Thirty years ago, I was dancing around a giant toadstool with my sister Lulligullas in an old hall down the road from where I lived. It was a Brownie meeting - Brownies were what junior Girl Guides were then unglamorously called – and there was a lot of emphasis on selling biscuits and earning my sewing badge. I eventually achieved that milestone, albeit very inexpertly and reluctantly as I was often distracted by what my brother, who was a Scout, was getting a up to i.e. tying fancy knots, lighting fires, preparing to careen down rapids and generally having a pretty exciting time.
I didn't last long as a Brownie. And when sewing and knitting became cool again, I regretted my inattention. But it wasn't until I flicked through some old photos of that time that I wondered what had happened to Girl Guides in Australia. Does it still exist? Are they still dancing around toadstools? Would I want my niece to join?
The short answers to those questions are: yes; not so much; and you bet.
A lot has changed in thirty years. For starters, gone is the promise to do "my duty to God and to serve the Queen and my country". It was replaced in 2012 with the more inclusive and contemporary promise to "do my best to be true to myself… to serve my community and Australia." All members are now called Guides and the toadstools have been packed away. There is still room for a little fairy whimsy and bush magic if the Guides so wish it – but that's up to them. As is just about everything that goes on in your average Girl Guide meeting. As National Program Manager Helen Reid explains, "the Guides are heavily involved in all the planning and evaluating around their activities. Their adult leaders are there to assist and help but what happens is largely directed by the girls themselves."
This level of involvement is key to the Girl Guides philosophy of giving girls an opportunity to work in teams, negotiate, learn from each other, and develop leadership skills. "Everything is focused on learning by doing," says Reid. "They are never sitting there just being talked at by an adult."
This strategy is echoed over at Scouts Australia.
"Leaders are there to support rather than teach," says Acting Chief Commissioner Phil Harrison. "On a camp, the Scouts will do the cooking, pitch the tent and will even be responsible for planning what they do." And everyone gets a go. Melissa Knudson, a Scout leader and parent to two Scouts, explains: "Whereas at school the leadership positions often get taken up by just a few kids, in Scouts no one gets left out – everyone has a chance to lead an activity and develop those skills."
Until the 1970s, Scouts had been only for boys in Australia. These days girls make up about 30 per cent of their membership. "All young people can have fun and get a lot out of Scouting regardless of their gender and we aim to make sure that everyone who wants to take part feels welcome," says Harrison.
Kids and parents will have different preferences when it comes to being in a co-ed or all girl setting. While Scouts is popular with its girl members, Reid explains that many of the Guides just feel more relaxed and secure in the all-girl environment of Girl Guides: "They are not nervous about being judged by boys – it just takes a level of stress out of the picture for a lot of girls."
Much of Girl Guides' programming is aimed specifically at helping girls develop the self-confidence and the skills that will see them flourish as adults. To this end Girl Guides has introduced empowering programs such as Free Being Me to encourage the girls to critically analyse the unrealistic images of women that the media bombards them with and build up the resources to maintain their self esteem in the face of that onslaught. Guide Your Money is another program designed to equip girls with knowledge that will help them manage their own finances, both now, as they start getting their first jobs, and into the future. This strategy of developing resilience and skills from a range of angles has been a successful one that many parents have welcomed as being particularly relevant today.
For both Scouts and Girl Guides, getting out into nature remains a big part of the fun that gets had. "All children and young people need to get outside and into nature," says Harrison, "it's where the best adventures happen." And, contrary to my memories of sitting on the sidelines while the Scouts had all the excitement, the Girl Guides are right in there, building fires, abseiling down cliffs, hiking through the bush, shooting down waterslides, and navigating rapids.
While these are activities that might strike terror into the hearts of some kids, Reid says that part of the beauty of the groups is the strong bond of support and encouragement that gets built. "The girls really look out for each other and share in each other's achievements. And they come to learn that not getting it right the first time is not the end of the world. Just a step in the right direction." Knudson agrees. "It is about challenge by choice. The kids decide what they are willing to have a go at and there is no shame in stepping back from something."
With all this on offer, along with an admirable focus on serving the community, why are both organisations struggling to build membership? While it has had some increases in the last decade, Scouts has only about 54,500 youth members today compared with some 114,000 in 1979. In 1980 Girl Guides had approximately 86,000 youth members and now has around just 18,000 youth members and 4,000 adult volunteers.
The simple answer is competition. There are just so many demands on a young person's time and attention these days and many schools are now running the kind of outward bound programs that parents associated with Scouts and Girl Guides. Add to that the fact that many might think of Scouts and Girl Guides as being slightly antiquated organisations and it's no real surprise that building membership remains one of their greatest challenges. Accessing diverse communities and communicating their fresh relevancy to the needs of children today is part of a long game for both organisations and one they are tackling via both social media and feet on the ground at fetes, clubs and community events.
So my little jaunt down memory lane proved more productive than I had anticipated. I'm going to give my niece a call to see if she might like to take up the mantle and make more of it than I did back in the day.