Connecting young Americans — of all kinds — with the outdoors

This story originally appeared in Wilderness Magazine

“I love nature!” proclaims Halima, a 14-year-old girl shrouded in the traditional Muslim headscarf. Halima is one of a 120-plus crowd participating in a Seattle youth listening session for President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative.

Launched in April 2010, the initiative aims to reconnect Americans to the great outdoors and engage citizens in developing a 21st century strategy to protect our natural landscape. In particular, the president asked that “special attention be given to bringing young Americans into the conversation.”

At the Seattle session, youth break into small groups to talk about the question: “What can we do to support and encourage young people’s involvement in nature and getting connected to the outdoors?” The school auditorium is abuzz with the exchange of ideas. Youth report back to the larger group that we need more outdoor education in schools, field trips to national parks, better transportation, and increased job opportunities.

Halima, who attends the Islamic School of Seattle, suggests that more role models and youth leaders are needed. She got turned on to nature through a school field trip to Olympic National Park.

Will Shafroth, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says of the AGO sessions, “We heard countless wonderful stories and received innovative recommendations from young people across the country about the need for education and better access to outdoor resources.”

Youth-to-Wilderness program, sponsored by YMCA and The Wilderness Society, organized this Appalachian Trail hike in Maryland. Courtesy YMCA B.O.L.D.In recent years, a burgeoning movement has emerged to reconnect kids to nature, propelled by Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, the Children & Nature Network, and “No Child Left Inside” campaigns.

“Evidence shows children are smarter, more cooperative, happier, and healthier when they have free, unstructured play in the outdoors,” reports Cheryl Charles, president and CEO of C&NN. “Good things are beginning to bubble up. We founded the Children & Nature Network to reverse the trend, to bring children and nature back together in their everyday lives for their healthy development and well-being, and we’re seeing momentum build with more than 70 groups in 40 states.”

C&NN’s Natural Leaders is part of the growing cadre of young people whose mission is to reconnect youth and nature. In June 2010, C&NN’s Natural Leaders joined more than 500 young people in New York’s Central Park to launch a youth-driven Outdoor Nationmovement. Doubling as an AGO youth listening session, the summit provided a platform for young people to share their priorities and ideas to reconnect kids to nature.

A young girl enjoying her Youth-to-Wilderness experience on the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Neil Shader.“Many kids haven’t been out in nature,” observes Saul Weisberg, executive director of North Cascades Institute, a conservation organization focused on education. “They have never seen a starry night sky or felt the warmth of a campfire. They don’t have a strong tradition of public lands. The idea that this [land] belongs to you is a really powerful idea.”

Giving young people an opportunity to make that positive connection to the natural world could provide another societal benefit: citizen commitment to protecting the environment. “It’s just common sense that people will fight to protect a place only if they have had a chance to get to love it,” contends Doug Walker, the new chairman of The Wilderness Society’s Governing Council. “We are trying to promote enjoyment of the natural treasures that each American inherits.”

Studies by Louise Chawla and by Nancy Wells and Kristi Lekies have documented the link between a child’s exposure to the natural world and his inclination to protect the environment as an adult.

To blend recreation and stewardship, The Wilderness Society and a number of partners in the North Cascades have created several innovative programs. “For example, we’ve been working with a youth rock climbing team that climbed mostly indoors, to get them outside,” says Peter Dykstra, Pacific Northwest regional director. “They do trail maintenance and invasive species removal projects in areas that lead to rock climbing crags. The kids learn about nature and how to take care of our public lands, and at the end of a hard day’s work, they get to climb. It gives them a sense of ownership of the land, and we hope once they grow up they’ll pass this experience and a love for the land on to their children.”

An important theme in this youth movement is diversity. According to U.S. Forest Service data, 97 percent of federal public land users are Caucasian. Yet by 2042, over half of America’s population will be of Hispanic, African, or Asian descent. This growing population is largely missing out on nature play and all of its benefits.

A young man and woman mark their visit to the Appalachian Trail. Courtesy Neil Shader.YMCA program called B.O.L.D uses wilderness experiences to bring together youngsters from different backgrounds to explore their emotional intelligence and develop self-awareness and decision-making skills. Expeditions include an “Olympic Coastal Hiking & Goofing Off” trip, where they can fish, build driftwood forts, and play the game camouflage. “A big piece that has been lost for young boys is learning how to play and goof off in the outdoors,” says Andrew Jay, director of B.O.L.D. at the Seattle Y. “B.O.L.D.’s focus on ‘play’ strikes an emotional chord with young boys.”

Mickey Fearn, an African-American and a deputy director of the National Park Service, shares at the Seattle AGO listening session that when he was young, playgrounds and the woods were children’s sacred places. That’s no longer true, he says. “Young people, particularly kids of color, have a small home range. If they don’t have the experience or context to calculate the return on investment of being in nature, then they won’t get out,” Fearn explains. “We need to break that cycle.

“If we don’t,” Fearn continues, “we run the risk that people of color won’t see themselves as part of the environment.” And if the majority of America’s population doesn’t have experience in nature or understand the benefits of wilderness, the National Wilderness Preservation System and other protected lands could be in jeopardy.

“It’s also important that young people of color feel that our national parks and forests are as open to them as to white Americans,” says Frank Peterman in The Wilderness Society’s Atlanta office. An African-American, Peterman has worked for years to engage blacks in public lands matters and took the lead in creating “Keeping It Wild,” which organizes outdoor activities in Georgia. He also has worked with students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Carolinas.

An Asian-American girl, after having a chance to canoe on North Cascades National Park’s Ross Lake, thanks to an North Cascades Institute program called North Cascades Wild, said it was an experience that finally made her feel like a U.S. citizen.

Kara Palmer is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle and enjoys exploring the Pacific Northwest’s great outdoors with her husband and two children.

Youth canoeing in Washington state. Courtesy North Cascades Initiative.
Youth-to-Wilderness program, sponsored by YMCA and The Wilderness Society, organized this Appalachian Trail hike in Maryland. Courtesy YMCA B.O.L.D.
A young girl enjoying her Youth-to-Wilderness experience on the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Neil Shader.
A young man and woman mark their visit to the Appalachian Trail. Courtesy Neil Shader.

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