We were at Camp Lakamaga for the first time and our young Brownie troop had just finished an archery session at the red barn. The way back to our yurt was through a maze of wooded trails, and the direction to get there wasn’t entirely clear. Hoping to get the girls into an adventurous mood, I asked them to take the lead. “Follow the signs, work together, and get us back to the yurt.”
It was a girl-led opportunity so simple it could easily have been overlooked, but I had my eye out for it. I was a new troop leader and had just attended a council training where I heard about the importance of “girl-led” in Girl Scouts. The idea of giving girls control in troop decision-making and other ventures made so much sense in terms of developing leadership—and it sounded like a lot of fun! Yet I knew it was going to take a shift in my perspective. How was I going to let the girls lead when I was just getting the hang of it myself?
When the girls squealed and scurried down the paths, finding their way through camp and searching for the yurt, I knew I had made a good choice. They were thrilled with the idea of being in charge! Following my hunch that day, and taking a few extra minutes to instruct the girls, had given them a chance to practice teamwork and problem-solving, earn a sense of place and belonging at camp, and recognize that I had confidence in their abilities. All of this was so much better than if they had just followed me down the trail!
There really are endless opportunities we can give our Girl Scouts to encourage them to develop their leadership skills. As troop leaders, that often means a change in mindset. Here are four helpful tips to help make that happen:
Look for Opportunities that Balance Challenge and Fun
As Brownies at an unfamiliar camp, navigating a wooded trail was a good fit for our troop. For Daisies, this might have been too challenging, and for older girls, probably not enough. This is where our job as leaders comes in: we identify which girl-led opportunities will work within our girls’ program grade levels, and make sure they get a chance to try!
Giving girls more control means we also need to let go of some control—and this can be hard! It might mean that things aren’t necessarily going to go the way we would prefer or take the amount of time we think it should take. It might look messy or feel unorganized. Try to give it some time and to remind yourself that it doesn’t mean things aren’t working—this is about the girls’ learning experience.
Step Back, But Stay There
Give the girls clear guidelines or instructions on what they are to do, then take a step back. Let the girls know that you are there if they have questions or need extra guidance but try not to intervene or interrupt unless something crops up that the girls can’t handle. Giving them space to try things on their own shows them that you have confidence they’re up to the task and reinforce their own trust in themselves and each other.
Let Go of Results-Based Thinking and Accept the Possibility of Failure
I know this is contrary to what we hear in most areas of our lives, but it’s one of the many great things that makes Girl Scouts special—we give girls a safe place to stretch themselves and try new things, and this includes giving them permission to fail. (It would actually be weird if they DIDN’T fail sometimes!) Remember that the girls will learn just as much, if not more, from things going awry as from polished successes. If my troop never did find the yurt that afternoon, I would have told them they were brave for trying and point out all the other things they did discover along the way!
Our girls are now Juniors, and since that day back at camp, my co-leader and I have kept an eye out for other ways to give the girls a voice in what we do as a troop. We’ve had them set the rules for behavior at meetings (And they do hold each other accountable!). They’ve cast a vote on everything from the badges we earn together to what we cook over the fire on our overnights.
As the stakes get higher, try not to take over the reins. Harder said than done, I know! Our troop is currently working toward the Bronze Award and it’s been a challenge for me as a troop leader to prioritize girl-led opportunities because I want to see them succeed. When it took the girls several months of discussion before deciding on a subject, I worried—had I given them more than they could handle? Is this ever going to work out? I reminded myself of my intention in letting the girls lead, and trusted that this messy process would, if nothing else, teach us about what does and doesn’t work. But my patience paid off, and they ended up choosing their topic when they were ready (see the tip above about “Adjust Expectations”).
My troop is now moving forward with passion and drive. They’re more excited to see the project through because they know that it was their own idea, while I stand back, cheering them on with the latest version of “Follow the signs, work together, and get us back to the yurt!”
Jennifer Davenport – Jennifer loved being a Girl Scout growing up, and can’t believe her luck in now getting to work for Girl Scouts River Valleys as a Registration Specialist! She co-leads her daughter’s troop of energetic Juniors who have been together since second grade and are excited for troop camp this summer. With her degree in fine art, Jennifer enjoys making messes in her studio and showing her work at galleries in her hometown of Stillwater. In her spare time, she loves traveling, hiking, and camping with her husband, son, and daughter.