When Xiu Mei was a “shy and timid” middle-schooler, the prospect of scaling an 11,000-foot peak or rafting a raging river seemed plenty daunting. But Mei pushed herself to join in the challenging outdoor activities offered by GirlVentures, a San Francisco-based organization that encourages girls’ leadership and self-expression through outdoor adventure and creative arts. This is just one of many organizations that knows the benefits of nature for girls.
Mei learned a lot about herself and discovered that she loved outdoor adventures. Now in her second year at the University of California at Los Angeles, she spent her high school summers in GirlVenture’s Transitions program and became an assistant instructor for the organization. After high school, she has stayed involved with other outdoor programs such as Outward Bound. Even better, she found that gaining physicalconfidence in the outdoors translated into confidence in all arenas. “I learned that my strength will carry me through life no matter what happens,” says Mei.
When girls meet outdoor challenges and overcome their fears, they feel more connected with their bodies, as well as physically and mentally stronger, says Priscilla McKenney, program director for GirlVentures. “We create a space for girls to be seen and heard, and they learn that what they say matters and has value,” says McKenney. “Parents tell us that their daughters tend to speak out more at home when they return.”
GirlVentures’ programs include Project Courage, a 14-day course for seventh- and eighth-graders that includes rock climbing, hiking and kayaking, and Transitions, a more intense 14-day course for eighth- and ninth-graders that includes backcountry hiking, canyoneering, and mountain climbing. Physical activities are interspersed with creative activities, open discussion, and time for reflection.
Other such programs offer physically challenging activities for girls (see resources), but parents can also help girls get more adventurous right at home. Most locales have a city or state park nearby, and can offer adventure opportunities such as taking a weekend backpacking trip or renting a kayak at a local river or lake. Schools, city parks and recreation departments, and community organizations such as Girls, Inc. and the YWCA often offer low-cost adventures and classes for girls in a range of activities from rock-climbing to cave exploration.
If your daughter isn’t excited by one activity, try another, advises Alison Gannett, who has earned many distinctions in bicycling, skiing, and in the very adventurous freeskiing arena. She wasn’t always fearless about physical challenges. As an overweight teenager, she was often teased. “My biggest obstacle was my lack of confidence,” she recalls. She tried soccer and lacrosse, but concluded that she just wasn’t a very good athlete. When she moved out west, she discovered that she loved mountain biking and rediscovered skiing, which she’d learned as a child from her mother. Taking that first step is important, she recalls. “Once you just start getting out there and overcoming your fears, the confidence comes and you can follow your dreams,” says Gannett.
That’s what Quontinetta Bufford did, and she has found the rewards still reverberating in her life. As a teen in inner-city Dallas, Bufford joined a volleyball team affiliated with the Starlings, a national volleyball club offering free or low-cost training and competition for some 3,000 low-income girls in the U.S. The physical training is coupled with mentoring for the girls, and Bufford was inspired to pursue junior college. Even when she had a child in high school, Bufford stuck with her studies—and helped the team win a national championship. “Playing for the Starlings gave me possibilities I never considered possible,” she says.
Whether during the toasty summer months or in the bracing chill of the winter months, outdoor challenges for girls pay off long after the adventure itself. “Sometimes when teen girls have tough times, they forget how strong they are and what they really care about,” Mei observes. “I go back to my GirlVentures experience to be refueled.”