Los Altos, California. Soon to be 18 and 11 years old, they love their forays into the trails around the city, always choosing to hike in groups. They love hiking because it is “free of the need to compete and perform.” They look at hiking as the perfect “low-stress” way to “build community and find friends.” In their experience, “everyone motivates each other and there’s no stress if everyone can’t make it to the top!”
Children are inherently competitive. What one does, the other one tries to do better. Yet, on a trek, competition is overridden by a close sense of cooperation among children. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Fun multiplies manifold
Finally, it is time to talk about the most obvious takeaway when many children trek together: fun and more fun! Our trek leaders often come back glowing from leading children’s groups – such is the infectious fun energy of children trekking together. Despite the challenges they may face, the trek leaders say they “absolutely loved” the trek when asked how it went.
Ravi describes how children are the first to throw themselves into a fun activity. Their enthusiasm to participate draws in the adults as well. We have constantly seen on our family treks where there are many children that the energy levels are much higher as compared to groups where there are very few children.
Children are naturally less inhibited than adults. The mountains (and the activities designed on the trek) further draw out their playfulness. “Children experience what it is to be themselves with their peers – no pretenses and masks,” Izzat adds. This release from the ‘roles’ played in daily life settings translates to joy and fun during the trek.
While trekking together, “Children experience the pure joy of being with other children. Talking, walking, engaging in wilderness activities, helping each other, laughing their hearts out, gazing with awe at the majesty of the mountains and the milky way…” they spend unforgettable times together, says Izzat.
Fun, of course, is an integral part of trekking. And there's no better place to say, "the more, the merrier."