Pushing Past What’s Comfortable: How Adventure Helps Us Grow

If you’ve ever had occasion to dig your car out of the snow, you know what an arduous chore it can be. This winter, when a car spun off of KJ Dell’Antonia’s driveway and into a snowdrift, she enlisted her children to help dig it out – and then wrote about it in an essay appropriately called “Why Kids Love a (Minor) Crisis”:

We truly needed [the children’s] help, and every one of them contributed in a big way. Even when there’s snow down your gloves and you’re struggling to lift the shovel, that’s a good feeling. My colleague Bruce Feiler, author of “The Secrets of Happy Families,” would say it gives the kids a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. It means leaving the squabbles around the Monopoly board in favor of pulling together towards a common goal, and having the questions we all wrestle with — who am I, where do I fit in — temporarily answered. You’re a person with a shovel, faced with a car in a pile of snow. You dig . . . That feeling of being a capable, valued and necessary part of the whole leaves its mark, whether you call it “fun” or not.

Her comments about physical challenges and “pulling together towards a common goal” could just as easily be used to describe our Trojan Outdoor Experience program (TOE). Last week, after the seventh grade returned from the TOE trip to Enchanted Rock, I received a wonderful letter from one of the parent chaperones. Her words capture the essence of TOE’s mission: “to use outdoor activities to profoundly increase the respect our students have for themselves, each other, and the natural world.”

She wrote:

I had the opportunity to spend a little time watching a group rappel and rock climb.   I got to see how [TOE Director] Blake Amos and [Dean of Students] Jeff Snyder allowed the kids to feel what they were feeling, never making them feel wrong or rushing them to do anything they weren’t comfortable doing.  I saw high school students work with the seventh graders to get things done in such a way that showed maturity and grace…

I think what I loved most of all was seeing a seventh grader beam with joy after facing a fear and being able to overcome it — not an easy task for seventh graders who never want to look like they don’t know something or look bad in front of their peers.

Although the trip looked very grueling for most of the seventh graders, they grew in those two days.  When my son and I came home, he wanted to share with me how wonderful his group leaders were.  What he loved the most was that they had him take responsibility for himself in a way that he felt independent and in control.  As an example, on Saturday morning he asked me if he could do his laundry!

Students grow when they meet challenges, when they have the opportunity to test the limits of their endurance, and when they are encouraged to push beyond what’s comfortable.  In a beautiful essay in the New York Times last week, David Brooks wrote:  “When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant.” That rings true, personally. When I think about TOE trips I’ve attended, I vividly remember a brutal autumn heat wave in Texas and torrential rainstorms in Virginia. I remember rattlesnake tracks and blistered ankles and my quickening pulse as I prepared to rappel down a cliff.

I also remember words of encouragement spoken at just the right moment and the satisfaction of aching muscles, the excitement of fifth graders boarding the bus and the maturity of upper schoolers returning as leaders. Each of these memories is sweet because when we encounter our natural world, pulling together as a team to set up tents and navigate rivers, we cannot doubt that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

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