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Small Groups in Wilderness Experience/Outdoor Education

Joshua David Starbuch, “Small Groups in Wilderness Experience/Outdoor Education,”  CYS, August, 2007.

(Download this article as a PDF)





What does one have to know about small group dynamics in wilderness camping? Group dynamics can be a mysterious thing.  What causes some groups to “click,” while others just seem to fall apart?  Certain unique factors come into play.  There are patterns by which groups of people come together.  These patterns provide invaluable aid to a someone having trouble understanding their role as a leader.  This involves an understanding of the predictable ways groups of people come together when they are part of a common experience. 


Bruce Tuckman suggests five different stages most groups go through in one form or another: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Transforming.  Many groups will move sequentially from one stage to the next.  Others seem to skip certain stages, or revert back to earlier stages before moving forward.  Other groups may never move past the first or second stage.  Therefore, as leaders, our understanding of group developmental patterns will serve as a vital aid in our quest to facilitate learning and growth.  Leadership styles vary, and we will certainly deal with situations differently.  But we should all be aware of the basic needs of our groups as they progress from one stage to another.  As leaders, we should


(1)   be able to recognize which stage our group is in, and

(2)   understand what they need from us as their leaders.


The following is a series of brief descriptions to help us recognize the various stages of group development:




Forming is the time when everyone is new.  People don’t really know each other, and everyone is rapidly learning what the group will be about. Many people are trying to figure out whether the group will be a safe place for them to be themselves.  Subconsciously they are asking whether they will they be included, liked, and accepted.  While everyone is outwardly friendly and open to one another, their actions are often superficial at first.  For the most part, people are just trying to figure out what the group will be like.





This period begins when the group is comfortable enough with each other to experience conflict.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are getting into fights, but can be as simple as a small disagreement about an inconsequential decision.  Conflicts can also become quite dramatic, and these often end up being defining moments of the group.  Lots of times, members are just searching for their place; trying to figure out where they fit into the team.  It’s important to understand that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  If the conflict isn’t dealt with properly, even a small problem can divide the group.  But if the root issues are addressed and talked through, then the group will come together even more through the conflict.




Norming is the result of a group that has worked through conflict together well.  Participants are valued for who they are, and people become a lot more comfortable being together.  It’s common for inside jokes and “group slang” to come out at this point, which can be a lot of fun.  There is a sense of pride in group accomplishments and comfort within the confines of the group. 




Typically, a group that has entered the norming stage will lead right into the performing stage.  Leading becomes easier because the group is functioning on a healthier level.  The group is comfortable with each other and able to work together well.  Members understand their roles and become much less concerned about personal image.  In general, it’s just fun to be together as a group.




Transforming is all about taking the things learned within the confines of an isolated community and applying those concepts to the “real world.”  It is good for looking back at where the group has been together, what it is like right now, and where people want to go.  The transformation of learning is difficult for some and much easier for others.  If the group is dispersing, such as would be the case at the end of a wilderness trip, various responses emerge.  Some withdraw before the group actually ends.  Others attempt to prolong the experience by planning opportunities for the group to get together again.  Whether we like it or not, many groups do come to an end.  The manner in which we handle those times can be transformational for members within the group.



What is the role of an instructor during the various stages of Group Development?


¨        Forming


§         Set the tone by being an example in regards to positive attitude, respect, encouragement, and honesty.

§         Create and communicate goals clearly.

§         Come to an agreement about how the group will treat each other (possibly by creating a group covenant or Full-Value-Contract)

§          Empower members to understand that their input makes a difference.


¨        Storming


§         Expect conflict, and be ready to deal with it, not just blow it off.

§         Allow conflict to occur and encourage confrontation of deeper issues.

§         Try not to take sides in most matters.  Instead, help the members of the group to talk through issues themselves. 

§         Listen carefully, acknowledge feelings, and be empathetic.

§         Be source of stability and neutrality.

§         Be careful not to become defensive if group members lash out at you.


¨        Norming


§         Become more of a member than a leader by continuing to empower members of group.

§         Facilitate activities that will highlight individual participation in achievement of the whole.


¨        Performing


§         Let go of control over the group.  Give members more responsibility.

§         Might be a good time to revisit goals.

§         Challenge students through meaningful conversations.


¨        Transforming


§         Assure the group that what happened in their experience is important.

§         Reflect on the learning experience which has past, and point members toward continued personal growth in the future.  

§         Celebrate successes and acknowledge failures.

§         Foster the transference of concepts learned during their time together to application in the “real world.”





1. When were you most satisfied with your leadership of a small group? When most frustrated?

2.  What about this article offers you some help? What confuses you or what questions do you have?

3.  Think of a situation when you experienced storming either as a participant or as a leader.  How was it dealt with and what were the results? 

4.  Can you think of a time when your group made the transition from storming to norming?  Were there recognizable factors that seemed to trigger the shift?

5.  What are some creative ways in which we, as leaders, can continue to stimulate growth when the group is doing really well together?

6.  How natural is it to gradually turn leadership over to the group as the prove themselves worthy?  How important is it to empower members of the group with responsibility and ownership?





1.  Too many people are thrust into a position of leadership having to learn by trial and error—often from their mistakes, when some basic training would help the process.

2.  There are patterns which aid us in understanding group behavior, and we must work to use that knowledge to become better leaders.

3.  As leaders, we must be observant of the patterns of our groups.

4.  As groups progress, they should be rewarded with more responsibility and freedom


Joshua David Starbuch  c. CYS