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“A kid covered in dirt and maybe sunburned a bit or perhaps suffering from a touch of poison oak is a happy, healthy kid.”

arrow From the Summer 2009 issue of American Trails Magazine


Dirty kids are the best kind of kids

It has always seemed to me that experiencing new environments broadens the young mind regardless of whether the experience contains beauty or ugliness, comfort or hardship, success or failure. Getting young people out of the cities to experience nature “red in tooth and claw” awakens the mind to a broader realm of possibilities and can instill an affinity for quiet places where young minds can pause for self-reflection.

photo of girl in mud with axe

A Southwest Conservation Corps crew member

With the advent of relatively inexpensive game boxes and access to the Internet, very few people seem to have any desire to take to the outdoors, either going to the beach to body surf, hiking through a desert, taking to the mountains to hike, climb, or ski, or doing anything that gets them off the couch and in to healthy places where the mind can get some respite from the day-to-day grind of school, work, economics, and politics.

One of the best ways that I have seen to give kids the chance to get out in to the wilderness is to volunteer with the United States Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, both agencies of which work very closely with organized volunteer groups that perform hiking trail maintenance, pollution mitigation projects, fire mitigation projects, erosion control efforts, tree plantings (which is excellent forestry work for kids!), and a whole lot of other bits of valuable exercise in our nation’s wild places.

Parents who don’t have the time or energy to take their kids outdoors can telephone their local Forest Service or state parks office to find out what volunteer groups their kids can work with. The result: kids can experience what it’s like to hike four miles in to the wilderness with a pick and shovel strapped to their backpacks, work on clearing a well-loved hiking trail for four or five hours, then hike back, tired, none too clean, but immensely satisfied with a job well done that others will appreciate for years to come.

There is so much more that volunteers can do that allows kids an opportunity to get out of the cities. Foot bridges along trails that cross streams or gulches sometimes need maintenance, rock bridges across streams and rivers need constant attention, trees that fall down across hiking trails need someone to safely cut them up and remove them, brush growing on or around trails constantly need to be cut back and removed, and a whole lot more.

Volunteering in the forest and working in young Conservation Corps groups teach young people far more than tool-use skills. Working in the wilderness shows each person they really can accomplish tasks that are difficult, demanding, and at times are exhausting, and it shows them that life is much more than sitting in front of a television.

I happen to think that dirty kids are the best kind of kids there are. An active kid is a healthy kid, and I like seeing that. We should find every opportunity to encourage our nation’s youth to exercise more, not only for physical health but for healthier minds. We adults too often settle into comfortable apathy and our children often follow us in our footsteps, and that’s unfortunate because there’s a whole big wide world out there!


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