Igniting a lifelong love of the outdoors is at the core of Girl Scouting—and every Girl Scout deserves the opportunity to challenge herself as she explores her world.
Two of our Volunteer Experts, Cheryl Lentsch of Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska and Bridgette McNeal of Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta, shared their pro tips for how they support their girls with disabilities as they experience the great outdoors.
Plan ahead. Set up your girls for success by taking thorough notes of what they can expect during your outdoor activity. Some considerations include:
"I reach out to wherever we are going and let [the staff] know we’re coming,” says Bridgette. “I discuss what our needs or special accommodations might be. [Some] organizations are very supportive, even offering extra help to make sure our girls have the best-possible experience at the event.”
Set expectations. Prep your girls and their families before your outdoor activity so everyone is on the same page. “I go into detail about the activities and where we’ll need the most parent support,” explains Bridgette. “Then I talk to the girls about it, show pictures when appropriate, and encourage conversation about similar events they've done.”
“It’s important to talk with the girls ahead of time about the types of things they will see and hear at camp and reassure them they are safe,” agrees Cheryl. “Parents are also an important resource. They can let me know any special instructions I need to know as well as share their daughter’s fears or hesitations.”
Understand your girls’ abilities. Don’t think about what your go-getters can’t achieve; give them opportunities to shine and do their best! “If a girl is physically able to walk and climb with minimal assistance, she will most likely be able to hike, sleep in a tent, and numerous other camping activities,” shares Cheryl. “When I took a girl with a visual disability camping, I served as her eyes and verbally described her surroundings to her as we navigated camp and the hiking trails. I offered my bent arm to her to hold onto; it’s common courtesy to allow the person with a visual disability to hold onto your arm instead of grabbing their arm. I gave her a guided tour of our campsite so she would be able to find the tents, restroom, and other necessities. If she felt comfortable, I allowed her to walk unassisted within the campsite, but I always made myself available to her as much as she needed."
"I have girls in my troop who do not handle transitions well, especially if what we’re doing is a preferred activity for them,” says Bridgette. “To minimize this, I try to work up to the [preferred activities]; for example, I won’t start out with making s’mores. When I know transitions are coming, I give multiple notices, like ‘Hey, let’s figure out where our end point is—we need to move on in a bit.’ Most importantly, I don’t force a girl to finish. If she’s not ready and I have to transition, I do so slowly so that when she’s ready she doesn’t have to work too hard to catch up.”
Use GSUSA’s outdoor progression guidelines to build your girls’ confidence in all their outdoor adventures!
Create opportunities. “In my troop I have girls who sing songs, hike, make s’mores, and participate in all camping trip [activities] but simply cannot spend the night in a tent or away from home,” says Bridgette. “I always make sure the girls and their families know they are welcome and wanted all day if we camp. Whether we are learning outdoor first aid, practicing Leave No Trace principles, or cooking outdoors as a group, there are always ways that every girl in our troop can participate and be successful.”
Although a camping trip is exciting for girls, it’s not the only outdoor experience in which they can participate! "There are great ways to get girls in touch with nature—they can participate in picnics at the park, neighborhood trash cleanups, or even a simple walk through the neighborhood,” offers Cheryl. “It’s fun to point out birds and plants or have the girls search for items in a nature scavenger hunt. The girls with physical disabilities can do all these activities with a little assistance. I try not to call attention to the extra assistance, such as pushing a wheelchair, so that all the girls feel equally involved.”
Always speak up. “I think sometimes there can be hesitation to speak up [at activity venues] when you need extra help, because you don’t want your group to be perceived as different,” admits Bridgette. “I always speak up, because I truly believe that all groups are different from one another and we all need different kinds of help. At one of our day camp events this year, the only girls old enough to participate in archery were my girls with autism. I let the staff know who we were and that we might need some extra help, and they immediately made it fun and helped us out. Our girls did a great job!”