Article contributed by Field Director, Evan Meyer. Updated November 2019.
Field Guiding at Open Sky is a dynamic, challenging, and rewarding job. Field guides wear many “hats” in a day—sometimes in an hour—but above all, they oversee that students are kept warm, hydrated, fed, and safe. Field guides are also mentors, teachers, reflective listeners, conflict mediators, boundary holders, and leaders. They facilitate ceremonies and provide basic first aid. They teach students how to cook and how to feel their emotions. They 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 determine what role to fill at any given time. The framework that we use at Open Sky 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 by a pyramid, starting with the most basic 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? Guides prioritize physical needs above all else. They are always assessing and managing the physical needs of students, and teaching them these skills. Hydration and nutrition take priority before facilitating a therapeutic group. They see that everyone is warm and dry before holding a ceremony. They teach students how to build shelters, use clothing layers appropriately, and wash their hands before asking 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.
When physical needs are met, guides help students begin to feel safe, both physically and emotionally. 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. It is a fluid process, so guides will also work up and down the levels depending on the current need of the student or group. The beauty of the wilderness is that it provides plenty of opportunities to focus on basic physical needs at any point in the progression of the pyramid.
Are you interested in becoming a field guide? Visit the Field Guide page of our website to learn more about this role and how to apply.