The talk was hosted by IIM Sambalpur late in 2022. In his third TEDx Talk, our founder Arjun Majumdar spoke about Why Children Must Trek — a practice that could define the future of our country. The talk is full of rare wisdom from over two decades of trekking experience.
As usual, Arjun has an uncanny ability to capture the audience with his storytelling skills. The talk is thought-provoking to the extent that you'll wonder why children in our country have not gone trekking yet. Perhaps you'll also wonder why it isn't an integral part of our education system.
Here's the complete transcript of the TEDx Talk.
I don’t think there is anyone here who does not understand the importance of the outdoors. We constantly urge our children to “go out and play”. We worry that with school, study and extracurricular activities there is very little time for the outdoors.
I am aware of this. We are all aware of this. Yet, not everyone has a solution to this problem.
Today, I am going to propose a solution. My solution can push children back into the outdoors. It can bring back the connection between children and nature; it can help prepare them for the future.
I am Arjun Majumdar. I am the founder and CEO of Indiahikes, India’s largest trekking organisation. More than 20,000 trekkers trek with us every year, many of them children. In this large number of people trekking we get to observe the behavioural dynamics of children very closely. It has given us new insights into how trekking impacts children.
I am going to share some of these insights with you today. Perhaps these insights can show you why I feel trekking can be a solution to the problem.
Early this year, we were trekking with a group of school children in the Himalayas. We were at a camp at about 9,000 feet. The camp surrounded by beautiful forests was an ideal location for children to connect with nature.
When night had fallen, our trek leader pulled out the children from their tents. Outside millions of stars shone brightly in the constellations. The milky way streaked from one corner of the sky to another.
Our trek leader walked the children to a grassy hump near the camp and made them lie down on their backs to watch this dazzling sky. After a while he asked the children, “Isn’t it so beautiful?” There was a pause before a quiet child said, “I’ve never seen anything so scary in my life.” He wanted to go back inside his tent as soon as possible. The child could not connect with the wonders of the night sky. He allowed the darkness to overwhelm him.
Even as evidence mounts on the benefits of connecting with nature for children, the disconnect between children and nature seems to be rising. Children are a part of nature. Not having them feel and sense that connection is like having a family and not connecting or interacting with it.
When children see themselves as separate from nature, there is a dichotomy in how they view the world. They are unable to relate to the realities of the world. This is why it is critically important for their wellness (and the world’s) for children to integrate with nature.
Look at the fears that surround children: Fear of the dark, fear of lightning, fear of heights, fear of walking on dirt tracks, fear of getting wet in the rain, fear of animals, fear of the unknown — countless fears stand between children and their future.
This is why treks are so good. On a trek, children get many opportunities to lose their fears. They face rough trails, slippery paths, mud and dirt, insects and lizards. They are forced to confront their fears. Over the course of a trek, we see children shed their fears in a big way.
As an example, we have seen by the end of a trek, children happily allowing insects to crawl over them!
This also makes children want to take care of nature. The fact is simple. You do not care for anything that you do not love or relate to. Trekking helps children relate to nature. On a trek children experience that nature is not above or below them — they are part of it. It makes them want to look after it.
This connection also makes them more themselves. A child outdoors is very different from the same child at home or in a classroom. They are more joyful, curious, calm, and supportive of each other. Many have expressed that they like who they are when they are in nature. When children align with nature, they align with their true inner selves.
Recently, on our trek at our Western Campus near Mumbai, a family was trekking with their 11-year-old daughter, Dhriti. In the design of our family treks, we divide the responsibility of camping among the children. Some are given kitchen duties, some tent pitching duties, and few others are given campsite management charges, or to look after others.
During our final reflections, the father of Dhriti had a very strange expression on his face. He was very quiet. He finally spoke with a tinge of sadness and pride.
He said, “for the first time I realise my child has grown up. I still have the image of her as a child, who is not capable of much. But I am amazed at what I have seen today. She took on so much responsibility for herself and others. She is a lot more independent than I thought. Seeing her here, I realise she is capable of so much more. I really do not have to worry about her.”
The father was seeing his child in a new light.
Trekking helps children see for themselves who they really are and how others see them. Most children do not know who they are. Schools are academic playgrounds. It is not a setting that allows a child to know about themselves.
I’ll share a story. We were taking a group of school children in grade 5 on a day trek near Bangalore.
At the start of the trek, the teachers of the school took me aside. They pointed out a young boy, Rohan, who was a known troublemaker. They told me that he was so notorious that they had tried their best in reforming him but he was beyond repair.
True to their words the moment we started the trek he was unmanageable. He would run ahead of others, talk loudly and be belligerent. If I had an instruction for the team, he would not listen.
A while later, at a rest point, I called Rohan aside and asked him if he would help me in getting our Green Trails objectives met. Rohan was sceptical and asked me what he had to do. I told him I was finding it difficult to manage the group. Could he distribute the garbage sacks to a few others? Could he also ensure that everyone took responsibility for filling their sacks with litter from the trail?
He took the sacks from me and set to task immediately. He called a few other students and distributed the sacks to them. He challenged them to see who could fill more.
As the trek progressed, the teachers and I noticed Rohan was enjoying the challenge. He was having fun ensuring that he along with other students were picking up as much litter as possible. At times we saw him dive into thorny bushes to pull out litter stuck deep inside. Others followed his example. He would come around to me a couple of times to show his collection and also to report who was doing more!
At the end of the short trek, the class had collected 4 big sacks of litter. We took a group photo with Rohan standing proudly behind the sacks.
We asked the school teachers to ensure Rohan was acknowledged by the principal in the school assembly for his efforts.
A month later we met one of the teachers at the school again. She said the trek had a big effect on Rohan. The acknowledgement of Rohan’s efforts at the school assembly changed him almost overnight. He felt like a star. Following this, he became quite the leader in school events. He started looking at himself differently.
Like Rohan, we very often see trekking help children see for themselves who they really are and also how others see them. Trekking aligns children with their true inner selves.
Children discover that they are capable of a lot more than they thought. They discover they are capable of care, empathy and leadership. They discover they are more resilient than they imagined.
In April this year, a girl's school headed out to the Himalayas on a trek with us. This was a well-known residential school in our country. The children of this school were from the upper crest of society.
Just as the group of girls were halfway up on the first day’s trek they were caught in the middle of a fierce rain. It did not just rain, it rained so hard that even the raindrops felt like pellets.
By the time they trudged into camp they were soaking wet, their shoes and socks sodden. They were cold, shivering and utterly miserable.
We expected many of them to quit the trek. Such misery was beyond what children could take. Especially privileged children.
Surprisingly, not a single one of them wanted to quit. At the start of the trek, they had made an agreement with us that they would complete the trek no matter what. They would now stick with the agreement. They were aware that the next 3 days of the weather forecast were not good. More rains were in store. They were determined to complete the trek successfully despite the odds.
Over the next three days, we saw these girls break stereotype barriers that were there in our minds. Barriers about gender, fitness and privilege. They braved rain, hailstones and increasingly colder temperatures. Three days later they completed the trek successfully.
We have noticed on a trek children embrace difficulties. Trekking helps children learn how to overcome hardships. In the modern world with comforts at our beck and call, learning how to deal with hardships is not what children are accustomed to. Yet, over the course of a trek, we notice children learn how to overcome them. They learn how to manage with little. They are ok to rough things out.
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This training is vital in life. When we meet these same children many years later, they always talk about their treks having played a very big part in who they are now. They talk about how the trek had taught them to take good with bad.
Almost all of them say how much more prepared they are today to face the challenges of life. That they looked at hardships differently after the trek.
Today I have spoken to you about three ways in which children benefit when they trek. I told you about how children connect with nature. How treks make children learn more about themselves. I also spoke about how treks help children get accustomed to hardship. All of these help children prepare for the future.
For more than a decade now we have observed children trekking with us. We notice how transformational trekking can be.
Today one of the biggest problems that need to be solved is how to get children outdoors. My solution is to introduce children to trekking. Trekking is a school on its own. Trekking has many lessons to teach. These lessons are lifelong. It prepares children for the future.
Trekking can not only be the solution to reconnecting our children with the outdoors, it may perhaps be the only way.