Girl Scouts is building girl leaders through accessible, easy, fun outdoor adventures

Outdoor education has always been a big part of Girl Scouting, but these days that goes beyond going away to Girl Scout camp for the week. Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan is putting particular focus on making access to outdoor adventure and the leadership skills that come with it available to girls in cities and towns throughout its nine-county service area. 

“The best place to learn leadership skills is the outdoors because you get to see the immediate impact of how your behavior affects the outdoors and you’re learning how to be agile and flexible, which is huge,” says Gretchen Abrams, Director of Camps and Outdoor Education for the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan.  “Knowing when you have to change course and be flexible are two big pieces of outdoor skills. You have to be prepared for anything.”

Abrams says outdoor environments provide opportunities for hands-on education that differ from those of an indoor classroom setting. “Girls learn to improvise and work together so that a broken tent pole won’t be a major obstacle to setting up a tent or figuring out how to overcome the absence of a raincoat in wet weather,” Abrams said. 

GSSEM is working to make these vital outdoor education and skill-building experiences become the norm for all girls in the communities it serves. GSSEM serves more than 30,000 girls and volunteers in Oakland, Macomb, Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac and parts of Wayne, Monroe and Livingston Counties. 

“For some communities, it is not culturally normal to go away to sleep-away camp. This is definitely an upper-class, white ideal,” Abrams says. “I think really the biggest challenge is having those camp experiences like making s’mores, hiking, pond dipping, canoeing or kayaking, and giving girls those opportunities to do these things in their own backyard. People have this idea that nature and the outdoors are far from their backyards. We try to make sure we can provide that so girls can have outdoor opportunities near their homes and know that it doesn’t have to exist far away.”

Through connections with various businesses and organizations, GSSEM has been able to offer girls canoe trips from Belle Isle, horseback riding near where they live, and kayaking in the city.  

GSSEM also recently presented Under the Stars, an urban camping program in which girls camped out on the field at the Corner Ballpark in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

Out of the box outdoor adventures

Abrams and her team dedicate a great deal of time to creating outdoor programming options that serve all girls in the southeastern Michigan council service area—and that go beyond camping. 

Outdoor adventure programs like GSSEM’s “Hike Like a Girl” and “Tri Like a Girl,” ensure that more girls have access to opportunities to get out, get active and learn about their surroundings on their own time and in their own way. Both activities allow girls to earn patches by completing outdoor activities like hiking and biking individually and as a group. Participants in Tri Like a Girl had to hike 28 miles and bike 28 miles and do a service project on their own or with other girls.

Girls in Stacey Bousho’s troops participated in the Hike and Tri programs. Bousho, leader for Troop 75949 and co-leader for Troop 7750 noted that GSSEM provides programs that help every girl find something they will have fun doing outdoors. They can be in a safe space where they can be themselves, get outdoors and be around other girls. 

“Kids are just stuck on their screen for school or work, especially high schoolers,” Bousho says.  “To be able to encourage them to get out and do things outside helps with stress and anxiety relief. One of the best things you can do for self-care is to get out and be in the sunshine.” 

Among the many things that Bousho appreciates about GSSEM is the council’s commitment to offering a variety of options for girls to get engaged and stay engaged.

“Girl Scouts isn’t all about crafts and the activities we focus on in my troops is proof of that,” she says, noting girls in her troops were very involved in the Hike and Tri programs.

“For Hike Like a Girl, every week we had a different meet-up spot. We walked with dogs around the lake and another time we went hiking in the woods. We would take our bikes once a week and either do hiking or biking. Girls earned their patches by completing the hike, bike and help components. Our help portion was set up was having our girls meet up on Belle Isle and do a service project there.”

The success of the Hike and Tri events is leading to another hiking adventure scheduled to take place this fall, in addition to more planned meet-ups and a council wide hike along the entire Riverwalk area.

Outdoor adventures at home 

With safety always being top priority, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, GSSEM also offers outdoor skills kits for purchase at a nominal fee that help girls get outdoors right at home. These kits include instructions and the materials necessary to make items like survival bracelets or to learn how to pitch a tent. 

“Whether they’re in their living room, on a balcony or if they’re lucky enough to go to a state campground, we make it relevant so that the outdoors is available to every girl in our council,” Abrams says.

Bousho says these kits enabled girls to continue to earn patches and badges through virtual formats with which they have become very comfortable. Among the options, a virtual picnic where girls would picnic in their own backyards while FaceTiming each other.

“Once they take these kits they can do with them as they wish,” Abrams says. “Trying to mesh the virtual world with in-person programming is key. Last summer girls tuned in online to virtual camp.  We had a Google drive where they could share everything they did. Having the virtual opportunities gave girls a little bit of insight into what camp is or could look like. We tried to convey a cool camp experience virtually.”

To remove obstacles to having a real outdoor experience, GSSEM also has a complete equipment loan library which offers tents, backpacks, cooking tools and just about everything else necessary to camp at home. These items may be borrowed, which is especially helpful for girls and troop leaders who don’t have space to store the equipment or funds to purchase these items.

Abrams says more city based outdoor programming is on the horizon, like camping in Detroit’s River Rouge Park, to remove transportation as a barrier to girls’ participating.

“If girls don’t get to have these experiences, they don’t get the chance to learn and understand how they can personally have an impact on the world around them,” Abrams says. “The more experiences our girls have, the bigger and richer their contributions to their communities can be, and the better equipped the girls are to be leaders and make the world a better place.” 

Now is a great time to join Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan. Girl Scouts is open to girls in kindergarten through 12th grade. To learn more visit www.gssem.org/join.