For Mary Breunig, the great outdoors is more than just a place to unwind from the hustle and bustle of big city life.
The Brock University Associate Professor in Recreation and Leisure Studies see it as a big classroom in which people of all ages learn to build relationships with one another along with the trees, rocks, hills, lakes and other elements of the physical environment surrounding them.
“I see the outdoors as just one place to develop students’ knowledge and capacities to serve as agents of social and environmental change,” says Breunig, who is also the Graduate Program Director, Social Justice and Equity Studies. “And to promote environmental sustainability and work toward anti-oppressive ways of being in the world.
“It’s not just about using outdoors to build community,” she says. “Now that we have the community, what would we like them to do to effect change in the world?”
Breunig is co-author of the second-edition Outdoor Leadership: Theory and Practice, a textbook first published in 2006 designed to develop leadership in outdoor and adventure settings such as camping, mountain climbing, paddling, obstacle courses and other group activities in the natural environment that are part of leisure or personal development programs.
The book explores eight core competencies that outdoor leaders need to have. These range from leadership theory to decision making and judgement to environmental stewardship to safety and risk management.
The second edition, published earlier this year, contains revised or added features, including new chapters on developing cultural and social justice competencies.
Breunig explains that the social justice component of leadership training goes beyond teaching skills such as paddling or climbing. Leaders create caring, safe environments in which participants support one another as they pursue various activities.
One way to do this is for leaders to tap into the “adversity and uncertainty” of a wilderness environment — mosquitos, stormy weather, long portages, group decision-making challenges — inherent in physical environments.
“You have a group that starts to build community, identity, cohesion and a sense of place because they’re working through the uncertainty and adversity together,” says Breunig. “These are really central things to outdoor leadership.”
Group members also have a chance to develop self-confidence when their contributions to the group are acknowledged. And, being in the natural environment provides opportunities for spontaneous, informal conversations exploring spirituality, racism and other social justice issues.
Breunig says one of her most satisfying experiences when training students in outdoor leadership is witnessing students’ awareness of the physical environment and the impact it has on environmental behaviour change.
She gives the example of students preparing food to take on a trip.
“You’re pouring the macaroni out of a box into a zip lock bag and you realize boxes are getting bigger while the actual food source is small.
“You start to ask questions like, why is there so much packaging? Where does it go? And you pick up the smallest piece of trash because you’re really caring for this place,” says Breunig, who adds that this often leads o making better choices at home because it “leads to other conversations that get people really thinking about the environment.”
Breunig, an instructor for Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School, says she is inspired by students who have used what they learned and experienced to make lifestyle changes ranging from purchasing cleaning supplies that have less harmful chemicals for the environment to “living off the grid” in remote places like the Yukon.
“I always say, ‘I’m the little pebble and they are the ripples,’” says Breunig. “The way they take what I think are not complicated teachings and go out into the world and live those values, is pretty profound to me.”