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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)

Save Outdoor Education
In May 2009, the school board in Olympia, Washington, voted to cut the three-day trip to Cispus Learning Center, an outdoor learning camp that Ryan Hall's fifth-grade daughter, Jordan, was set to attend. Not so fast. By December, Hall and a team of dedicated parents had raised $60,000--mostly from movie nights, raffles, and selling Christmas wreaths--to retain the treasured program. Olympia's dilemma isn't unique. Cash-strapped boards from Toledo to Philadelphia are cutting camps. The solution, according to Hall, is to mobilize the support a threatened football team would get. That model has worked in Flagstaff, Arizona, where the school district's Camp Colton turned to a local nonprofit to help fund their weeklong wilderness camps for sixth graders. Another strategy is keeping tabs on your local school board. "If there had been 10 people at the May board meeting saying, 'We should save Cispus,' it wouldn't have been cut," Hall says.

Become a Grassroots Mentor
Juan Martinez is suitably awed by Yosemite and the summits of Fourteeners he's climbed, but the Los Angeles resident says it's the nature in a kid's own backyard that makes the biggest difference. And he should know, since it was a detention assignment--planting a spice garden--at his South Central high school that turned him into a backpacker. "After I grew those seeds and made salsa for my mother," he says, "I wanted more--more nature, more discovery." With help from his school's Eco Club and several mentors, Martinez hiked in the Tetons and rafted the Grand Canyon. Now, at 26, he's back home grooming young leaders for the Children & Nature Network. "The natural world shouldn't be extreme or far away," he explains, especially for lower-income urban kids who lag behind their more affluent peers in outdoor participation rates. Through the Network, he inspires new leaders and supports a wide range of hyper-local gateway activities that aim to lower the barriers of cost and proximity. You can, too:

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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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