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New efforts help engage disadvantaged youth in the outdoors

The seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, started a conversation across America and coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder”. It seems that throughout the developed world, young people are spending less and less time outdoors. 

According to Child in the City, an organization based in the UK, children play outside a little more than four hours per week, compared to the eight hours their parents played outside when they were young. This reduction of time spent outside by 50% or more is widespread. According to one study in the US, over half of parents reported not even knowing how much time their preschoolers spent outside. 

As has reported, spending time outside has many benefits to children as well as adults and has been proven to boost mental health and well-being.

From my own personal experience, spending time outdoors has been a counterbalance to formalized education and reading, as it introduces young minds to a world unbounded by strict rules of human construct. Being outside allows imagination to run in a way that even books don’t allow. Being outside is also the beginning of any environmental awareness, there are many things that can only be understood through experiential learning. 

Besides these important benefits, Sanford Health points out that being outside builds health, immunity and social/cognitive development among other benefits. Even long distance vision is improved in kids that spend time playing outdoors. With these benefits, it may be easy to naively wonder why less time is being spent outside.

Technology is obviously part of the answer. From television to smart phones, children have more access to a range of technology than ever before. As adults we spend more and more time with technology, it should be no surprise that the same is true for our children as well. The other part of the problem is access. Many children and adolescents simply don’t have the access to many traditional outdoor activities. A small city park or sports field is one thing, but miles of hiking trails a lake to canoe on or a place to pitch a tent on may be out of reach for many kids. 

Obviously, access to the outdoors for young people depends on many things, leaving some groups of kids more disadvantaged than others. The Guardian reports that children from low income and minority communities have less access to the outdoors than other communities. 56% of children under 16 from minority group families visited ‘natural’ environments at least once a week compared to 74% of white children under 16. 

Fortunately, this problem is getting some attention. The National Park Service has put more effort behind attracting a more diverse group of users and accommodating them, creating handbooks and promotional material aimed at being more inclusive. Still, the Outdoor Foundation reported for 2017 that 73% of participants in outdoor activities as a whole were white. It’s demographics like these and the negative impact, especially on young people not able to participate in outdoor activities, that’s driven the foundation or organizations aiming to use the outdoors to transform the lives of disadvantaged youth. 

To understand this type of organization and what their impact is, I contacted Outdoor Outreach, an organization based out of San Diego. Kaylie Erickson explained the organization to me,

“Outdoor Outreach is a nonprofit that provides adventure-based youth development programs for youth from underserved communities. We connect youth to the outdoors as space for them to build resilience and confidence in their power to make a difference.”

Outdoor Outreach uses sports and activities such as surfing and camping to make a positive impact in the lives of young people who would be unable to access the outdoors otherwise. It’s not always economic or geographical barriers that keeps young people away from the outdoors Erickson explains:

“Many of our participants come from historically disadvantaged areas and have never had the opportunity to go surfing, rock climbing, snowboarding…Some youth may not believe they are able to participate in outdoor activities because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or physical ability.”

That sort of understanding is key. The outdoors means different things to different people, partially due to cultural exposure to different ideas and different activities. Finding ways to make the outdoors culturally relevant to different groups of people is becoming more of a pressing issue, one which organizations like Outdoor Outreach strive to tackle. The benefits from such work can be impressive, for individuals as well as potentially for communities and perhaps the environment as a whole, Kaylie Erickson gave me an example of how it helped one person.

Pedro grew up experiencing gang violence in southeast San Diego. Throughout his childhood he often felt angry and overwhelmed with sadness.  His only connection to the outdoors was through watching the ocean on Surfline. Pedro was introduced to Outdoor Outreach during his freshman year at Monte Vista High School and couldn’t believe he would be able to surf in real life, for free. He continued to struggle with mental health, bullying and suspensions throughout high school and told us that Outdoor Outreach trips were the only time he felt relief. 

On the topic of how Outdoor Outreach has helped him, he said that, “These opportunities brought me the hope, support and strength I needed. It allowed me to escape the negativity, to heal and catch my breath. It taught me better ways of coping, and showed me that I could continue fighting for a better me.” 

Outdoor Outreach and similar organizations also have volunteer programs, opportunities to participate in environmental stewardship and simply being outside is often the inspiration it takes to make a devotee to the environment for life. It’s worth hoping that organizations as well as greater awareness in the outdoor community will help more young people of diverse backgrounds get outside. Nothing can replace outdoor experiences and if we lose the experience, no one will be there to stand up for the wild itself either. Programs like those at Outdoor Outreach try to be holistic, teaching skills as well as advocacy.

“In addition to taking young people on rock climbing, kayaking or surfing trips, we have environmental stewardship programs that are designed to teach them about conservation and instill them with a desire to protect the outdoors,” Erickson explained. “We also encourage youth to engage in environmental advocacy, and through our Outdoor Voices program, we send youth to Sacramento to advocate about the need to protect nature and advocate for equal access to the outdoors.”  

If you have outdoor skills, sharing them is a way to help ensure that the places you love and the relationship you have with them will remain and endure.

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Rawpixel

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