Field Guiding at Open Sky is one of the most dynamic, challenging and rewarding jobs I have ever had partly due to the number of different roles we have to play in one day. At all times, and above all, we make sure students stay warm, hydrated, fed and safe in a wilderness environment. We are also mentors and teachers. We listen to and reflect on what is happening to students as individuals and to the group as a whole. We are conflict mediators and group culture crafters. We hold boundaries and we provide shoulders to cry on. We facilitate ceremonies and provide basic first aid. We teach students how to cook and how to feel their emotions. We help students figure out their strengths and limitations. All this and so much more happens each and every day.
Given how complex and dynamic guiding can be, a framework is needed to help us determine what role to fill at any given time. The framework that we use is Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Psychologist, Abraham Maslow created Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in 1943, which describes the basic human needs in order of necessity. It is usually represented in a pyramid starting with the most important needs on the bottom: physiological needs (food, water, shelter), safety, love and belonging, self-esteem and lastly, self-actualization at the top. The theory is that we cannot move up a level unless the needs below are met. For instance, we are not concerned about our self-esteem if we are cold and hungry. Once we are warm and fed, then self-esteem becomes more important.
How then does this framework apply to field guiding? We prioritize physical needs above all else. Guides are always assessing and managing the physical needs of students, and teaching them these skills. We ensure everyone is hydrated and fed before we run a therapeutic group. We ensure everyone is warm and dry before we facilitate a ceremony. We teach students how to build shelters, use clothing layers appropriately, and wash their hands before we ask them to learn a communication skill. In other words, both the guides and the students prioritize and learn how to physically take care of themselves before moving on to other skills. This alone is therapeutic for students in that it teaches self-care and self-reliance.
Once physical needs are met then we can move on to a feeling of safety, both physical and emotional. Feeling physically safe comes along with learning all of the skills mentioned above and building trust with the guides. Emotional safety is created by cultural norms or “rules” that the guides uphold. These include a ban on “war stories” (glorifying drug use or other risky behaviors), not allowing students to swear, and prohibiting negative talk about other people. Emotional safety is achieved by creating a culture of acceptance and non-judgment through therapeutic groups, communication skills such as “I feel” statements, and holding boundaries with students who violate those rules. These are just the basics of creating a culture of emotional safety in a group setting.
Love and belonging is a natural progression from emotional safety. A group that is emotionally safe naturally creates an environment where students feel a sense of belonging. When this emotional safety is combined with accomplishing challenging hikes together, cooking together and simply living together, students really feel a sense of community and belonging that is hard to achieve in a traditional school or peer environment.
Self-esteem follows love and belonging. When a student can make his/her own shelter, cook dinner over a fire and also feel accepted and loved by peers, self-esteem will naturally arise. Guides and therapists also create interventions and therapeutic assignments that work toward fostering self-esteem, such as making fires, building shelters, and hiking.
The final level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualization, is a lifelong pursuit that we generally do not explicitly talk about. As discussed, once one level of need is achieved, what comes next is a natural progression. If our students are given the tools necessary to meet their needs for physical safety, emotional safety, love and belonging, and self-esteem, then the realization of their full potential is within reach further down the road.
Field Guides use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a model to keep students safe and to help them along in their therapeutic process. The pyramid provides a framework for succeeding in a wilderness environment. Guides will also work up and down the levels depending on the current need of the student or group. And of course, the wilderness environment provides plenty of opportunities to just focus on taking care of basic physical needs at any point in the progression up the pyramid.