By John Dockendorf, executive director and founder
When people ask me what other programs we compete with, I don’t first think of other outdoor or youth development companies—our competition is actually video games and technology.
Twenty years ago, most kids spent their summer outdoors—it was what kids did. Now programs like ours are reserved for the adventurous few as people move away from the great outdoors to the great indoors. The numbers speak for themselves; the typical teen spends nine hours daily (Common Sense Media, Kaiser Family Foundation) with digital media and less than one hour each day outdoors. So if we see our competition as technology, we have to commit to making sure that kids see us as more fun and more rewarding than video games. And if we want to compete favorably, we have to understand the appeal of technology and why it captures our kids’ imaginations.
But first… One never gets anywhere by “dissing” technology. We all know the many ways technology has enhanced our lives, and I have to constantly remind myself that the digital world is the only world which our kids know. Texting and Instagram are how kids socialize now. It’s not their fault; they never knew life without the internet or social media.
As parents, we have enabled this world by restricting our kids’ freedoms. Most parents, I surmise, feel more comfortable letting their kids play video games in the basement than allowing them to ride their bicycles freely around town. As the ever-watchful and highly involved parents we are, we give our kids less room to roam and less time to socialize unsupervised in public spaces than did previous generations. Because we have reduced the opportunity for the face-to-face socialization kids love, we force them online where they can create their own space with the privacy that teenagers also crave. We have to realize that technology might not necessarily be kids’ first choice of how they would like to communicate—I would argue that “face-to-face” still wins for most kids, and that technology is just the easy default.
Competing with technology and video games specifically is tough: Hundreds of millions of research dollars goes into making video games more fun each year (you can insert the word addictive if you choose), and video games have certain characteristics that make them popular.
- Video games put the kids in control, and the child is at the center of the experience. While in academics, youth sports, and much of family life, it’s the adults who run things.
- Video games are action packed 100 percent of the time and can be played with their friends.
- Video games allow kids to create their own reality based upon their motivations—these worlds are often more vivid and exciting than their worlds at home.
- Video games reward incremental success with digital prizes and/or praise. Because of this incremental success and recognition, there is constant incentive to keep playing as they continue to succeed through ever-increasing challenges.
- Video games allow children to experiment and fail privately without fear of criticism. For many kids, especially boys, public failure and the associated embarrassment is the greatest fear when pushing their comfort levels.
At Adventure Treks, we build some of the same benefits of video games into our program. While we don’t have an R & D budget to match Nintendo, we have some natural advantages that make it easy for us to beat video games at their own game!
- Adventure Treks is fun! We believe outdoor activities, when properly led and where fun is appropriately emphasized, can be more fun than video games! Imagine glissading (sliding) down snowy Mount St. Helens after a spectacular summit; or mountain biking single track trails in Bend, Oregon; or rafting the mighty Nahatlatch River in British Columbia. Sorry, Call of Duty–game over!
- We put kids in the center of the community. Sure, the instructors are running the show, but students have real voice in how their community runs. Students get to create their own world at Adventure Treks, and it’s usually kinder, better, and more social than the world they left at home. The instructors are young and cool enough that they can be included as part of the community in a way that parents or coaches could never be.
- We are technology-free and 100 percent outdoors. The best way to beat tech is to make the place with the total absence of technology even better. We create a place where Instagram and Snapchat can’t compete with constant face-to-face interaction. When you live together 24/7 (and the norms and mores are subtly guided by “cool” mentors), the social joy of Adventure Treks makes social media pale by comparison.
- Our unique 4:1 student-to-instructor ratio allows the group to break into smaller groups so challenges can be appropriate for each individual. This incremental improvement, similar to what video games offers, helps build success and confidence.
- Because of our nightly evening meeting format, positive feedback is regular and abundant. We create a place where it’s safe to fail. We build a culture that encourages trying new things and pushing one’s comfort level. Kids know where they stand, and it feels good to get feedback on a regular basis.
- Adventure Treks let’s kids see themselves in a new light. They get a fresh start and are not limited by their reputation from home or preconceived notions their friends may hold. With a new group of friends and away from family, they can be a different person. Meanwhile the high expectations we hold for behavior helps students become their “best selves!”
By understanding how technology fits into kids’ lives and the competition we face with digital media, it helps us keep the Adventure Treks experience relevant and ensures we don’t lose sight of the most important stuff: a tech-free connection to the outdoors and the formation of a close community led by impressive and cool role models.
This will be our 23rd summer at Adventure Treks. We simply can’t run our program the same way we did 20 years ago or even five years ago. Every year, technologies change and as kids interact with this new technology, their perception of the world changes. We have to make sure we deliver an incredible outdoor experience in a way that fits how kids raised in the digital age can receive it! And at the end of three technology-free weeks, filled with the simplicity and joy of the great outdoors, we believe teenagers’ perception of technology, might just have shifted a bit!
Five years from now, we predict our competition will no longer be digital media—it will probably be virtual reality—and we plan to be ready!