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This report examines why children are not connecting to nature, highlights what public and private organizations can do to engage youth in the outdoors, and recommends policies Governors can pursue to make it easier for kids and families to Get Out West!


arrow Download the complete report, "Connecting Kids and Families to the West’s Great Outdoors" (pdf 1.0 mb)


Connecting Kids and Families to the West’s Great Outdoors

Get Out West! Advisory Group Report to the Governors (June 2012)


Governor Gregoire, the 2011-2012 chair of the Western Governors' Association, launched the Get Out West! initiative in June 2011. The goals of the initiative are to connect kids to nature, and grow the tourism and recreation economies in the West.

photo of people walkig along bay

Creating opportunities to get close to nature is especially important
in our cities (Sand Creek in Denver)

Nature Disconnect

Why are not more kids getting outside? The Nature Conservancy conducted a poll in 2011 to find out the answer. Their findings revealed:

■ Four in five American youth say that the discomfort of nature (bugs, heat or cold, etc.) is a reason they do not spend time in nature.

■ Three in five point to concerns related to access (there is no natural area nearby, or they do not have a way to get there)

■ Almost half say they simply are not interested.

A variety of factors could explain youth feelings about getting outside. New leisure time options that were unavailable just 10 years ago – mobile devices featuring games, movies, and social media access, for instance – offer kids more reasons to stay inside. And, with 85% of Western citizens living in urban areas, great outdoor activities are not always right outside of everyone’s backdoor.

Another factor is family dynamics. In previous generations, many children were introduced to the great outdoors by their parents. However, as more families are now headed by two working parents or by single parents than were a generation ago, the trend suggests these parents may have less free time or may have different priorities. For example:

■ 32% of children in the U.S. were living with one parent in 2007 compared to only 11% in 1970.

■ From 1970 to 1993, the proportion of dual-earner couples (with and without children) increased from 39 percent to 61 percent of all married couples.

photo of kid pruning shrubs

The chance to work and volunteer in the outdoors
is another way to give kids a new appreciation of

What Attracts Kids to the Outdoors?

So, if getting kids out into nature can “boost mental acuity and creativity and promote health and wellness” as Richard Louv claims, then what can families, the public and private sectors do to help connect kids to the outdoors near their homes and schools?

For some parents, the first step will be a commitment to be more intentional about making outdoor activitiesafamilypriority. Parents could look at outdoor activities as a fresh way to enhance relationships, build family legacies, celebrate milestones, and to pass on life lessons in character development and confidence. For other parents, the first step may be the willingness to be “beginners” alongside of their children, and to model for them an openness to try new things. And, as the following information points out, new things do not have to be boring or expensive.

In 2010, the federal government’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative was launched with an aim tofindoutwhatattracts kids to the outdoors. The responses kids gave were:

■ Make the outdoors relevant to today’s young people: make it inviting, exciting, and fun.
■ Ensure that all young people have access to outdoor places that are safe, clean, and close to home.
■ Empower and enable youth to work and volunteer in the outdoors.
■ Build upon a base of environmental and outdoor education, both formal and informal.

A poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy, found the outdoor activities in which youth expressed the most interest are:

■ “seeing something beautiful or amazing in nature”(78%),
■ “having free time in a natural are a with your friends to make your own fun” (74%), and
■ “doing something outdoors in a natural area you have never done before, to challenge yourself” (63%).

Prior to a pilot project with the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, the Boy Scouts of America undertook concept testing. Youth were asked what activities they like or would like to do. The following all scored at 70% or more. The top ranked, in order, were:

photo of kids in kayaks in small pond

Go Play Outside alliance of Washington and the Wa Dept. of Fish and
Wildlife put on the Washington Youth Outdoor Adventure Expo—
teaching kids about boating in a safe environment


Reconnecting Youth and Families to Nature

The good news is there are public, non-governmental, and private sector efforts and resources available that help families and schools reconnect youth to nature. These efforts exist in every state. Governors and state government can play an important role in helping kids and families get outside. State parks are a tremendous asset in getting more families and kids to reconnect to nature. Being more active can help reduce public health expenditures and improve academic achievement.

State Efforts

Several state agencies have developed programs and outreach strategies to connect kids and families to the outdoors. A number of different strategies are being adopted in several states. They include:

Make it free: This year America’s state parks began offering free, guided First Day Hikes in all 50 states on January 1. From Florida to Alaska, more than 14,000 people celebrated the 2012 New Year by hiking in a state park.

Use peer-to-peer outreach: In 2011, state park directors collaborated with Outdoor Nation and created the state park Youth Ambassador program. The Youth Ambassadors are exploring state parks in their area, and collaborating on a nationwide media and marketing program promoting outdoor recreation in state parks. The Ambassadors work with park staff and their own social networks to document their outdoor experiences across the 50 states with articles, vlogs, blogs, and photo essays.

Make it family fun: The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department recently created the Let’s Camp program to encourage families to get outside at several Colorado State Parks. The Let’s Camp! program is a fun-filled, overnight camping experience that gives families hands-on guidance from knowledgeable and friendly staff. The program will include all the fundamentals of camping from set up to break down. The program provides a safe, comfortable, and relaxed setting that is perfect for beginners to develop confidence for rewarding outdoor experiences in the future. Plenty of family-friendly activities are included. The best part is that no prior outdoor knowledge is needed and loaner equipment will be provided through a partnership with outdoor retailers.

Make trying something new easy: Some states, including Washington, have established free fishing in designated state parks. Programs like this help park visitors have enjoyable initial fishing experiences that will create interest in fishing and the purchase of fishing licenses.

photo of girls with big posters

The NOHVCC adventure trail gives young people a chance
to experience recreational vehicles while learning
to care about our public lands

Reach out to underserved populations: For example, in Connecticut, the Bank of America purchases annual state park passes for each Connecticut family caring for foster kids. Another example is an initiative launched in May 2012 by the Obama Administration to give active-duty service members and their dependents free passes to national parks and public lands. States can support this effort by also making state parks available to our nation’s heroes. Another program that seeks to reach out to underserved populations is done by the California State Parks, Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division. It coordinates a youth program that draws on the attraction of off-highway vehicle recreation to forge positive relationships among youth, law enforcement, and public lands. Off-Highway PAL (OHPAL) is a fun “cop to kid” program that provides youth the opportunity to be involved in OHV recreation when they otherwise may not be able to do so.

Make it convenient: Park passes can be checked out in several states– along with information on state park locations and programs. The passes are either purchased at a discount by the libraries or provided free by the state park agency or a sponsor. And when the passes are checked out and unavailable, some libraries actually then sell passes.

Make it a special present: In Canada, all 8th graders receive a "My Parks Pass" and a letter from the Prime Minister inviting them to visit a national park in Canada for free. This could be replicated in the U.S. at the state level, and could even be tied to next year’s history or science curriculums.

Involve the whole family: The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks offers classes for people who are new to outdoor adventures in order to give them the skills and confidence to go out on their own. The department offers:
■ Outdoors Woman (for women interested in sampling many different forms of outdoor recreation in a setting designed especially for them)
■ Becoming an Outdoors Family (a weekend of family fun learning about camping and other outdoor activities)
■ Junior Naturalist (an opportunity for youth ages 7-12 to explore South Dakota state parks and learn more about its rich natural and cultural history)
■ Youth Conservation Camp (an annual conservation camp for youth ages 15-17)
■ Project Wild (a national education program that provides learning activities for students in a way that is fun, while meeting education standards)


The Get Out West! Advisory Group applauds Western Governors adoption of a policy resolution in December 2011 supporting the use of conservation corps as a cost-effective mechanism for construction and maintenance of recreation assets on public lands. The Advisory Group recommends Governors take the additional actions outlined below:

1. Use their “bully pulpit” to promote kids and families getting out into nature. Announce broad call to arms, such as “Western Governors commit to helping every kid and his family in the West who have never been to a nearby state park or natural area visit one before 2014.”

2. Sign an Executive Order or Proclamation promoting outdoor recreation.

3. Direct state agencies to cooperatively draft a state outdoor “children’s bill of rights.”

4. Direct the state lands/state parks agency to work with schools and NGOs to distribute educational materials encouraging kids to get outdoors.

5. Encourage public, private and non-profit interests to work together in the West to introduce young families and their kids to the great outdoor places.

6. Promote national, free-admission days in state and national parks; the annual National Get Outdoors Day; the annual National Public Lands Day; the use of Conservation Corps; and citizen volunteerism
as mechanisms to encourage kids and families to get out into nature for a day.

7. Encourage citizen participation in existing programs that provide volunteer opportunities working to build and maintain recreational assets. Volunteerism is an important way for families to enjoy and learn about the outdoors and bond together. The annual National Public Lands Day provides an easy venue for interested outdoor volunteers to get involved in an effort near them.

8. Support the Outdoor Industry Association’s Outdoor Nation initiative– a youth led program to connect kids to the outdoors – by attending the outdoor youth summits that Outdoor Nation is organizing in each state in 2013.

9. Create a Governors’ youth led outdoor recreation outreach position to help Governors and state agencies reach out and connect with kids to interest them in outdoor recreation. Coordinate this effort with those of state park directors to create State Park Youth Ambassadors in every state.


arrow Download the complete report, "Connecting Kids and Families to the West’s Great Outdoors" (pdf 1.0 mb)

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