Our Approach

How We Help Youth Grow
Research backed and proven strategies

Thousands of alumni have experienced Trail Blazers’ impact in helping young people become more engaged and productive citizens. What we have always known to be true, research confirms: our program approach, developed of the course of 130 years, actively develops the types of skills and values that truly contribute to a thriving and productive life.

We believe that the skills and values that matter most are best developed through outdoor experiences, and we believe that being in small groups and being deeply involved in your own experience is the best way to learn and grow. Our 1000 acres of beautiful land and lake in Sussex County, NJ remove the distractions of modern life, allowing opportunities to connect with both the natural world and oneself. Our NYC-based programs take young people into parks, playgrounds and community gardens, teaching them that the environment is everywhere and we all live under one sky.

Our programs seek to help children and young adults develop skills along six social-emotional learning areas that have been proven to contribute to long-term positive outcomes. We incorporate these six learning areas into four Trail Blazers values that are at the heart of everything we do. This research-backed, values-based approach results in broad based personal development that is personal for each participant.

Respect and care for ourselves

Self-expression, emotional regulation, independence, physical self-care, positive risk-taking

Respect and care for others

Empathy and listening, leading and following, collaboration, resolving conflicts

Respect and care for our communities

Leading and following, collaboration, exploration and curiosity, service to others

Respect and care for our environment

Outward-focused thinking, self-reflection and impact, comfort outdoors, discovery and imagination

Explore our approach below:
What Matters

Research confirms that development in 6 social emotional learning areas is necessary for and predictive of positive long-term outcomes that lead to thriving and healthy young adults. Because of this, we strive to develop these areas in our children.

Positive Identity – by promoting a strong sense of self-worth, the ability to self-motivate, self-efficacy and the intentional exploration of image and identity.

Self-Management – emphasizing the ability to make responsible choices from multiple paths, encourage taking positive risks and demonstrate persistence through challenges.

Contribution – encouraging a positive sense of self purpose by actively making contributions towards the self, family, community and the society we live in.

Social Skills – developing a sense of perspective, showing empathy for others implemented through caring action.

Social Capital – building positive bonds with both people and institutions, encouraging the ability to seek out and request support.

Academic Self-Efficacy – empowering a motivation to achieve and to gain a perceived mastery of school performance and grow a confidence in their ability to succeed academically.

What Works

The strategies that we focus on in each of our programs are research-backed, and have proven to contribute to the development of the six vital areas of growth listed above. At the heart of each one of our programs are the following principles:

POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS – through small group experiences led by consistent, caring staff, with a focus on collaboration rather than competition. We believe that learning is a social experience – at Trail Blazers all activity happens in and with the “small camp”, groups of around 10 children led by the same 2 caring adults. Inclusion, acceptance, and trust leads to genuine encouragement and recognition of effort and success.

POSITIVE, NATURAL ENVIRONMENTS – diverse learning spaces where you are safe to try out new behaviors, reflect thoughtfully, and step out of your comfort zone. The small group experience takes place in the right environment: most often an outdoor (or outdoor-focused) environment, and also a warm, caring and friendly environment. We focus on the here-and-now of our environment, unplugging from distractions and engaging youth in their curiosity and natural drive to explore and wonder.

A VOICE AND A CHOICE – decentralized programming, where groups participate in the design of their programs, creates buy-in and increases the sense of ownership over the program and the experience. Daily personal goals are pursued, and accomplishments celebrated together.

GROWTH-MINDSET AND CHALLENGES – our Vagabond trail expeditions at overnight camp, long-term project planning in after school and group problems for day campers to solve.  Challenges solidify group bonds, test skills learned and encourage growth through overcoming obstacles and pushing through boundaries.

How It's All Delivered

Every Trail Blazers program targets six social emotional learning areas (positive identity, self-management, contribution, social skills, social capital, and academic self-efficacy), using four foundational strategies (positive relationships, positive environments, youth voice and choice, and growth-oriented challenges), focused through Trail Blazers’ four overarching values:

  • Showing care and respect for ourselves
  • Showing care and respect for others
  • Showing care and respect for our communities
  • Showing care and respect for our environment

These values are straightforward, important, and easy to discuss at any age. Because our campers might know little about social emotional learning — their focus is (and should be!) having a great time while learning more about themselves, their friends, their communities, and the outdoors. Through focusing on these values in our programs and our conversations with each other, we are able to develop and refine skills that link back to the six social emotional constructs that we know encourages important long-term growth.

The Value Catcher© functions as a tangible representation of this development; it helps our young people acknowledge and identify the skills and values they are growing and it enhances their experience of our program.

While participating in a Trail Blazers program, each child chooses the value he or she will work on – his or her own “Value in Progress.” Each Value has specific behaviors and qualities that demonstrate growth, the achievement of which earns a bead for their Value Catcher©. We can see in the pride with which campers carry and display their Value Catchers© that they gained confidence in their own ability to learn, to grow, to achieve, and to be successful.

Our Results

Nearly 90% of youth participating in our programs make statistically significant progress in their development and are more equipped to face the challenges and opportunities of life (and nearly 100% have a blast!)

Visit our Results page for more details on what we deliver.