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Backpacker Magazine – August 2010

Last Child on the Couch

How 10 grassroots innovators are helping kids get active outdoors

by: Jason Stevenson; Photos by Justin Bailie

(Justin Bailie)
(Justin Bailie)
(Justin Bailie)
(Justin Bailie)
(Backpacker Magazine)
(Backpacker Magazine)
(Justin Bailie)
(Justin Bailie)

Our kids are in trouble. Maybe not your kids, but their friends, or perhaps a teenager down the street. Two whole generations-- starting with people entering their thirties now--have grown up with what authors like Richard Louv label "nature-deficit disorder." Despite being America's most environmentally aware segment, many of these young people have few real connections to the outdoors. They are taught to hug a tree, but not how to climb one.

Fortunately, the cure isn't a mystery. Our kids need to move. Hike, bike, paddle, skate, walk, run, whatever--just move. And they need to do it outdoors, both for the exercise and the exposure to sunshine and fresh air. Introduce kids to nature at a young age, studies show, and you give them a foundation for lifelong health, fitness, and self-confidence. At a national level, the Outdoor Foundation, the Children & Nature Network, and First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative are training leaders and developing tool kits that help parents and educators make a difference. But even more exciting is what's happening at the grassroots level. Across the country, local hiking clubs, guides, and teachers are inventing new programs to reintroduce the outdoors to one child, one school, and one neighborhood at a time. How can a BACKPACKER reader help kids get off the Wii and into the woods? We talked to 10 local heroes to highlight creative--and successful--initiatives.

Start a Local Hiking Group
Ten months after the birth of her first child, Wendy Sparks was going nuts. "I needed to get outside," the Idyllwild, California, mom recalls, "so I convinced some friends to go hiking." They quickly noticed their kids were the only ones on the trail. Figuring that fellow moms didn't know where to go, Sparks organized more hikes and recruited participants through social-networking websites, posters, and flyers. Two years later, Inland Empire Kids Outdoors ( organizes weekly hikes and events for more than 600 families. "Southern California is populated by new residents living in recently built suburbs who don't know where to go," says Sparks. Her club not only describes local trails, but members hike in the safety of a group--a big plus for parents with young kids. If you can't find an existing club, ask friends and neighbors to join you on hikes, says Sparks. Download the Children & Nature Network's starter tool kit (childrenandnature .org/downloads/NCFF_toolkit.pdf) and begin with short local jaunts. Post notices in the library or newspapers, and communicate using email lists and sites like Facebook and

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Thomas Pettersen
Jul 17, 2011

Growing up in Norway in the 70s and 80s, there were (and are) plenty of organized sports. Indoor and outdoor. Organized sports promotes teamwork, skill and friendship

Sep 10, 2010

Thank you Backpacker for an inspiring article about local efforts to address nature-deficit disorder. Spreading the word to parents, caregivers, and teachers is critical. The more exposure this topic gets, the better.

Sep 06, 2010

Most parents need to learn how to supervise and direct their kids.. then they will have a happier family, and will have a richer experience outdoors when their children are taught to be still and listen to the sounds of the forest, and the wonderful creation all around them.

john z
Sep 02, 2010

most parents today do not properly supervise their kids. please leave them home so others can enjoy the outdoors in peace and quiet.

Valerie Ross
Sep 02, 2010

I too am a Girl Scout backpack trainer in San Diego who spends a lot of time not just getting girls in the back country, but helping adults get their girls outdoors. The kids really want to be there, but the adults have all kinds of barriers. I just finished teaching an outdoor session at a conference where the leading barriers to getting girls outdoors were bugs, dirt, and parents. Seems we need a 2-tiered approach here! The more frequently girls & boys and their parents get outdoors, off the soccer field and into the dirt, the more they may come to embrace all the wonderful gifts nature has to offer.

Doug Welker
Sep 02, 2010

As a kid, I did not need my parents or an organized group to take me, or me and my friends, into the woods and fields. We went on our own. We played hide and seek in corn fields, wandered into woods, swamps, and thickets and along streams, all by ourselves. Sure, we had guidance ("Be back by ..., and don't go beyond ...", but we were out there by ourselves, experiencing what seems almost taboo today, RISK. We seem so paranoid about security today ("Don't talk to strangers.", "Carry your cell phone.", kid-monitoring electronic devices...) that we won't let our kids take even minor risks, and it's taking risks that will help them mature and become self-sufficient.
My point is that it's not just getting kids off the couch and into the woods that matters; it's letting them experience nature by themselves much of the time.

Sep 02, 2010

Natural Lands Trust has programs to do exactly this. Teach kids to experience nature and not fear it.

Sep 02, 2010

The above post from Heather L. on August 17 is very interesting. (I don't have kids and don't lead a children's group, so I don't have any assumptions here). Why are parents organizing new groups instead of making use of existing organizations like the Girl Scouts, which presumably have infrastructure and experience. Why reinvent the wheel? Is it because parents fear to turn their children over to other adults? The commitment required by one of the existing groups, in time, money, and "product."?

Aug 24, 2010

Interesting article allthough I have to correct with regards to the term "friluftsliv". That term is typically not used for outdoor play, but refers to the recreational and exercise activities finding place in nature. It would include hiking, camping, cross country skiing etc.

Russell Gienapp
Aug 24, 2010

It certainly isn't a new idea, but it is something that is drastically needed more than ever.

The great work and leadership of the Boy and Girl Scouts can not fully supplement the lack of daily exposure to the outdoors that children are experiencing at home and at school. A trip into the wilderness is a wonderful and memory filled experience, but it is the daily exposure to being outside (all year round in all kinds of weather)that children are getting less and less exposure. is not just about going out in the wilderness, but daily fun for both parents and children in all kinds of weather. Whether it is in the 100 acre forest or the park around the corner we want to see kids outside having fun and getting dirty. We currently are calling on parents and caregivers in the US to start an outdoor playgroup in their area park and meet once a week no matter the weather.

Sharon McCarthy
Aug 23, 2010

Number 11 - Grandparents Can Introduce the Outdoors to the Grandkids - If the parents feel pressed for time, grandparents can help fill the gap. I am really looking forward to having grandchildren and taking them camping and hiking and biking and creek walking.

Kyle Macdonald
Aug 23, 2010

Thanks for the great- positive- article! People need to know what they can do, you're helping that along.

Kyle Macdonald, Bay Area Wilderness Training

Heather Linehan
Aug 17, 2010

This is not really a new idea, just a re-framing of something that the group I'm part of has been doing for 98 years. I am a Girl Scout leader for 22 years, and have led several backbacking trips on the Ice Age trail, as well as canoe trips and various other outdoor adventures.


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