By Suza Bedient, Program Director of Women’s Wilderness
Human beings are designed to grow and learn from the moment of our arrival onto this earth to the day of our departure from it. One of the most amazing features of our brain is its neuroplasticity: its capacity to change throughout life and re-organize its very structure. We are, in fact, designed to grow and learn through direct experience.
Women’s Wilderness works in the business of growing girls and women, so it is important to take a good look at how we, as humans, actually grow. With that real process in mind, we can do a better job of supporting that process through the opportunities that we offer.
Maria Montessori’s outstanding work done in the early 1900s distills human development into stages that give us a greater context for understanding the growth of children into adulthood. By taking a look at these stages and considering our own growth processes, we see the critical importance of providing access to girls-only, wilderness-based programing at these vulnerable stages as girls grow beyond childhood.
The First Plane of Development: Years 0-6
This period is characterized by self-absorption and exploring through the senses, particularly the hand-brain connection, as we learn to manipulate and engage with our environment.
When this stage is supported, the child gains personal confidence and a strong sense of self, as well as a healthy will. They are then ready to move into the next stage of turning their focus out onto the world.
The Second Plane of Development: Years 6-12
The focus shifts from the self to engagement with others: the child wants to learn to get along with others and participate in group activities. This is the beginning of the Reasoning Stage: the development of the intellect and imagination. We explore topics like good vs. evil, loyalty, justice, and the rules/rituals of our cultures.
At the end of this stage, the child has fully developed as a child and is ready to move into something more complex.
This is the stage that our Adventure Days programs serve (available in Boulder and Jefferson County). The girls thrive in active play out on the earth, exploring nature and fun together.
All social mammals learn through play and are designed to thrive in the context of a group or tribe. The rituals that girls encounter at Women’s Wilderness weave them together while still allowing them to find their authentic voice, self-expression, and the capacity to empathize with others.
In Stages 3 and 4, we begin to disintegrate the framework of childhood by repeating the patterns of the first two stages, but at much greater depths and incorporating the world as our context.
The Third Plane of Development: Years 12-18
This is a very vulnerable period of growth, when we bring our focus back internally. We experience intense physical changes as the hormones begin to run. And we go through intensive mental and emotional development.
Substage: 12-15 Years
The challenges unique to this first substage are two-fold:
- It carries the quality of extreme change, surprising both the girl and her parents. She is suddenly extremely different in her behaviors and needs firm yet gentle, nonjudgmental guidance to help her do her own inner work. No one can do this work for her, yet she really needs a steady parental presence.
- The beginning of this substage is unique to each girl and can vary by several years. Thus a group of girls in this stage can contain the full gamut of development, from not having begun to expressing fully as an adolescent.
A girl’s needs during this time:
- More sleep
- Special nutrition
- A balanced day with more time for reflection and self-expression
- Adult mentors who are not her parent(s)!
- Peer groups that are supportive and intimate
This is the stage that our Adventure Camps serve. At this stage, girls begin to develop in very different ways than boys. It is important for girls to be with girls, as they re-focus inward, deal with the challenges of experiencing their authentic selves, and explore ways to embed themselves in the greater culture without losing their sense of self.
The focus on these courses is not the task, be it backpacking, climbing, or outdoor living skills. Rather, these tasks hold a steady direction while the focus comes to the process, within and without:
- Finding their own voice
- Deep listening to the voices of others
- Learning to deal with conflicts, differences of opinion, and unfamiliar experiences
- Learning how to weave a tribe of friends that are intimate and supportive
The highly competent Women’s Wilderness Field Staff are able to be adult mentors, allowing the girls to safely explore other ways of being in the world than they’ve known through their family.
Substage: 15-18 Years
This substage is a settling of the chaos of the former substage. The girl is experiencing success in developing her deeper emotional intelligence, beginning to differentiate from her family and its values, and even reforming her relationships within the family unit.
This is the stage served by our Leadership Series courses. These courses are designed to empower girls with inner strength that leads to outer confidence: an inside-out approach.
The task of each trip provides plenty of challenges. To meet these challenges, the girls are taught to focus on their main resources: themselves (tapping into the wisdom of their bodies, their emotions, and their minds), their peers (they are taught the skills of group-building), their mentors (trusted adults, including their parents), and the earth itself.
From that place of self-confidence, they gain experience in competence with outdoor living and technical skills. They may attend the course for the inner skills only. Some of them may also be interested in a lifetime of outdoor adventures. And some may even move into outdoor education as professionals. All of them will lead and inspire other girls coming after them as they embrace their passions.
The Fourth Plane of Development: Years 18-24
This stage allows a return to the stability and intellectual development that characterized the Second Stage (6-12 years). The main difference is that the world is now the primary context, not just the family unit.
There is much integration here:
- A more advanced level of Emotional Intelligence
- Growth in Critical Thinking and a deeper exploration of how the world works and how each person, as an individual, can engage with it.
In this stage and all of our growth stages beyond, our Women’s Programs offer empowerment through technical skills, confidence in our competence, and continued self-expression. We are so much more than just our intellect.
It is important as we turn our focus to the development of our intellect, to stay embodied:
- To continue to love and care for our bodies
- To continue to develop our skills in Mindfulness
Building these skills gives us an empowered baseline from which to explore the joys and challenges of adulthood.
The word educate comes from the Latin meaning, ‘to lead out.’ Our growth and development as human beings does not stop at 24 years of age, as we move into adulthood. We must strive to Lead Ourselves Out continually throughout our lives. Women’s Wilderness programming is there to support women from the ages of 8-80 and beyond, allowing the wisdom of each decade of womanhood to support and inform the others.
About the Author:
Suza Bedient is the Program Director of Women’s Wilderness and has worked in outdoor education throughout her adulthood. She continues to work as a member of the NOLS Senior Staff and has done so for 25 years. She has backpacked and sailed in wild places throughout the world. Her life’s purpose is to grow the individual within the context of the collective. In this way, she serves Women’s Wilderness and its mission of developing confidence and competence for girls and women.
She is also the Founder of Tree of Life Mentoring, a business with the mission of deepening people’s engagement with their life on earth. She is deeply informed by the Landscape of Baja California, Mexico.