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Inspiring Teens Towards Sustainability

The joy of contributing towards a positive future. Photo by Dean and Annette Turner

What can we do to help our teens become the sustainable innovators and guides that the planet needs? More so than ever before, young people need positive opportunities to escape and explore, to move from talking and watching to doing.

For the past eighteen years we’ve run the Crossing Land Education Trust, where we have camps for young people. We create opportunities for young people to learn and become inspired, for example through teamwork, environmental restoration and monitoring, sustainable design, tool use, outdoor activities and organic gardening. We believe that teens need to be given the following experiences, to: contribute with purpose; improvise and make mistakes; and explore natural places. Well-designed school camps, with excellent leaders, are great for this; but as parents and guides to teens, we can create such opportunities in a variety of ways.

When you think back to yourself as a teen, and the people you looked up to, there was probably at least one cool uncle or aunty, an older brother, sister or cousin, a teacher or camp leader who was influential. Whether by accident or design, they were the ones who supported you to launch off on some early adventure. Pushing the boundaries of activity and adventure was okay by your parents, as long as you had that acceptable guide nearby. It’s good to surround teens with positive and inspiring role models they can relate to.

Camping can be a great way for teens to get switched on to the environment. School camps with a focus on sustainability in their design are ideal.

Contributing With Purpose

The ability to make a difference is important to all of us, both physically and mentally. Everyone responds and engages more fully if they have a strong sense of purpose. A positive and active approach to sustainability is purpose-built for teens.

Teens have an acute sense for hypocrisy and inconsistency. They know the difference between busywork and real work. They start to tune out as soon as they get the feeling that they are not part of something or, worse still, if they’re part of something that’s not connected to anything else.

We all love connection and integration; they’re major ingredients for making experiences richer. If teens can see how what they do is part of something bigger, they will be much more willing and inspired to contribute. Explaining the whole picture of why we’re going to do something, and how it fits into the bigger picture, will create more engaged participation.

Positive actions can be hard for young people to identify by themselves. The feeling of being powerless can be overwhelming. Contributing to the ongoing design, and thus the story of a sustainable home, property, camp or school is a great motivator – it shows how they can provide for their own needs, and those of future teens.

Working towards sustainability is a practical and active way to do something positive to mitigate and cope with climate change, rather than be depressed or frightened by it; growing food and using renewable energy are obvious examples of appropriate actions.

Protecting and enhancing the surrounding natural environment is an example of caring for the earth, another purpose that teens can relate to and find empowering. This can be done through camps and school group activities, such as landcare projects; or at home in developing and maintaining gardens for food or wildlife.

Wandering journey’s allow time for exploration. Photo by Dean and Annette Turner

Supporting Improvisation And Mistakes

This may sound odd, but it takes many mistakes to come up with an innovation. There are great opportunities for improvisation and ‘mistake learning’ with young people, especially where a leader is available to support the problem-solving process.

Mistakes also help us to understand the importance of diversity, which provides many viewpoints and the strength of cooperation to solve big problems. This also applies in nature, where biodiversity provides many strategies to meet a range of conditions.

The more we understand the important role that mistakes play, the more we can recognise the importance of diversity, so that we look at problems with tolerance and get in closer, together, to find solutions. Solutions generated in this way will be more likely to succeed.

Solving problems gives us all a sense of accomplishment and success. Involving teens in seeking sustainable design – for example improvising for energy and water efficiency, using second-hand and repurposed materials to create a solution – is very rewarding. Or encourage teens’ efforts to fix, improve or make things – suggest something they value, such as clothing or transport. They become part of the solution; caring for others, the earth and the future. Hands-on building projects give teens the opportunity to learn by doing, including to make mistakes. At The Crossing, a group of teens made a chook shed from an old bunk bed frame, part of an old tank and rendered earth walls – it was a great learning experience.

Look for ways to create experiences that provide young people with opportunities to make a range of mistakes, in: navigation – to get never truly lost, just temporarily geographically embarrassed; building, fencing or landscaping – requiring adjustments and new strategies; cooking – to seek more appropriate garden ingredients.

Some schools and camp managers try to manage risk to avoid mistakes. Good risk management, in the case of teens and the outdoors, rules out big mistakes but provides potential for smaller ones, as part of the process of learning by doing. Really good staff teams can design mistake opportunities into projects, so that engagement and team learning is maximised.


Clockwise from top: Contributing to a bigger purpose – re-vegetating the river banks you canoe along; Teen planting enthusiasm; Time around the fire to be and reflect on any ‘mistake learning’ of the day; Adventures in inspiring natural places; Playing with patterns in nature; The Crossing. Photo by Dean and Annette Turner


Exploring Natural Places

We find that nature slows down time itself. Being away from schedules and the internet allows time for closer personal connections, and to connect with other facets of life: time just to be.

Make time for exploring an area. Structured habitat or wildlife surveys are ways to achieve this, provide a sense of purpose, and get teens up close and personal with nature. Another way is through nature art, working with colour and shapes and using nature’s patterns for inspiration. This can immerse teens in nature’s designs for sustainability.

Or take time to wander through the landscape rather than just head to a destination. For example: have a few options for campsites; on a short journey, include a suitable area in the middle to divert attention into for a few hours and still achieve the same overall direction over the course of the day – a few enticing gullies, a rolling area of hills where you can zig and zag a few times, lakes and creeks to stop at and wander around. Knowing the country well provides a leader or guide with the confidence to plan such opportunities to enthuse teens. Being permitted to choose and explore the bush, with leader support, can be very empowering for young people.

Over the last twenty-five years as outdoor and environmental educators we’ve found that around five to fifteen per cent of teens thrive on challenging journeys, while the majority thrive on wandering and immersion. We’ve also found that the worst weather usually generates the highest return rates for teens doing outdoor programs, especially for first timers. We thought this might be about challenge and adversity; however, it’s much more about the leaders – the young people concerned couldn’t believe how much fun they had, and were inspired to return to see those leaders again. Over subsequent visits the reasons for returning changed as they discovered for themselves what was really motivating and inspiring those leaders.

We used to think we were changing the world with every program we ran, but now we understand the importance of ripples: they have their own life and travel in many directions; some become large waves.

Dean and Annette have spent the last eighteen years creating a not-for-profit, sustainable camp for young people called The Crossing Land Education Trust near Bermagui on the Wilderness Coast of NSW. You can find them at or on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook @thecrossingland. Any teen can join in the programs, by direct application or with a school group. The camp is a place for inspiring stories and inspiring people. It takes a maximum of one school class.


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