Adult and Youth Leadership Ratios on Scout Outings

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Adults keep an eye on things from a respectful distance and Scouts lead themselves.

Adults keep an eye on things from a respectful distance and Scouts lead themselves.

When we talk about boys planning, preparing and leading Scout outings some folks reply “Good grief, how can you leave the Scouts in charge when the troop is going on a strenuous hike to Jones Mountain and they have no experience?  As Scoutmaster, isn’t it my responsibility to be closely involved in each Scout’s preparation for every activity?”

The answer to these questions hinge on a number of variables.  Based on my experience there are four basic types of Scout outings, and three stages involved in making them happen; planning, preparing and implementation.

The four basic types of Scout outings:

A campsite the troop visits regularly. Scouts know the layout of the campsite, the drive there, and the facilities available to them.

A campsite no one in the troop has been to before.  They may have  a map  with the general layout and the route in, but it’s a new place for the Scouts and adults.

An advanced multi-day backpacking or canoeing trek (or something similar) that the troop has conducted before.  There are adults and Scouts who have been on this trek in the past and are familiar with the terrain and the preparations required

An advanced trek that no one in the troop has been on before.

Here’s a way of looking at the ratio of youth/adult involvement in the stages of planning, preparing and implementing these four types of outings

  Planning Preparing Implementation
Activity Adult Youth  Adult Youth   Adult Youth 
TYPE ONE Low Very High Very Low Very High Very Low Very High
TYPE TWO Low High Low Very High Low High
TYPE THREE Medium Medium Medium High High High
TYPE FOUR High Medium Medium High High Medium

Several other factors determine the ratio of adult to youth leadership in these stages:

 1. Level of Experience and Training.
When an activity is a bit of a stretch or entirely new the adult leadership is on high alert.   We don’t just randomly throw Scouts and adult leaders into new situations without acknowledging  and mitigating risks. One important aspect of risk mitigation is preparation. Adults may be specifically involved in assuring each Scout is properly prepared.

We  guide our own  raft trip on the Nantahala River.  Several of our adults are trained and experienced and the river conditions are such that we go without guides and special equipment.  I check each Scouts PFD before we get on the bus.  I don’t delegate this check to another adult or youth leader.  I stand by the door, greet each Scout as he comes by with his paddle, grab his vest and test to insure that it’s the proper size and properly fastened on.  I often do the same thing for the new adults.

2.  Opportunity for Youth Initiative and Responsibility.
Type one activities are a perfect opportunity for Patrol Leaders and the Senior Patrol Leader to  plan, prepare, and implement almost everything.  The Scoutmaster purposefully steps back so the Senior Patrol Leader has the opportunity to  lead his Scouts without interference or undue oversight from the adults.

My troop has a couple of campsites that the Scouts are very familiar with.  We usually camp at each of these sites at least once a year.  The Scouts usually choose a familiar, low risk activity for these weekends.  Each campsite has a traditional area for the adults and a separated area for the Scouts.  When we arrive, they head off to their place and do their thing.  They should not need me and I don’t get into their business.  When things are running smoothly, I enjoy a weekend with  the other adult leaders in the troop while the Scouts enjoy each other’s company.

In preparing for these trips adults purposefully do not involve themselves in checking or re-checking individual or group gear unless there’s a particular issue of health and safety involved (a winter trip in the snow for instance). We know if someone shows up without a mess kit or a flashlight they will be uncomfortable, but they won’t be unsafe. This approach stresses personal awareness of and responsibility for the individual and the importance of youth leaders working cooperatively to assure that their Scouts are prepared.

3.  Shared Youth and Adult Responsibility
During type three trips adults and Scouts hike or paddle together through all or portions of the trek.  A qualified adult confirms that the group is following the map, that the correct trail ahead is chosen and that everyone is capable of continuing.  These decisions may be delegated  to the youth leadership when it is prudent but the adults are cognizant of what’s going on.

When the group arrives at their campsite safely adults don’t need to have the same level of involvement.  The Scouts are perfectly capable of selecting their own tent site, setting up, preparing meals, etc.

When my troop went to Sea Base we went on the Out Island Adventure.  We sailed a 52′ sloop from Sea Base down to Key West and back again.  Our boat came with a Sea Base certified captain.  Captain Gary was in charge.  Not me.  Not the Venture Patrol Leader.  He was pretty good at delegating responsibility to the Scouts, but he was in charge.  That was prudent.  No one questioned it.

Clarke regularly takes his Troop on a canoe trek in Canada.  It’s a regular activity and he often has experienced Scouts along on the trek.  However, he may still want to interact more with Scouts on their first trek than the older Scouts to whom this activity is old hat.  Again, this is prudent leadership.

On our 50 mile Appalachian Trail treks I generally pay very close attention to the newer Scouts preparation.  I will normally watch the boy leader inspect the new Scouts pack and gear.  I might even intervene and make some comments.  I prefer to let the Patrol Leaders and Instructors manage the Scouts activity preparation at the Troop Meetings.  Some activities, however, may require more adult leader attention.  I would normally not inspect or question a Scout, who is an experienced hiker, about his gear or preparation, but I look closely at how new Scouts are packing and preparing for the trip.

On these treks the Scouts are following the map but a qualified adult is confirming their choices and direction. I have heard of instances where adults will allow Scouts to go in the wrong direction or take the wrong turn during a trek as a learning experience. I can only imagine that these adults must be inexperienced or willfully ignorant  of  the real risks involved in doing this:  pushing a group beyond it’s physical capacity, hiking or canoeing at night, getting caught out in bad weather, getting lost, or any combination of those risks make such ‘lessons’ both foolhardy and dangerous.

I’d say that at nearly all the outings a normal Scout troop does falls into the type one or type two sort of activity.  Scouts ought to be perfectly capable of managing those types of activities with little adult supervision or interaction. Experienced,  trained youth leaders should be able to function during most activities as if there were no adults present at all.

Of course we adults will be more involved and more watchful when the stakes are higher, the activity or the location is unfamiliar or inherently risky.

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