Using clinical research in recruiting

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As the Worldwide Movement of Scouting  reaches 110 years old, we need to find new ways to explain ourselves.

We all know that Robert Baden-Powell designed scouting to deal with the transition from childhood in a rural setting to an urban setting.  He was not alone. At the same time many different organizations tried to duplicate the same effort. Professor Montessori, Dan Beard,  Ernest Thompson Seton  and many others who are less renowned in history were trying to do similar things and often corresponded with each other. Each had their own spin on what they thought needed to happen to be successful. each of the persons name above put a heavy emphasis on exposure to nature.

They did not know the mechanical reasons why returning to nature was so important for kids.  They just knew from anecdotal experience and observation that it was true.

In the last 20 years, there has been an increase  in research about the impact of the environment on our psychological well-being.  Many times the focus is on better designing a city to reduce the stress on its inhabitants. Other times it is trying to figure out mechanically why being in nature while doing exercise is so good for psychological health.  Most of the studies that I have seen of been focused on adults.

Even from this research, we can reach some conclusions about the effects of Scouting on our youth.

Research of Effects of Nature on Psychology


One study demonstrated that taking a long walk in nature is far better for overcoming negative emotional problems like depression then taking the same walk in the city.  The significance of the study is that they measured brain activity after the event and demonstrated that walks in nature tend to cause the brain to react in a way that avoids repeatedly thinking about negative emotions, called “rumination.”  The same walk in a city environment does not reduce rumination as effectively.

Another study demonstrated that taking walks in nature with the group is one of the best ways to reduce these negative emotions.  Since walks in nature are effective and interaction with the group is also effective, it is not surprising that the combination of the two are effective, too.

Yet another study has shown that having exposure to nature, whether in reality or pictures, as a break from routine behaviors, such as mentally focused activities often involved with homework, is effective for boosting a person’s  ability to perform those functions after exposure to nature.  One of the benefits is that creativity and ability to make intuitive connections between different ideas is reinforced.

What does that mean for our recruitment efforts in scouting?

To be better recruiters, we have to be better at advocating the sale of our program.

Our key audience is often the boy’s mother. Many years ago, a mother considering whether to put her son in scouting has made the decision in different ways. We need to better understand why our target in recruiting is not reacting the same way to recruitment as her ancestors did.

Many years ago, a mother considering whether to put her son in scouting made the decision in different ways.

I do not have the research or primary sources to back this up, but based on my study of Scouting, I would tend to believe that in the early years of Scouting, a boy’s  mother knew intuitively that her newly urban family needed the exposure to nature and the outdoors like she had had in her own youth.  Before World War I, I imagine it did not require a lot of effort to explain the benefits of Scouting to these mothers.  She knew that nature was an important part of the program.  Scouting enjoyed explosive growth.

The next generation of mothers did not take a lot of persuasion scouting about the importance of Scouting because her brothers and her husband had often been scouts. If they had not, there were new scouts all around the neighborhood. This country was still moving from a rural setting to an urban setting until after  World War II, so we still did not have to explain the need for being in nature.  The demographics were still favorable to scouting.

After World War II, we had more families that were in an urban setting with fewer but significant numbers who had grown up on the farm. My own father fits this description.  Mothers did not have any difficulty understanding the need for scouting  from their own experience, the experience of their brothers and husbands or the general practice of boys in their neighborhood.

The problems began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We were beginning to have mothers who had grown up in the city or had moved into the city when they were so young that they do not remember much time in nature on farms.  This fits my own mother’s experience.  These mothers knew that scouting was involved with nature and the new scouting was well regarded. They did not understand how nature played  an important  part of the program.

The BSA reacted to this changing demographic problem with a disastrous attempt to make scouting more urban appropriate.  They published  a Boy Scout handbook in 1972  It changed the emphasis from outdoors to other things. It chased the mindset of the target audience rather than improve its explanation of the importance of nature and outings to the target audience.

Membership fell precipitously.  The problem was so bad the legendary writer of all things scouts for the first half-century of the BSA Green Bar Bill Hillcourt came out of retirement to write his third Boy Scout handbook.  The membership decline slowed. It did not solve all the problems with demographics. It did allow Boy Scouts to return to nature and outings as part of its core mission.

Unfortunately, the BSA did not support this return to nature as effectively as it could in its public relations efforts.  A big reason why is they did not understand how to explain the importance of nature in developing citizenship.

Research on Physical Challenges to Learn Stress Management

In addition to Time in nature, scouting also provides physical challenges. Another round of research demonstrates that pushing one self into uncomfortable situations through physical exertion or other types of discomfort creates a more stoic personality when dealing with every day stresses. (This study has tenuous connections to scouts because it studied middle aged persons with one activity. It does give us some ideas of observations that we can make in the field with our scouts to find out if these conclusions would be useful to us as scouters.)

Take the example of a marathon runner. The runner has to learn to endure the pain of extended runs. They also then are able to deal with the stresses of life because they realize mild, every-day stress symptoms are not the same as extreme stress that they feel in running. They learn to distinguish gradation of stresses. When we put boys in strange situations we do much the same thing. We give them stresses that are calculated to be different than every day. BSA has designed the program so that those stresses increase over time. We teach scouts how to manage the stress is that they face. The scouts become more resilient. If they are less susceptible to stress and more resilient, it is easier for scouts to remain cheerful in more circumstances.

With the studies that I have pointed to above, we now have those resources. We now know that Scouting is far more effective at developing citizenship then nearly any other extracurricular activity for a reason. We put the boys in nature. They have to interact with each other as a group. Both of these aspects are proven to be highly effective at  controlling negative emotions.  We then give them an opportunity to learn how to be part of a village run by their patrol leader. It allows us as I have mentioned in a previous article to place stresses on them, for them to adapt, and then for them to grow.  All the while with low risk of repetitive stress injuries. In effect, we are placing the potential for more negative emotions on them by risking negative emotions from groups. Yet doing this in nature, we often have the advantage of a natural antidote to those negative emotions.

The other methods of Scouting are equally important to the success. But we should not miss the importance of being in nature.

This effect of nature on managing negative emotions is a crucial reason why Cub Scouts in particular should be taking far more outings then the current program requires.  These boys need the group interaction. They need the exposure to nature. They need the opportunity to be outdoors running wild.  They need the opportunity for a break from the routine of school. They need the opportunity to be creative and discover.

Scouting also offers benefits shown in stress management that are hard for programs like sports to duplicate. When a boy goes to compete in soccer, he is experiencing the stress of a soccer game repeatedly. He either learns to adapt to that particular competitive stressor (in victory or in defeat) or he does not. Those that do learn to adapt, often stay with the sport longer. Those, who do not learn to adapt, tend to drop out. It is difficult for an unathletic boy to have a chance to adapt to the stresses of sport.

In comparison, scouting offers many opportunities to adapt to stress because the stresses are programmatic. They start smaller when a boy is a Tiger Cub and increase until he is too old to participate in the program with Venturing at 21. Even so, there are many opportunities for him as an adult to pass on the lessons that he has learned and continue to grow in his abilities as a citizen.

Competing extracurricular activities do not address nearly any of these concerns. Think about youth soccer or other athletics. In these situations the boys spend nearly all of their time in urban environments. If it is travel soccer, they spend time in cars, in hotels, and at athletic fields.  At the athletic fields, their coaches expect them to be focused on the game or their teammates. Their thoughts are structured toward competition.  If the team loses they often have negative emotions as they return home. They’re not given any outlet to manage those emotions naturally.

When we recruit, we need to be able to explain the unique propositions of Scouting. We need to be able to distinguish what propositions other extracurriculars offer. We need to be able to explain it quickly.

When we recruit, we need to be able to explain the unique propositions of Scouting. We need to be able to distinguish what propositions other extracurriculars offer. We need to be able to explain it quickly.

We need to be able to explain Scouting is  highly effective at helping boys overcome negative emotions,  build relationships with their peers and adults, learn to achieve and discover new ideas at the their own pace,  be recognized for their achievements on a regular basis,  and have the opportunity to decompress from the rigidity of school.  All of these traits allow us to have better citizens with greater creativity, greater emotional connection,  greater ability to handle academic tasks.  In other words, we’re building a Renaissance man in a way no other program can.