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"Breaking Barriers seeks to address the cultural and socio-economic barriers to participation in the outdoors by identifying opportunities to align outdoor programs with the needs and concerns of diverse Central Valley communities."


arrow Download the complete "Breaking Barriers" report (pdf 655 kb)


"Breaking Barriers" aims to engage youth in the outdoors

photo of teens with tools

Young people on a trail project with Volunteers for Outdoors Colorado


Community Engagement

Across California and around the country, young people are spending less time outdoors and more time in front of a screen than ever before. As a result, more and more young people are disconnected from the natural world. This disturbing trend has implications for their health and wellbeing, academic success, civic engagement, and their future interest in both public lands and the environment. In 2011, the Breaking Barriers Project undertook a year-long, action-oriented, research project designed to increase understanding of what prevents and what motivates youth to participate in activities outdoors.


Conclusions and Next Steps

One of the largest barriers to participation in outdoor activities is a range fears including lack of confidence, fear of animals, fear of the unknown, concerns for safety, and fear of crowds. In the Merced and Fresno workshops, forum comments indicated that many ethnic groups are not visibly present when visiting parks and public lands, leading to a sense of feeling unwelcome.

These fears are also reflected in the youth survey, where respondents identified parental/caregiver safety concerns as the number one obstacle to spending time outdoors. Fear involving crime and violence was brought up in the Fresno workshop, while fears associated with a lack of familiarity resulting in a sense of unwelcome seemed apparent in the Merced discussions.

The second most prominent barrier indicated by both the workshops and the surveys is the role of other life priorities and interests. Adults feel that outdoor time requires planning and energy, while youth find conflicts with homework, school sports and other activities.

Youth culture, in particular, can often have conflicting values with program providers and other adults. Adults want a framework, organized activities, structure, and community support, while youth want freedom, less rules, and time to just “hang out.” They desire support, but not structure, and adventure versus the safety many adults crave.

Workshop participants indicated that increased community participation in outdoor activities would result from further development of existing partnerships and relationships between parks and local community groups. It was also noted that there is a lack of knowledge about parks and outdoor activities. Increasing access through free or cheap transportation was a third means identified for attracting additional visitation. The youth surveys also identified the need for transportation to outdoor activities, as well as a need for additional planned activities to participate in.

What may have been traditionally perceived as transportation, may actually be more related to distance. Fresno and Merced residents must travel a significant distance to be outside of private property and find places where they feel safe recreating. Increased distance also equates to increased amounts of time spent recreating in the outdoors.

The data collected through the Breaking Barriers Project is intended to support the development and implementation of relevant programming to engage youth in the outdoors. For further reference, the full data sets and additional reports cross-tabbing differences based on county, gender and ethnicity and primary language for the surveys compiled for this study are available online at By integrating the recommendations of the youth and communities we aim to serve, youth program providers, educators, and community members can provide compelling, welcoming opportunities for young people and their families to make activities in the outdoors a priority.

As evidenced throughout the Breaking Barriers project, there aren’t simply just three barriers that one can remove— such as transportation, money, fear— to increase youth participation in the outdoors; the issue is far more interconnected and complex. Individuals want to see their culture reflected in the outdoors. For example, National Parks look at themselves as the carrier of formative American stories. They should also see themselves as reflections of the nation as it is now. As we have seen, program providers tell the story of their work, design curriculum and programming, and engage in outreach, they should do so in a multi-lingual, culturally relevant format.

Individuals and organizations who work with youth need to not only gain knowledge of the cultures represented in the communities in which they work, they need to translate this knowledge into instructional practice. This can be demonstrated through a willingness and ability to nurture and support cultural competence in both home and program cultures.

Program providers can make changes in their organizations and institutions by identifying decision-making opportunities that influence outcomes for their programs and their relevancy to constituents. The cumulative impacts of many small choices can be as significant as the impacts of big decisions. When agencies and organizations are conscious of their decisionmaking and the related impacts, they could be less likely to replicate implicit bias and the status quo, creating new possibilities for to understand and serve diverse cultures. Individuals and organizations should address the following questions to instill institutional change:

• What are the decision-making points— from choosing photos that represent diversity to hiring bilingual staff— that can create situations in which individuals feel safe, included, and represented in our work?

• What decisions/actions may be reinforcing the status quo and/or current inequities?

• What alternative actions could produce different outcomes?

• What actions will best support engaging youth and their families in the outdoors?

• What reminders, supports and accountability systems can be structured into routine practices to keep cultural relevancy as a high priority?

Making institutional changes regarding cultural relevancy within organizations who work with youth, however, is not enough. Youth serving organizations must value and build on skills that participants bring from the home culture and develop a sociopolitical or critical consciousness.

Engaging youth in the benefits of the outdoors is essential for their health and well being as well as the future health of our environment and our communities. To do so effectively, institutions and individuals can benefit from the wisdom of both youth and adult community members to implement recommendations that inspire participation and motivate future priorities.

The Breaking Barriers Project was funded by a generous grant from the Stewardship Council with support from the Foundation for Youth Investment. Breaking Barriers is a cooperative project between the UC Berkeley Adventure Risk Challenge Program, the National Park Service and NatureBridge, designed to help reduce obstacles to engaging youth in the outdoors. Breaking Barriers seeks to address the cultural and socio-economic barriers to participation in the outdoors by identifying opportunities to align outdoor programs with the needs and concerns of diverse Central Valley communities.


arrow Download the complete "Breaking Barriers" report (pdf 655 kb)

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