Starting From Scratch Part 3 of 3

Last in a series:  You’ve just started a brand-new unit.  None of your new Scouts has ever been a Scout before (other than, say, Cubs).  And among the parents and other adults who are interested, none has ever been in his or her current leadership position; certainly, nobody has been a Scoutmaster or Advisor before.  Now what?


Take heart.  As President Lincoln said to his first Army commander, urging him to advance against the Confederates, “You are green, it is true; but they are green, also; you are green alike.”  The heart of the Scouting adventure is to do things you’ve never done before.

For adults, there are good training courses to give you and other adults the practical skills you may lack.  The monthly Roundtable will give you a chance to network with other leaders on many topics.  Just remember, the adults are there to keep things from jumping the rails, to solve logistical problems, and watch out for safety concerns.  The Scouts are supposed to run their own troop or crew.  Training them to do that is the unit leader’s job.

One way to do that is to “frame the question.”  Let the Scouts get as far as they can with a problem or a process or a plan.  Only when they get stuck should the leader try to offer direction.  The best way to do that is by framing the question.  Let’s say a new patrol is supposed to plan a menu for its first campout.  The Scouts are fiddling around, not getting it done.  The problem is that none of them has ever planned a menu before, even for their families.  They don’t know how to start.  So, the adult leader frames the question by asking, “Hot dogs or hamburgers?”  Okay, they can make that decision.  “What goes with that?”  They know that.  By framing the question in such a way that it is capable of being answered by youth of that age and experience level, you get them unstuck and set them free to complete the task and then go have the adventure.

At a much higher level, say you’re planning a high adventure trip.  Nobody knows what’s even possible; they’re all newbies at it.  So, framing the question could be asking, “Mountains or seacoast?”  “Backpacking or canoeing?”  Succeeding questions about how many days they feel comfortable being gone and what price level for a trip they can imagine may be necessary.  The point is not to plan it all and seek their assent; it is to equip them to choose their own adventures.  Once they’ve had a few adventures at a given level, they will feel comfortable initiating new conversations:  “Next time, I think we should . . .”   Keep note of even their wildest ideas.  Next time your PLC or Crew Executive Committee gets stuck, remind them of what has been suggested before.  Nurture the ongoing conversation.  Then teach your SPL or Crew President how to run a meeting so that he or she is bringing the group to that point instead of you.

A new patrol (or a new troop) may need to let each new Scout be the leader for an event or a meeting for a few weeks, so that everyone has a chance to try out the role of leader.  This also gives the Scouts a chance to form an opinion of others’ leadership.  Then you can hold an election for youth leadership positions, and the normal processes of election and training and growth in leadership will work themselves out.  Over time, you will develop a tradition in how to do things, and new Scouts will absorb it from the more experienced Scouts, and it will be easier to develop new leaders when they are not all “green alike.”

A word about advancement might be in order here.  Every requirement in the BSA advancement system is, in effect, a Behavioral Objective.  At its heart is a performance, a behavior, that is required:  Tie this knot.  Explain this symbol.  Do this.  Memorize and recite.  Tell in your own words.  Plan, organize, recruit.  These are all action words.  AT NO POINT in the entire advancement system is any Scout told, “Understand this.”  Understanding is assumed, if the required actions are performed.  This means that there is no requirement to learn something and then “understand it.”  Nor are there any re-checks for understanding.  For that matter, there is no requirement that you should be able to replicate the behavior called for at any subsequent time.  While we all hope you will be able to tie a square knot for ever after having learned it, if you can tie it once, all by yourself, you have passed the requirement.

I mention this because there is a deadly tendency to turn Scouting into “school in the woods” – or worse, “school in the church basement.”  Scouting is about DOING, not sitting around holding class.  Baden-Powell thought the best way to teach things is to involve youth in doing them.  You learn morals by doing good deeds, not by studying moral codes; you learn camping skills by camping, not by book study.  And so on.  Scouting is a GAME, he said.  Education and character formation are its goals, but its method is to have fun (in the right way).  So, let’s say we’re going on a hike (required action).  While on the hike, I say, “Let’s have a contest to see how many trees we can identify” (or signs of animals we can identify).  These are also requirements.  It’s a game.  At first, the Scouts aren’t very good at it.  So you teach them what a sycamore looks like.  Now, they can’t pass the requirement just by identifying what you showed them, but as you walk along, one will say, “Hey, there’s another sycamore!”  And he has just ticked one off his list.  Someone else says, “Can that one count for me, too?”  No, you reply, you have to find another sycamore.  But the point is, there’s no reason why someone can’t learn trees and pass tree identification on the same day.  As long as the Scout is actually identifying the tree, and not just parroting your identification, he’s passing the requirement.

Likewise, I’ve seen a lot of troops plan all kinds of fun stuff on a campout.  But then someone says, “I need to pass requirement X.”  But passing that requirement means stopping the fun to do school-in-the-woods, so you tell him, “well, you study up on it, and we’ll check you off next time.”  No, NO NO.  Plan your activities around the things the Scouts need to be doing.  Have fun doing them.  Instead of teaching them lashings as if they were useless skills learned just to tick off meaningless requirements, go out and build things with rope and spars.  Let them be surprised at how much they’ve learned when it comes time to examine their Handbooks and bring their records up to date at the next meeting.  They should be learning new things without knowing that they’re learning them.  And it should all be FUN.

Don’t just have them memorize our watchwords.  Quote them to the Scouts.  “What’s our Motto, Billy?”  “Uh, ‘Be prepared’?”  “Right.  So, who’s got (something they were all told to bring) in his pocket so we can play the next game?”  Or, “Come on, guys.  ‘A Scout is cheerful.’  Never mind the rain.  Put your best smile on and let’s go have fun!”  Or have an impromptu contest:  “I’ve got an extra X for the first one who can tell me what the two stars in the Scout sign stand for!”  Don’t let the Scouting tradition be a thing of battered old books; make it live.

In playing the Scouting game the way it was meant to be played, in taking the Scouts out on adventures to discover their world and themselves in the midst of it, in keeping the initial watchwords before their mind’s eye, you are making them into Scouts.  And then they won’t be green any more.  And neither will you.

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Art Collins has been in Scouting, man and boy, for over fifty years. He has led many different units and many different programs. As an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church, he has fostered Scouting as ministry in local congregations, as well as at the Conference and General Church level. His current Scouting position is as the International Representative for Hoosier Trails Council and as a member of the Council Executive Board. His current ministry position is Retired.