The Nature of Kids: The industry's efforts to attract youth to the outdoors

Youth outreach is an industry priority. We look at recent efforts to up the numbers and bring down the ages of outdoor recreationists.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 – Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

One afternoon in early July, a family of four was taking a trailside break in central Colorado while backpacking to a lake 3.5 miles away. As the father started out again with their yellow Lab, one of his tween daughters called out, “Wait up, Daddy. We want to hike as a family.”

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That simple phrase would be music to the ears of many of us. As the outdoor industry strives to develop the next generation of environmental stewards and fight the persistent threat of what writer Richard Louv famously has termed “nature-deficit disorder,” manufacturers, retailers, nonprofit organizations and governmental entities are bonding together in a many-pronged effort to get youths off the couch and out the door.

On the eve of Summer Market, the Outsiders Ball brought together many of these stakeholders for a uniquely interactive party. The event helped the Outdoor Foundation (the branch of the Outdoor Industry Association tasked with increasing the number of outdoor enthusiasts) raise money for 100 youth-led community projects. It also kicked off a three-year campaign by Outdoor Nation, the foundation’s signature program, to engage five million American adolescents in the outdoors.

According to the Outdoor Foundation’s latest report, 2012 participation in outdoor recreation among all Americans was at the highest level it’s been since the foundation began tracking rates in 2006. But adults get credit for the growth; youth participation is significantly down from the 2006 level. The good news? The rate was at least stable from 2011 to 2012.

Whether you attribute it to video games, other digital media, overly fretful helicopter parents, jam-packed schedules, a shortage of mentors or lack of access, America’s youth is being ambushed on the way to the trail or tent.

Among the strategies to attract more youth to the outdoors, one is rising to the top: peer-to-peer engagement.

“If we’re serious about cultural change, it has to come directly from young people,” said Chris Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation. Launched three years ago, Outdoor Nation convenes older teens and young adults at regional summits, where they identify barriers to increased participation in outdoor activities, learn leadership and community-organizing skills and brainstorm projects to better engage their peers with the natural world. New this year are five one-day summits run entirely by youth.

Outdoor Nation funnels grant money to implement projects its members develop, with REI, The North Face, Merrell and CamelBak, among other partners, making significant contributions. Since launch, Outdoor Nation has invested $1 million in various projects and activated 75,000 young people into the outdoors, according to Fanning. An annual national congress in Washington, D.C., includes meetings with lawmakers to combine what Fanning calls the “one-two punch of activities plus activism.” And Outdoor Nation is becoming increasingly connected to college outing clubs, which, in turn, often share resources and advice with local high schools.

“Youth inspiring youth” is a key factor in upping participation, agrees Jansport co-founder Skip Yowell, who was honored with the first Outsider of the Year award at the Outsiders Ball for his long-term work in inspiring kids to get outdoors. “People don’t just wake up one day as a youth and decide they’re going to have an outdoor experience,” he said.

Outdoor retail push
One of the best on-the-ground ways to reach youth is through local outdoor retailers. “They have become a critical part of our community outreach efforts,” said Fanning. “They often know the best work happening.” Take Great Outdoor Provision, which has seven North Carolina stores and was part of a group that helped launch a state youth conservation corps for ages 16 to 24 this summer, overseen by the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. The store also partnered with the trust to secure a $5,000 grant from Columbia for the project.

“It’s a perfect combination,” said store president Chuck Millsaps. “The trails in the state need attention, and it’s an opportunity for youth to learn stewardship.” One of the two groups in the field this year even attended an Outdoor Nation summit in Raleigh shortly after arriving; already inspired, members won a grant for a project to reach out to local high schools about growing the corps.

Partnering with local organizations makes sense for many retailers. Champaign Surplus in Champaign, Ill., for example, works with the Urbana park district to help send about eight low-income kids a summer to a weekly nature day camp. The store also partnered with the Champaign County Forest Preserve District in obtaining a grant through Columbia and the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance to expand a popular natural playscape.

Some retailers, like Summit Hut in Tucson, Ariz., actively encourage staff to serve as outdoors mentors. Summit Hut donates 100 days of labor — paying employees their standard wages to volunteer — to community groups like Scouts.

Less common are retailers that build their own programs of active outreach through lessons and clubs, a big undertaking. One that has experienced success in this area is Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wis. The store offers a dozen-plus youth and family classes in canoeing, kayaking and stand up paddleboarding. It also works with several community centers in low-income neighborhoods, offering weekly summer paddling sessions for ages 8 to 16.

“Get the political system and school systems involved, so that a P.E. program isn’t just basketball,” said Darren Bush, co-owner at Rutabaga. “We have to stop marketing to ourselves.”

Promoting an outdoor nation
Even the best-intentioned efforts at introducing kids to the outdoors face the challenge of maintaining the connection. “Beyond that first exposure, what are we going to do to help those kids out, to get that second and third experience?” asked writer Michael Lanza, author of “Before They’re Gone — A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Threatened National Parks” and a blogger at The Big Outside. “What sort of program can we develop for the kid in L.A. who took a Big City Mountaineers course and loved it — how do we help that kid out?”

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One answer, he thinks, lies in the public schools, “the biggest doorways we have to reaching a broad demographic.” Los Angeles–based Medicines Global Outdoor Youth Ambassador Program does just that. It’s an offshoot of the humanitarian organization that delivers first-aid supplies to adventure travel destinations. The brainchild of mother-daughter team Janice and Johanna Belson, the program takes kids from several inner-city public high schools on monthly outings to hike, surf, camp, climb or paddle. The Belsons believe that once youths are exposed to great outdoor experiences, they’ll be motivated to seek them out again. “They have the seed planted; rather than taking the bus to the mall, they can take the bus to a beach or park,” said Johanna.

In addition to the schools, the Belsons collaborate with the Los Angeles Police Department, which provides resources like vans for transportation and develops positive relationships with the students. And there’s a savvy social media component: GoPro donated cameras so kids can share photos of their activities as well as enter an annual photo contest the organization puts on.

Big City Mountaineers, which long has offered wilderness mentoring expeditions for urban youth, introduced an initiative to foster a long-term commitment to the outdoors: a collaboration with the Outdoor Educators Institute, a work-force development program in the Bay Area that preps young adults to become outdoor and environmental leaders. Seven of eight graduates of last year’s pilot program are working in the field, with more than twice that number going through the program this summer and fall, according to BCM Executive Director Lisa Mattis.

For outdoor-industry brands, grant-making serves as one of the most effective strategies, and many companies have donated generously to youth-related causes. Among new funding initiatives is Columbia’s Belay Program, launched in 2012 in conjunction with the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance. The program issues $5,000 grants to conservation-oriented nonprofits that partner with a GOA member retailer. Though grants are not limited to youth outreach, about half of this year’s 16 award winners are working toward that goal. “Columbia is planning to continue its efforts to get more children in nature through a new initiative that will kick off in early 2014,” said company spokesman Andy Nordhoff.

After debuting its Pack Project grant program last year with Outdoor Nation, Merrell already has awarded up to $2,500 each to 15 groups. Projects range from a plan to teach high-schoolers to climb through the University of Notre Dame’s Rock Climbing Club to outdoor exercise five times a week for kids from a pair of public housing projects in Harlem.

The North Face’s Explore Fund, which debuted in 2010 as part of the brand’s Outdoor Exploration programs, has provided more than $1 million in grants to organizations around the world committed to getting more kids outside, including some 300 nonprofits in the U.S., according to Aaron Carpenter, VP of marketing. There’s plenty of room for more companies to contribute, too. “Many of our grantees receive funding from local businesses or non-outdoor companies, such as financial firms, car companies and large retailers. There is a huge opportunity for the outdoor industry to become more active in funding these kinds of local programs,” added Carpenter.

Bottom line: Creating new lifelong participants is key to sustaining business. “It’s important for the outdoor industry as a whole to understand that decreasing participation rates will negatively affect business growth,” said Carpenter. “If we can successfully create programs that inspire a future generation of outdoor enthusiasts, we’re creating longevity for our brands.”

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