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Mental Backpack: Resilience training through encouragement

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Last summer it became clear that I needed a tool to get the kids through difficult hikes.

“Mental Backpack” was born.

The premise is that we carry 2 backpacks. Our physical supplies on our backs, and our mental supplies in our heads.

We have a choice to lighten our mental packs with positive language. We can also weigh ourselves down with negativity.

Of course, we also have the ability to lighten or drag down our friend’s mental backpacks as well.

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

It has been so effective at helping kids overcome challenges that I continue to hone the message.

I will say, “What are you going to fill your mental backpack with on the hike ahead? Can someone give me an example of what they will be telling themselves and others?" before a big hill climb.

This preparation allows individuals to push beyond their perceived limits. We also build group cohesion along the way.

Yet, it wasn’t until recently that I have heard of its effectiveness outside my program. What a GIFT for a mentor or teacher!

A few days prior I had seen this camper have a massive breakdown.

On a particularly hot and sunny day of camp [She] had one of the biggest breakdowns on the trail that I have ever seen.

[She] had buckled her knees. Her face was face smeared with tears and her head was in the dirt. Then she yelled the heaviest mental backpack exclamations you can imagine, “I can’t do it anymore!” “I never want to come back!”

I got her off the hike and back to our end of the day pick up location. I knew she was going to be okay.

Near the end of the trail, I was able to build her back up enough to carry her own physical backpack to the end of the trail.

But, her internalization of the mental backpack came as a welcome surprise.

This is a message from her parent about the weekend following the breakdown on the trail:

This past weekend we took [She] and our youngest mountain biking... The first leg of the ride had a bit of a climb and [She] started to get tired and was starting to get whiny. We were trying to help talk her through it and she just stopped and started talking about her "mental backpack" and how she needed to fill it and needed our help to do so. She explained that we needed to cheer her on and help her fill her backpack. It was AMAZING!!! I have never seen her work through a difficult time like that. I was immensely proud of her... When she got through the tough part she then helped build our mental backpacks by cheering us on. Again, it was so AMAZING.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In any survival situation, mental stamina and psychological well-being are the most important. In other words, resilience

In the hidden spaces outside our comfortable homes, children build resilience. Resilience builds with thousands of small challenges, overcome.

As a Wild Nature Play mentor, I see my role as a facilitator of these opportunities. When an obstacle arises, it is not for me to solve, fix, or coddle. I am there to help these capable children to see their own strength.


Reflecting upon resilience brought to mind a beautiful moment of strength. See the video of her walking through the woods and falling face first.

So many tumbles and bumps have passed by without a breakdown with the help of a little patience and calm. I try to give her enough space to grow, and enough guidance to recognize what she can handle on her own.

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